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Employee Management

Communication with Employees: What the Best Auto Body Shops Are Doing

Start talking about business with your employees, tell them clearly where you are and where you would like to be. My bet is they’ll pitch in and help you make the goal. 

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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.

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I’ve had the opportunity to visit some really well-run body shops. These top performers have many things in common: clean facilities, personable sales and reception folks, written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each step in the repair, a willingness to exactly conform to their DRP insurers’ unique paperwork requirements, and almost always – their proud I-CAR Gold Class signage hanging in the office. The very best shops add another crucial layer of expertise: They communicate with all their employees regularly.

Communication is the key to successful marriages as well as successful businesses. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to date other people” seems like a marriage issue that should have been made clearer. In business, if the employees don’t know what the company issues and goals are, they can’t help. In my experience, the shops (or PBE jobbers) that share business information on a consistent basis with all their staff rise to another level of excellence. Too many small businesses in any field assume their employees will get all the information they’ll need through osmosis. The best players make sure everyone on the payroll knows where the company is headed and exactly how they can help it get there.

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Regular and Consistent

Some shops have a holiday party at the end of the year and, after dinner, the owner stands and reports whether the shop had a good year or bad year, based mostly on gross sales dollars. After a toast to good news or a commitment to do better next year on bad news, no one ever mentions the shop’s financial condition to the crew again. The top shop performers I know have both a consistent format and a regular schedule to report on the business’s health and specific goals to the folks who work there. The get-togethers I’m describing are more formal than the daily release meetings with the production crew and more specific than the “please-sell-more” command to the customer service reps (CSRs) on Monday mornings.

What constitutes a regular interval will vary greatly, but once a year isn’t often enough in my book. Once every quarter or, better yet, once every month ensures that all the employees know how it’s going and what’s expected of them. One of the most common complaints of the staff in any business is they don’t know what’s going on. Is my job secure? Can the shop afford all this required new repair equipment? Where should I expend my selling efforts? Which insurance company’s DRP does the office prefer? Generally, how can I help? Monthly or quarterly meetings are the perfect opportunity to answer those questions and many more. I advocate paying overtime wages to ensure everyone attends. Having tried both before- and after-work meeting times, I’m a fan of holding the 30-minute business information meeting before work begins. Fresh bagels and coffee and 30 minutes at time-and-a-half four times a year is management money well-spent.

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Any kind of all-shop communication will be met with trepidation the first time it’s attempted. “The boss said we need to be here at 7:15 a.m. Monday for a meeting, what does it mean? Will we all be fired? Is the shop selling to a consolidator, closing the doors, under indictment by the IRS? Uh oh!” Advance warning of the meeting and a teaser of what to expect the first time will help calm these natural fears.

Communication about the upcoming first official communication is key. The best thing about holding a meeting with all employees present is that everyone hears the same message. Telling individual groups (metal techs only, painters only, CSRs only, office staff only) the same news will start to look a lot like the children’s party game telephone, where the first person whispers in the ear of the next and by the time the last person in the chain hears the whisper, it was nothing like the original message. Hearing the latest business news and the measurable goals all together helps ensure we all get the same message.

When the business has multiple locations, or the employees are scattered, in-person meetings are more difficult. Another great way to communicate is in writing. Call it a company newsletter, monthly summary or a sharing of goals, but the written format needs to be consistent and appear at a regular time. Typically after the prior month closes, good communicators share some good news (our average RO value is up, our redos are down, collections are current), some bad news (we lost the XYZ DRP, sales closing rate is below last month, the utility bill was way up) and – the most useful – measurable goals for next month.

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Break It Down

By sharing the company goals with all employees, everyone can help reach them. Break down big numbers into smaller, easier-to-understand goals. For example, the shop’s sales goal might be a 5-percent increase next year. For the average shop doing $1.2 million with five techs, that 5-percent increase is another $60,000 in sales – a big number and hard for the receptionist or car porter to relate to. That $60,000 breaks down to $5,000 more each month, $1,200 more sales each week, $240 more each weekday, or $30 more sold every hour.

An increase in labor efficiency to a shop-wide 130 percent (for every 40 contact hours, the techs flag 52 labor hours) from their current 120-percent production efficiency is a great and measurable goal. But that still seems like just some random number to the five techs and two estimators. There are two ways to get there: The CSRs sell more labor time, or the techs work faster. Somehow, we need to find another four hours (was 48/40 = 120 percent, now want 52/40 = 130 percent) every week.

Split the task and the two CSRs need to write an additional 2.0 hours of labor time for each tech spread over all their ROs that week. And the five techs each need to save 120 minutes of actual contact time over the same week, so each tech must pick up their work pace by three minutes every hour. Make the shop goals clear and measurable and everyone can help achieve them.

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Summary

Good and consistent company-wide communication is the key to the best-of-the-best-of-the-best body shops I visit. Start talking about business with your employees, tell them clearly where you are and where you would like to be. My bet is they’ll pitch in and help you make the goal.

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