Million-Dollar Advice

May 3, 2023
Three top-performing service advisors share their secrets to sales success.

Greek philosopher Plato once said, “’Excellence’ is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice. We do not act ‘rightly’ because we are ‘excellent’, in fact, we achieve ‘excellence’ by acting ‘rightly.’” For top-performing service advisors, this statement holds true. Excellence on the job means acting rightly in mind, in communication and in work ethic. Service advisors are tasked with the tall order of not just representing the shop and advocating for its benefit, but conversely, they must advocate and educate their customers just the same.  

Four skills embodied by high performers, defined in this story as those with over $1 million in sales, including people skills, educational and advocacy prowess, solidarity with technicians and an unsinkable attitude. 

Ratchet+Wrench spoke to three top performers from across the country about these areas and why they’re important skills for service advisors to possess. 

Interpersonal Skills 

When someone swings open the door and enters your auto repair shop, there’s no telling what’s brought them into the shop and how the situation has affected them. And because of that, service advisors need to be masterful at engaging the customer and meeting them where they are. This is where interpersonal skills come into play for the advisor. 

“People skills are huge. It's crucial to be empathetic, to be understanding and to honestly put yourself in their shoes,” says Chelsea McDonald, manager of Certified Transmission in Bellevue, Nebraska.  

For McDonald, whose background includes working in health care, being a great service advisor is akin to an attending physician's bedside manner. She ensures that same level of compassion, empathy and concern has translated into her automotive career as a service advisor. 

"All I did all day was care for people and counsel them,” says McDonald of her time in health care. “So now I get to help people in a different aspect. I get to help them feel secure in the automotive world when they have to bring their car here for a transmission or even a minor repair. I get to now help people in this way and it feels great to be making a difference.”  

Ask Keenan Walters of Collins Auto Care in Houston, Texas, and he says top-flight service advisors begin with listening. Walters says attentive advisors can glean a lot about customers' disposition, feelings about their repair situation and what matters most to them through observation.  

"For me, that's one of my superpowers,” Walters says. “I'm more of a listener than I am a talker; I think it's important. You're not just listening for specific words, you're listening to tone, you're listening to how they're saying things, and then you're listening for what's important to them.  

Above all else, he says service advisors can capture the hierarchy of a customer’s needs by allowing them to speak freely uninterrupted. 

“If they're coming in with issues with their vehicle, you better be listening for those issues that they mentioned first, because that's what's most important to them at that moment," Walters says. 

Customer Advocacy 

Let’s face it, customers come into auto repair shops with many preconceived notions and it’s the work of the advisor to remove those barriers gently and provide as many—or as few—details as necessary to help the customer gain an understanding of the work to be done. Each customer is different and knowing their information threshold is key. 

Walters says the advent of digital vehicle inspections has made educating customers on their repairs—and the process of fixing them—much easier. He warns that while it may be tempting to walk them through the entire list step-by-step, not every customer wants that much detail and it’s the advisor’s responsibility to ensure the customer gets the information they came in for initially before divulging other concerns found within the inspection. 

"When you're explaining things to customers, try not to get too in-depth with every function of every single part. If you're able to physically show them, ‘Hey, we pulled the spark plugs and the spark plugs are not looking great,’ have that on your digital vehicle inspection. (Show them) this is what's failed, this is the component that we need to replace; it becomes much easier,” says Walters. “You don't want a 30-minute conversation for something that can be very short.” 

Discussing costly repair orders can be intimidating for newly minted service advisors. After all, the customer came into the shop for one repair and the report from the technician’s inspection could yield additional safety concerns within a vehicle. And for savvy advisors, the latter is where their advocacy helps.  

“You need to assume that they're bringing it to you because they need answers,” says Anje Johnson, the top performing service advisor at EuroFix in Franklin, Tennessee “So, unless I get that verbal cue of 'Oh my gosh, what else are you going to tell me?' you have to pitch (additional repairs) unless, in my opinion, it's a safety concern.” 

Walters says advisors should help the customer through their initial concern, transition into the digital video inspection results, and to give customers an idea of a potential maintenance schedule to make the information palatable. 

"When a customer brings their vehicle in, and they've given you, 'Hey, these are the issues I want checked out', that's our No. 1 priority. The next step is going to be safety items: ‘These are safety concerns that we should probably address along with your concerns as well.’ I'll give them the maintenance as well what’s going to be due for that timeframe (and their) mileage," says Walters. 

Phone Etiquette 

Since customer inquiries come via phone and digital video inspections are delivered over text message and email, advisors will also have to be razor-sharp in their call etiquette. Again, it requires putting yourself in the customer’s place, particularly if the inspection reveals damages unforeseen by the customer.   

"Be calm. Tell them what's going on, have the facts as to why it's doing what it's doing and then just stop for a second to let them process that. Let them respond and just have your responses ready if they do get upset, or if they do think that it's not worth it to fix it at that point. Just know in your head before you make that call, what you're going to say next," says McDonald. 

Johnson says that being a sharpshooter on the phone involves training your ear to listen for the verbal cues that your eyes would pick up on if the customer were standing across the counter. 

“People will give you a lot of details in the phone call about where they're at; you can get a lot of details that way. Are they stressed? Are they upset? The better you are with people, the more you can understand them pick up on those things," says Johnson. 

Johnson says the entire customer experience can circle the drain when an advisor misses the mark and doesn’t pick on how the customer needs to be cared for based on their sounds and responses. She says services advisors who do should then move into the conversation slowly, but confidently. 

“I basically give them a very small rundown of what's happening so that I'm not talking too much. At that point, I'll stop. I will tell the customer how much it's going to be. Then I always ask, 'Do you have any questions?’ Typically, a lot of people will have more questions, that's great, because then we can engage in that conversation. You'd be surprised how many people just want to get off the phone and say I either want to do it or I don't,” says Johnson. 

One of the skills an advisor has to possess is the ability to help the customer make the best decision financially when faced with a higher-than-expected repair order. Customers faced with these situations can make decisions that don’t benefit them in the long run. The advisor becomes the voice of reason at this point. 

McDonald sees this at her transmission shop. A customer will have a $5,000 repair order and their initial reaction is to scrap the vehicle and buy another—throwing $60,000 at a $5,000 problem, as she says—and something McDonald helps them to get clarity on. 

"I kind of help them get into that perspective of the value of their car. (I say) ‘Sally, this is me talking to you as a friend here, I'm going to ask you a question that I just want you to think about, so you make the best decision for you. Let's see what our options are really quick before we go getting a new car,” says McDonald, who then offers the customer a rental or financing options to ease the burden.

Communication with Techs 

If communication with their customers is vital, collaboration and cohesiveness with their technicians is the pinnacle for all high-performing service advisors. Poor and disjointed communication between the advisor and tech can cause the bottom to fall out and rattle a technician’s confidence in the advisor. 

"If you don't have a good working relationship with your technicians, you're hurting yourself and you're hurting them because having that discord or that lack of communication is a really big problem. When you're in harmony with your technicians, you'll make both yourself and them a lot more money. So, if you're having problems you need to fix it now," says Johnson. 

McDonald believes advisors should take a hands-on approach by checking in on their technicians, understanding the nature of their work and ensuring that she’s always on the same page as her technician.  

“We all run as a team. It's one big heartbeat if you will,” says McDonald. “They need to feel like they trust you and they need to feel like we're a team and we care about each other.” 

Part of building trust and clear communication starts with correctly communicating the problem from customer to technician. 

"If the technician doesn't believe that the information you're receiving from the (customer), or maybe you took a 15-minute conversation down to two sentences, you're probably missing some details. Trust has to be there, and you'll see it in your close ratio, that's for sure," says Walters.  

Winning Edge 

The role of a service advisor isn’t for someone who can’t handle rejection, listen intently or who can’t compassionately deal with customers when that kindness isn’t returned. It’s why these high performers spend time working on their mindset before they set foot into the office. 

"I grew up with a dad that believed in positive mental attitude (PMA). That was something that I always grew up. If you believe you suck, you're going to stink. If you believe you're going to succeed, you're going to succeed,” says Johnson.  

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

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