Best Practices for filling one of the most important, challenging positions in your shop

July 1, 2015
What to look for when hiring a service advisor and how to

According to Jonnie Wright, the position of service advisor is one of the toughest in the industry. While a service writer is essential for creating a positive customer experience, Wright says that until recently, there was little training available for the position. 

Wright, CEO of The Buyosphere, a phone- and service-advisor-training program, recently sat down with Ratchet+Wrench to discuss the evolution of the service advisor position and the skills needed today.

How has the position of service advisor changed over the years? How would you describe the position now?

 The service advisor is basically the ad hoc owner in a sense. They’re the flag bearer. They represent the whole company and establishing their experience immediately is crucial. It’s why we spend so much time on phone skills. That first touch literally establishes the result of the entire relationship. You also not only take the brunt of everything from the technicians and the customers, but you also have to translate the customer’s complaint into something the technician can understand, and vice versa. 

That’s also why the position is so difficult, too. People who are technical and very left-brained and process-driven tend to struggle with expressing empathy and being able to read the tone of the conversation. Are they actively listening? Or are they loaded with their own agenda? You need to really sit back and truly listen and ask a lot of questions. That’s why it’s without question the most important position in the whole business, in my opinion.

 Many service advisors become order takers. When you have a service advisor at the counter who is giving the customer what the customer is asking for, but no more than that, it’s very difficult to grow your business. You’ll end up filling your bays with oil changes, tire rotations and squeaks and rattles, which don’t pay the bills. It also doesn’t do anything to create customer loyalty and retention, let alone grow your revenue or increase gross profit. 

What kind of skills do service writers need?

 I think the most important skill is the ability to build relationships. I think that having empathy for the customer is very useful, but that empathy has to end when it comes to presenting an estimate. 

One of the things that I think has changed for service advisors, in terms of their approach, is that a lot of service advisors are scared to “sell” or “oversell” the work that needs to be done on the cars that come to them. For many service advisors, that’s created hesitancy because they don’t want the customer to be offended or feel like it’s something new every time they come in. Part of our training and coaching is the idea that we believe in the 300 percent rule. We have a moral and ethical obligation to tell customers everything that’s going on with their car, both good and not so good. It’s about telling 100 percent of people, 100 percent of the time, about 100 percent of what’s wrong.

“Where service advisors have changed is that now we recruit outside of the automotive industry.”
—Jonnie Wright, president and CEO, The Buyosphere

You’ve got to do that with the technicians, as well. The service advisor has to do the same thing with the technician that they do with the customer. They have to be able to read the tech and get info out of the tech in such a manner that they can relay it back to the customer, even when the tech has one mindset, which is usually right or wrong. 

Within the service advising process, where does the hangup happen?

  I think a lot of the hangup happens in the actual selling process. I hear from a lot of new service advisors that they don’t know what to say. I think a lot of the hangup in the selling process comes from a lack of technical knowledge. They don’t know how to explain this to the customer because they themselves may or may not be technical. And if they are technical, many haven’t kept up their knowledge. You need to be able to explain a technical topic in layman’s terms. 

How can service advisors become better at this?

 I encourage service advisors to find somebody in their organization who they can lean on for a technical explanation and who can explain it to them in a manner that they can understand. The more they can learn or read, the better. I also subscribe to the three R’s: research, review and role play. Research the customer the best we can. Then, we’re going to review previous recommendations and the history they’ve had in our shop. Finally, we’re going to role play how that conversation might go with somebody in the shop. Before we ever pick up the phone, we are unbelievably prepared for where that conversation might go. 

What do you look for when hiring a service advisor?

  The other thing that’s changed about service advisors is recruiting. I will tell you that recruiting is one of the greatest opportunities and challenges in our industry. Where service advisors have changed is that we recruit outside of the automotive industry. We look for happy people who are dedicated to taking care of others. We can teach them all of the skills, but it’s really all about the right-brain love and nurturing and wanting to take care of people. That’s a talent. And a talent is something that you are born with. We are searching for talented people that we can teach left-brained skills to. 

One of the things that stands out is that when I do an interview, I will say, ‘Tell me about your worst employer.’ If the person answers that question with anything but a polite answer, that’s a good indicator that they’re probably going to be that way inside our building. We’ve all had less-than-great employers, but when an applicant starts throwing previous employers under the bus, there’s a certain level of discontent. It’s almost like they harbor a grudge. 

The other thing I will ask them is about their favorite object from childhood. It could be a doll, a pet, baseball mitt. I’ll ask them to tell me about it and then I’ll say, let’s imagine this object is in the room with us and imagine that you were selling the object and I’m in the market for the object. How would you sell it to me? I’m looking to see if they are kinesthetic, do they sell the features and benefits, do they have some emotion? Can that person really bring that object to life for me?

For people who do a really good job in that role play, which I think is really hard, those people tend to do a really good job explaining cars to people in a way that the customer can understand. They tend to be very descriptive. 

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