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Staffing Your Front Office

Front-office systems come and go. Some are too complex or based on inaccurate forecasts. Others were doomed by unrealistic expectations. But it’s not an impossible goal.

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Properly staffing the front office is a challenge faced by each and every shop owner a challenge that often escalates into a dilemma.

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dilemma n. 1. a predicament that apparently defies a satisfactory solution. 2. a serious problem.

As a veteran of the collision repair industry, I’ve seen plenty of front-office staffing systems come and go. And while each approach intended to properly balance the number of employees with the shop’s workload and volume, most of the staffing plans fell short of their goals.

Why? Some failed because they were too complex or based on inaccurate forecasts. Others didn’t work because of unrealistic expectations or ineffective implementation.

But it’s not an impossible goal. In fact, it’s possible and very necessary if you want to stay competitive in today’s collision market. You can’t afford to hire the wrong people for the wrong positions at the wrong time.

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During the past year, CARSTAR has developed a proprietary front-office staffing model that’s beginning to deliver measurable results with productivity and performance. It’s also giving our company and franchise stores the opportunity to re-tool their staffing structure and impact overall profitability. At its core, the new staffing model features four basic questions:

1. What’s the appropriate number of positions for the front-office staff?2. What positions are most important to ensure that all critical tasks are handled?3. What experience and education levels are adequate for each staff member?4. When should individual positions be added to the front-office staff?

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To help get your shop on the right track, let’s examine these four questions along with the answers we’ve come up with.

Key Positions for Successful Staffing
When we decided to create a new staffing model, our first step was to recruit internal team members for a special task force. Dan Bailey, vice president of operations for CARSTAR, and Greg Peterson, district manager, joined me on the project. Together, we took a close look at a wide range of issues and elements, including production factors, current staffing models, job descriptions and operational parameters.

After much discussion and comparison, we defined six key positions (excluding marketing managers) for the basic front-office staff:

1. General manager.

2. Office manager.

3. Estimator/appraiser.

4. Production manager.

5. Parts manager.

6. Customer service representative.

See below for charts on each:

General Manager, Customer Service Rep, Front Office

Production Manager, Office Manager, Parts Manager

Estimator

We then created extensive essential tasks for each role and detailed recommendations for skill sets, experience, educational levels and critical proficiencies. While these are the essential positions for a successful shop, business volume may demand fewer than six people accomplish the tasks for these positions.

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Our staffing model recommends specific staff additions at monthly sales volume increments of approximately $40,000 until full staff is achieved. At a certain point, the only staff position increase will be in appraisers. Still, the duties of these additional positions exist regardless of the fact that volume won’t support people employed in those specific job titles.

We believe the bare minimum staffing for any repair facility includes general manager, office manager and appraiser. Obviously, if only three people are handling the responsibilities of six positions, you’ll need to hire the best candidates for the three core roles. You can then add the remaining three positions to the mix as sales volume increases.

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Invest in the Right People
Once we defined the six overall positions and the three core roles, we addressed the way our stores approached the hiring process. In many instances, small shops sometimes base hiring decisions on salary expectations rather than overall education and experience. On one hand, it’s a guaranteed way to keep payroll under specified levels. On the other hand, it’s a huge mistake. Successful shop owners know that you need to invest in key front-office staff positions to provide a solid platform for growth.

Each staff member plays a pivotal role in the formula for success. By clearly defining each position in terms of responsibilities and qualifications, you’ll be one step closer to a staffing model that works. For example, the office manager’s role is key to fiscal success. If you don’t have the right person in this position, you’ll encounter endless bookkeeping and financial problems.

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Since your appraiser generates the majority of your shop’s sales, you’ll want that person to have solid experience and the right personality. He must know how to calculate repair costs and timelines, negotiate with insurance companies and provide impeccable customer care.

Perhaps the most critical person on the core front-office staff is the general manager. This individual must know how to do it all, from production to estimating jobs, ordering parts, managing the entire shop team and presenting a confident image to every customer and insurance adjuster.

You’ll See Measurable Results
Since we introduced our new front-office staffing program in 2000, the results have been rewarding and measurable. Ed Gapsch, owner of Gapsch’s CARSTAR Collision Center in St. Louis, says the greatest benefit of staffing his front office correctly is his increasing bottom line.

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“When a store is understaffed, the tasks for each position are never fully carried out because the employees are trying to do the work of two or more people,” says Gapsch. “Only critical tasks are performed, and that leaves little or no time to handle the tasks that are less critical from a short-term perspective but have value over a longer period of time. And when various tasks aren’t completed regularly, your overall level of quality is compromised.”

Rey Barbosa, owner of CARSTAR A&B Riverside in Kansas City, has also seen measurable differences since implementing this staffing program. “I can manage the store more effectively because the office is properly staffed, and I don’t have to perform the other front-office roles in addition to my own responsibilities,” he says. “When we were understaffed in the past, much of my time was spent on the day-to-day operations of the store that should have been performed by other staff members.”

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During the past year, Barbosa has used the staffing model job descriptions to define the roles of his staff members and to hold each member accountable for his roles and responsibilities. These clearly defined job tasks prevent Barbosa’s staff from questioning what’s expected from each of them, and it’s easy to evaluate his employees’ performance based on these tasks.

Defining Roles & Hiring the Right Person for the Right Position
As with any new system, one of the first things shop owners and management teams must do is compare the existing staffing structure with the recommended approach. At Mallaney’s CARSTAR in Manteno, Ill., this meant a few modifications to roles and responsibilities.

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“The staffing [model] has been extremely helpful in correctly defining job titles and responsibilities,” says owner Pat Mallaney. “When we looked at the new model and compared our current positions and job duties against the staffing model, we realized that some employees had the wrong title for the duties they were responsible for and that some employees were responsible for duties that should have fallen under someone else’s job description.”

For example, the person who handled payroll taxes, government forms, statements, employee issues and health insurance documentation and monitored all of the fine details held the title of bookkeeper at Mallaney’s shop. But the accurate title for this position is actually office manager. Meanwhile, the person who held the title of office manager was responsible for taking information from customers, consoling customers and helping them through the repair process. This person’s title needed to be changed to customer service representative.

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Besides modifying his current shop personnel’s roles and duties, Mallaney is also using the staffing model to help him decide who to hire.

“Our production/parts manager and our estimator couldn’t handle an increasing workload, and we didn’t know what position we needed to add to grow our store,” he says. “We didn’t feel we were big enough to add a parts manager, so we hired a lower-level technician to assist the production/parts manager and estimator. This additional help needed constant supervision and ultimately resulted in more work for the production/parts manager and estimator, so the position was eliminated.”

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Using CARSTAR’s staffing model, Mallaney learned that he actually needed to add a second estimator. He also needed to change the responsibilities of the estimators so each one handles his own parts and supplements and communicates with the general manager formerly the production/parts manager to coordinate production.

The staffing model also allowed Mallaney to compute the additional sales required to justify the change in staff. “The model provides an easy-to-follow map on how to grow your staff, as necessary,” he says. “It tells you where you need to add additional staff members, when you need to do it and how to determine if you can afford it.

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“Repair shop owners who are just starting to grow their businesses will find [such a staffing] model extremely practical [because it] allows them to operate their shops more efficiently and more economically.”

Case in point: Greg Robb, owner/general manager of Affordable Auto Body CARSTAR II, in Franklin, Wis. Robb recently opened a second location and is using the staffing model to help him create a more organized, unified operation. He says the job descriptions and titles have been particularly helpful because every employee receives clearly defined job duties.

“There isn’t a question of what tasks each employee should handle, so it’s easy to hold employees accountable for their specific area of the business,” says Robb, adding that having a staffing model has also helped when giving performance reviews. “Reviews are easier to conduct because the employee’s performance can be compared to the list of duties to see how well he’s completed specific tasks.”

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And as Robb’s business at each location grows, he plans to use the staffing model to decide when he’ll bring on additional positions. “We’ll use the model’s recommendations to select new staff members based on their skill sets, experience and proficiencies,” he says. “The end result of all of these changes will be increased productivity and profits over time.”

By putting into practice a staffing model that clearly defines what sort of candidate you’re looking for, employee responsibilities and a timetable for when and whom to bring on board, you, too, can increase your shop’s productivity and profits. And this more organized approach to staffing your front office helps to free you up from constantly working in your business, giving you more time to work on your business. Margaret Ray is director of operations accounting for CARSTAR in Overland Park, Kan., and can be reached at [email protected]

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