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Managing To Be Great

Great managers possess an uncanny knack for juggling, allowing them to be everything to everybody.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

No matter how long and hard you look, you’re probably never going to find the perfect body shop manager. I haven’t, but what I have found are some really great shop managers. And they all exhibit similar traits and skills.

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One of the most important traits they possess is how to juggle. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense that they’re accountable to a number of people and responsible for a number of things. They must answer to the people signing their paychecks, to the people performing the repairs, to the vehicle owners, to the insurance carriers and even to their vendors. And all of these people want something slightly different from them.

To better understand how to improve your current manager’s skills or what to look for when you’re hiring a manager, let’s examine exactly what makes a great shop manager great.

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They Can’t Hate People!
First and foremost, a great shop manager must be people oriented. The guy who’s a successful technician and can knock out the work at light speed doesn’t necessarily make a good manager. While an understanding of collision repair procedures is necessary to accurately schedule the work and helpful to close customer sales and negotiate with insurance companies, it isn’t the most important qualification for a shop manager. Granted, many successful shop managers started out fixing cars and then learned the people skills. Others, however, started out with good people skills and learned some collision repair. Personally, I think a good manager in any business is better served — and serves better — by having the abilities to motivate, direct and influence people, as opposed to having the technical skills necessary to complete production.

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Collision repair falls into two distinct segments: sales and production. But all the fancy equipment and trained technicians in the world won’t do any good unless someone sells the job in the first place. The people skills necessary to influence Mrs. Smith to have her car repaired at your shop are similar to any business sale.

Looking Good
As with any business sale, the salesperson/manager needs to be friendly and look presentable. (Recent studies have shown consumers will consider a salesperson’s attire acceptable if it’s simply clean and neat.) Consumers don’t like slovenly looking salespeople. No surprise there. Tucked in shirts with collars are perfectly acceptable, but old T-shirts with paint spatters strewn down a beer belly aren’t. And, while sports coats and ties send a professional-looking message to consumers, they aren’t required to gain approval in a body shop.

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In a business like ours — where the opportunities to get dirty are plentiful — a wise manager keeps an extra shirt in his desk to change into when greasy parts or spilled paint stain the shirt he wore to work.

Keep in mind that people form an impression about the salesperson’s attitude and capability in as quick as 10 seconds. So, to get off to the best start, great managers smile big and look good.

You’ve Got Some Explaining to Do
Once the consumer is reassured by the manager’s neat and clean attire, the manager can turn on his sales skills. It appears the best thing a body shop manager can do to close the sale is project a helpful, sympathetic attitude and explain the actual repair very carefully. Collision repair customers know little about what will happen to their damaged cars and, not surprisingly, are concerned that their vehicles will never be the same. The shop managers whom I most admire are telling their customers, in detail, exactly what will happen to their cars while the shop has them.

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When speaking with collision repair consumers about their experiences, I’ve found that many didn’t really understand the various steps as they were explained to them. They were, however, reassured by the careful explanation. The manager’s explanations of the removal of the damaged parts, their replacement with a wire welder, the anti-corrosion primer and the guaranteed color match are what closed the sale.

Great managers take their time explaining what will happen, answering consumers’ questions and asking for the work in plain English.

If You Don’t Shmooze, You Lose
Once the sale is closed, great managers use another skill set to acquire the replacement parts and schedule the repair. Acquisition and distribution of collision repair parts need to be both accurate and fast to enable the work to flow smoothly through the shop. Good shop managers should audition various vendors and identify the ones with the largest inventory, best discount and fastest delivery. They also establish a relationship with the most effective parts person on the vendor’s parts counter. The largest inventory of crash parts in town isn’t much good if the parts person selling them isn’t knowledgeable and committed to the body shop’s success.

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The best managers I know have not only identified the good person in their vendor’s organization, they’ve bought that person lunch or sent him or her tickets to the ball game in an effort to always have their parts picked and delivered quickly. Human nature being what it is, we all try harder for people who’ve gone out of their way to be nice to us. The people who sell the shop its paint, sandpaper and sheet metal are no exception: They respond to friendly treatment from the manager and, in return, do their best for him.

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The Art of Scheduling
Successfully scheduling collision repair is probably the most difficult task any shop manager faces. If it was as simple as counting the labor hours on the estimate and blocking out the technician’s time for the total hours, anyone could do it. Realistically, however, a shop manager must understand each technician’s skill level for each type of repair, know when the needed equipment will be free, deliver all the correct parts to the stall and allow for the inevitable mis-step.

Good scheduling is one area in which managers are well-served by having done the work themselves. New managers can learn to write and read an estimate with practice and can get an idea of how fast a certain technician can produce the work by looking at his payroll records — if the shop pays commission. But knowing how much work a given tech can produce in a shop that pays a straight hourly wage is much harder. Real-world experience (having actually done the work) is a huge help here.

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Not only does a manager need to have a feel for the speed at which the tech works, he also needs to know whether the tech will be there. I know of many shops that continue to employ technicians who are often absent or late. Just one of the many problems caused by this: The best scheduling in the world falls apart if the tech isn’t in the stall at both the beginning and the end of the workday. So why keep the unreliable people? When they’re there, many of them can beat the book time hollow, but if they have to go twice as fast to make up for the time they were absent, the repair quality suffers. And, above all, great managers try to produce quality work. Any re-dos make for unhappy customers and big materials bills.

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You’re Fired! And You’re Hired!
Great managers not only know how to manage people, they also know how to hire and fire within the law. Employee rights are plentiful and confusing in every state, and knowing what to ask when hiring and what to say when firing can keep the shop out of an expensive legal experience.

This is one area that requires specific management training. No one is born knowing all the ins and outs of the legal system. Good people skills and good technical skills are augmented by good training. Human-resource education will make managers better and less likely to get tangled in complicated regulations.

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Don’t Be a Know-It-All
Good managers recognize they don’t know everything and actively seek to attend training that will enable them to better do their jobs. The best managers aren’t the ones with the longest tenure in the industry; they’re the ones who embrace change.

Education is available on virtually every aspect of managing a body shop. Crash-data providers offer estimate-writing courses; paint and equipment vendors offer damage-repair courses; firms like Dale Carnegie offer training to learn people skills; and most paint companies have spent big bucks designing extraordinary shop-management programs. The best managers seek out these educational opportunities and implement what they learn in their shops.

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Befriending Those Who Pay You
Task masters that play a huge role in any body shop manager’s life are the insurance companies. They want a manager who’ll treat them honestly and fairly and a body shop that will make it easy for them to complete the repairs and process the claims.

A lot of great body shop managers try to form mutually beneficial relationships with every insurance company and agent in town. Why? Maybe because insurance companies pay 90 cents of every dollar spent on collision repair. Also, the requirements for one direct-repair program are very similar to the next, so having qualified for one, it’s usually fairly easy to enroll in others.

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Great shop managers also know insurers want clearly written estimates and carefully documented supplements. After all, insurance companies run on paper. The manager who strives to deliver the "paper" when and where the insurer wants it will succeed. This aspect of the job requires both good people skills and meticulous attention to detail — not a combination found in everyone!

Delivery Can Get Tricky
While the repair is in process, a good manager follows the progress of the work carefully and makes daily or even hourly changes as a result. Collision repair is a very difficult process. Unlike work on an assembly line — where we can expect the production output to vary by only 5 percent — output in a body shop swings by thousands of dollars routinely. How large the repair, how plentiful the parts to be replaced, how skilled the technician and how tight the scheduling all cause daily changes.

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In addition to re-allocating resources and equipment to suit the day, a great manager also keeps the customer apprised of progress. The No. 1 complaint insurers field about collision repair is missed delivery dates. Two factors are at play in this problem: One is that consumers always want to hear their vehicles will be fixed and back at their command quickly. So, friendly managers with the desire to please people and close sales tend to promise too early a date. The second factor: Even if your shop produced 60 hours of work on 40 hours of time last week, this week the hydraulic pump on the frame machine breaks, the dirty booth filters belch a pound of dust on the Lexus and the detail guy calls in sick. The huge variables possible in creating collision damage and the huge variables possible in repairing it are often quoted as the reason Sears and K-mart aren’t in our business.

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Great managers promise the customer a realistic completion date. But even great managers get bitten by the body shop demons every once in awhile. When unexpected delays occur, a manager should first call the customer to apologize and re-quote the delivery time. Why? Because if the customer hears it from the shop first — before he calls and finds out for himself — he’s much more understanding and, better yet, much more likely to recommend the shop to his friends. And recommendations from friends account for more than half of the customers in the typical body shop.

Great managers keep customers happy when they sell the job, while they’re completing the job and as they’re delivering the job. In return, customers will keep the shop happy by telling their friends about it.

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Becoming a Great Manager
The foremost task in any business is to make money. If the shop doesn’t finish in the black, it can’t survive. The techs won’t work, the vendors won’t give you their goods and the utility company won’t give you the fuel unless you pay them. Therefore, great managers must balance the consumer’s need for a speedy repair against the insurer’s need for an inexpensive one. They must also balance the technician’s need for a decent wage against the vendor’s need for a timely payment. And, finally, they must balance good people skills with good business skills.

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Great managers write a full sheet, sympathize with Mrs. Smith, fax the parts order to the best vendor and artfully schedule shop resources. And we haven’t even talked about them making the payroll-tax deposits, submitting the quarterly sales and income-tax payments, and collecting the overdue check from a far-flung insurance company.

Sounds easier to actually perform the repair, doesn’t it? At least the technicians only have to worry about themselves. If the work is in their stalls and the equipment is functioning, they only have to please Mrs. Smith with the quality and the boss with their speed.

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Great managers, however, have to keep many balls in the air at once.

If you’re a body shop manager and sometimes drop some of those balls — falling short of keeping everybody happy — don’t despair. The first place to look for help is with your employees. No one knows better the problems you face every day than the people you work with. Ask for their assistance. One of the first things I do when consulting with a shop is meet with the employees and ask them what they need to do their jobs better. Owners are often afraid the answers will be staggeringly expensive new equipment or wholesale dismissal of staff when, in fact, the most common answers are little things; changes in procedure, information that was withheld from those who needed it and repair of existing equipment to bring it back to useful service are common suggestions. Even if your employees don’t have the answer to your current management problem, they like to be asked and kept informed of pending changes. Wouldn’t you?

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Great managers also recognize their own weaknesses and acquire training to improve them — which isn’t difficult considering the educational opportunities available in collision repair have never been greater. I remember when the only training you could get from anybody was a day in "paint school" and two days learning to run your frame machine. Times sure have changed.

Today, every shop owner in the industry would like — and needs — to make their body shop managers better business people. But manager training programs won’t come to your shop and force you to listen to them. As a manager, you need to schedule time away from work and cough up some money for travel and tuition. If you don’t, you’ll never improve your management skills. If you do, I’ve got every confidence that you’ll become a great manager like I’ve described. I look forward to meeting you!

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Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.

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