Dealers invest in training to cut service adviser turnover, improve customer relations...

Feb 20th 2019

As job turnover continues to grow among service advisers, more dealers are investing in professional training to help those employees feel comfortable with their duties and interact better with customers.

Jeff Cowan, who operates an adviser training company that works with more than 1,500 franchised dealerships, notes that stores' rate of retaining service customers has dropped even as they seek to boost fixed ops business to compensate for sluggish new-vehicle sales. He says the problem often lies with service departments leaving advisers to fend for themselves.

"It's a busy job," Cowan says. "In exit interviews, advisers often complain that they weren't trained or got little guidance. Without a process to fall back on, they get overwhelmed."

That can cause advisers to quit in frustration or get fired for poor performance. Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology, a hiring and talent management software provider, estimates that nearly half of dealership service advisers are leaving their jobs each year.

Although automakers sponsor their own adviser training programs, Cowan told Fixed Ops Journal, such efforts generally emphasize factory procedures and offerings rather than customer relations. A growing number of vendors seek to fill the gap with an array of training programs that instruct advisers in such core elements as customer psychology, consistent messaging and strict adherence to process.

Zurich roadshow

Zurich North America typically is associated with dealership finance-and-insurance training. But last year, the company began offering seminars for service advisers.

"Our dealers had been repeatedly asking us about sales processes and/or selling systems that service advisers could follow to improve customer experience," says Rick Strifler, Zurich North America's vice president of direct markets.

Zurich partnered with Steve Shaw, who has operated a training company since 2004, for a series of one-day seminars in 28 cities in 2018. More than 800 advisers attended these sessions, Shaw says. The program continues this year.

Shaw says Zurich's training emphasizes building a rapport with service customers and guiding rather than dictating their choices for repair and maintenance work. Such treatment tends to make customers happier and causes them to spend more, he adds.

Zurich charges its dealership F&I clients $299 to have a service adviser attend a training session; nonclients pay $399. Zurich clients also get a discount on online instruction as well as personal consultations with Shaw to bolster the adviser lessons.

Dan Kmieciak, service manager at Peoria Toyota in Illinois, says he was impressed with the training's "approach to language."

Shaw "helps you frame it so that people feel that you are telling them what they need, so they don't feel like they're getting dumped on at the service desk," Kmieciak says. "When it comes to getting customers to fill out customer satisfaction surveys, the training recommends saying, 'I'll be looking for it' or 'I'm curious to see how I did.' That tells the customer the advisers care and prompts them to fill out the survey."

The dealership's first adviser who attended the Zurich training, Kmieciak says, has increased the average time service technicians work on the repair orders he writes from less than an hour to 1.34 hours, boosting customer-pay revenue. All six of Peoria Toyota's advisers have undergone the training, he adds.

Kmieciak notes that he attended the first training session he sent one of his advisers to — a step he recommends to other service directors.

"Management sets the tone, so they need to absorb the lessons," he says.

Beyond basics

Anthony Mogavero, service manager of Sisley Honda in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, Ontario, says adviser training provided by automakers "is strictly online. They'll teach you how to sell specific products and brand representation. But it doesn't usually deal with how you're going to engage customers."

Last March, the dealership hired Jeff Cowan's Pro Talk for online and on-site training of its service advisers. It was the first time many of them had received formal training, Mogavero says. "We've seen an 18 percent improvement in customer-pay revenue since then," he adds.

Cowan's training includes specific scripts that advisers rehearse to present options and problems to customers, along with uniform processes to keep these messages consistent, he says.

"Our trainers develop word tracks by actually writing service on the drives as [advisers] watch," Cowan says. "An OEM may have a new question it wants customers to answer on their surveys. We'll write a script for the adviser to prompt the customer to do that. Then we'll test that line on a hundred real customers and gauge the response."

If the response is positive, the script becomes part of the adviser training.

DeNooyer Chevrolet in Kalamazoo, Mich., started working with Cowan's company in 2017. "Our repair orders were up 26 percent year over year in 2018, and our interactions with customers were better," says Service Manager Bill Garnett.

Advisers who are patient and practiced don't get overburdened easily, Garnett says, and build retention by addressing service customers' future needs as well as their immediate concerns. "Relationships pay dividends in the long term," he says.

Cowan's prices for training service advisers range from a few hundred dollars for DVDs and online modules to $9,000 to $12,000 a week for visits to dealerships. "That's a lot," Cowan acknowledges. "But if you improve a half-hour per repair order per adviser across five advisers, that could equate to a million dollars a year in additional work."

Long-term learning

Some vendors provide even longer-form training for service advisers. Elite Worldwide offers a six-month program called Elite Masters. The company interviews in advance the 16 students it admits to each edition of the program.

"We believe that real training should be lengthy, and it should be repetitious," says Jen Monclus, a leadership and sales trainer at Elite Worldwide.

The program includes in-person training at the company's headquarters in San Diego as well as weekly distance learning and coaching. In addition to providing scripts, it delves deeply into the psychology of interacting with customers, Monclus says.

Colleen Anderson, a service adviser at Sierra Motors in Jamestown, Calif., graduated from the program last year. She says she learned how to tailor her approach to each service customer.

"They teach you how to read a customer and why people make certain choices," Anderson says. "It's a lot of time and effort, but they really want the lessons to be ingrained."

Steve Lane, service manager at the dealership, which sells Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac brands, estimates Anderson's training cost $8,000, including travel and lodging. He says Anderson is teaching him as well as other service advisers about customer retention techniques and is an evangelist for the practices she has learned. Her hours per repair order have increased about 20 percent, Lane adds.

"We're in a rural location, so we have to maintain relationships here and get people coming back in the door," Lane says. "Cars don't drive themselves into the service lane — at least not yet."