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Can We Talk?

Communication skills between owners and techs come into play daily and can mean the difference between a profit or a loss on each job.

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Note: This month, BodyShop Business introduces Straight
Talk, a new column written by Henry Netter, an ASE Master Certified
Collision/Refinish Technician with more than 36 years of collision
repair experience. Henry’s articles will be written from his –
a technician’s – point of view to help shop owners better understand,
motivate and communicate with their employees.

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Joan Rivers had an excellent lead-in question for the people she
interviewed. She would lean forward and, while making eye contact,
would ask her guest that one question that has made her famous:
"Can we talk?"

Making a person feel comfortable and showing a sincere interest
in what they have to say are the cornerstones of open and honest
dialogue, and Rivers was the master of both.

Of course, Rivers’ motivation for this line of communication was
ratings, and her career (and her bank account) blossomed by her
mastering this skill. I’m not saying she’s a phony – I’m sure
she really cares about the people she interviews – but she has
goals that need accomplished, and being good at conversation has
made her the success she is today.

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We, in the collision repair industry, have our own motivation:
profits. As a long-time employee of a body shop, I realize that
if my company doesn’t make a profit, then I don’t make a profit
– in the form of a paycheck. As long as I can produce income,
I’m an asset to the business. So, as we can plainly see, I have
a common interest with my employer: survival.

Communication skills come into play on a daily basis and can mean
the difference between a profit or a loss on each particular job.
The problem arises when there are two things affecting dialogue:
the employee and the employer. Everything from power plays to
emotional rejection can hinder reaching a successful repair.

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Step One: Honesty

The problem of strong personalities on both sides is a major source
of disagreements. What happens is that everybody talks and no
one listens; everyone is right and no one is wrong: "I know
what I’m talking about and you don’t," "I’ve done this
longer than you," etc. Time is wasted arguing, meaning production
is lost. As an employee, I can offer suggestions to my boss as
to repair procedures, but I must realize that his is the final
decision. It’s his reputation on the line, and he has the right
to determine any course of action.

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Shop owners today have to invest tens, even hundreds, of thousands
of dollars to open a shop and remain in business. As an employee,
my responsibility is to generate a return on his investment. That’s
only fair, since his risk-taking venture has rewarded me with
employment and a good, steady income. So when it comes to discussing
any and all aspects of the repair procedures on a job in my bay,
we have to determine – together – what course of action to take
to ensure a profit for the company.

In reality, we all make mistakes, and I’m no different than anyone
else. I used to argue constantly as to why a few of my jobs weren’t
up to the shop’s standard: bad parts, poor materials, cold weather,
can’t be done, etc. One day, I realized that there are no reasons
for poor results, only excuses. Reason, by definition, is the
actual cause of a situation or event, whereby excuse is the perceived
cause – what I wanted it to be. If I spoke honestly about the
job first, then I might not have had to make up excuses later.
Eventually, I learned to honestly admit to my boss that I screwed
up and that it wouldn’t happen again. At first, he was speechless,
but he did respect me a lot more for my honesty. Along with that,
his trust in me increased because he believed me. Being honest
and open does have rewards.

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Building Trust and Respect

The average collision technician has many years of experience
under his belt and has dealt with many different types of employers
during his career. I’ve worked for more than five or six shops
in my 36 years in the industry, including a family-owned business,
and more than 11 years with the shop I’m now employed by.

The differences out there are startling. I’ve walked out of shops
after working in them for four hours because of the harassing
nature of the owners. In those shops, there was no communication,
just yelling. Who needs that?

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Where I’m at today, there’s a strong sense of respect for me as
a person and as a collision specialist. We work together as a
team, and we respect each other for who and what we are. Let me
tell you how we did it:

First, as an employee, I respect my boss for the chance he took
with me and for the risk he takes every day as a business owner.
I try to do the best I can every day and to not argue about company
procedures unless there’s a better and more profitable way of
doing something.

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Second, my employer trusts my opinions concerning my work, and
he lets me know it. By telling me this, we have developed a strong
working relationship.

Third, we listen! When my boss tells me what needs to be done,
I repeat back to him what he said to me. If he agrees, then we
both know what’s expected. When I need a certain part or material,
my employer doesn’t hesitate ordering it because he knows I need
it to finish my work. This is a very important step.

Fourth, after he’s finished reading trade magazines like BodyShop
Business, my boss allows his employees to take the magazine home
to read. Occasionally, we discuss various articles and share our
opinions on them. I’ve gotten some great insight on management
and the difficulties of running a successful business.

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Fifth, all complaints are treated in an adult and professional
manner. I know that running a shop is stressful, so I try not
to incite or aggravate my boss; he has enough problems just running
the place. If I screw up, I admit it, fix it and promise not to
do it again. In turn, my employer doesn’t attack me personally
when I make a mistake; I’m told that there’s a problem with one
of my jobs and to take care of it. Whether or not it was my fault,
I fix it and let it go – our goal is the complete satisfaction
of our customers. Later, we usually discuss whether the situation
was actually my fault and what should be done to avoid it next
time.

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It’s Safe to Try This at Home

As you can see, successful communication skills have not only
made my professional life a bit easier, but have helped to increase
my production and made my boss’ life a little less stressful.
Because it’s worked so well for us, my suggestion to you is this:
If ever a problem or situation arises that requires discussion,
go up to whoever can help and say, "Can we talk?" You’ll
be glad you did!

Writer Henry Netter has worked in the collision repair industry
for more than 36 years, is an ASE Master Certified Collision/Refinish
Technician and works at Auto Tech Collision in Philadelphia as
the senior repair technician.

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