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Trained to Win

Training can teach your staff to be more productive, more loyal and more responsive to customers – making your shop more profitable and your job much easier. Why, then, do collision repair shop owners – and other American business owners – commit such little money to such a big issue?

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I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge. But trying to share with you, the reader, all that’s important about the need to train and develop your shop’s employees in 2,500 words or less is tantamount to winning a 500-mile NASCAR event with a stovebolt six under your hood.

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But that’s my charge exactly.

Let me start this way: The White House Office of Consumer Affairs – a presidential advisory group that’s main purpose is to study the health of business in the United States – has identified a crisis of sorts that seems to be inhibiting American companies from achieving maximum efficiency. Many U.S. companies don’t perform at the same levels as their counterparts in Europe or the emerging Pacific Rim nations, and there’s a very simple reason for this cavernous difference in performance. We in the United States don’t spend enough time or money on developing our employees’ skills.

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Typically, U.S. companies spend less than one-half of 1 percent of their annual revenues on employee training. European and Asian companies, on the other hand, spend between 4 and 5 percent. The math is simple. A $2 million-a-year body shop will annually spend, on average, $10,000 on training and development activities that directly impact an employee’s job performance. Employees working in other highly developed countries around the world would benefit from a training budget, for the same size shop, of close to $100,000.

Only recently, President Clinton’s administration attempted to pass legislation that would force American companies to spend a minimum of 1 percent of their annual sales on employee training. This measure has yet to be passed into law, no doubt, because of incessant lobbying on the part of big business. As is generally the case, many companies in America today see training as a cost that’s difficult to justify. Therefore, they simply don’t spend what’s needed to prepare their workers to meet the ever-changing demands of their jobs, their customers and the economy. This is shortsighted thinking.

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Edward Deming, the man who brought us Total Quality Control, represents that training is one of the 14 key quality points for any company looking to improve productivity, efficiency and financial performance. Specifically, Deming says that business in the United States needs to “implement modern methods of training on the job, including programs for management” and “institute a vigorous program of education and retraining for every position within the company.”

This all sounds great, but what does training mean to your shop specifically? It can mean any number of things. For instance, well-trained employees will stay with your shop longer, be more efficient and make customers happier.

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The Difference Training Makes
At a recent meeting of the World Future Society in Atlanta, business researchers found that to be successful in the 21st century, American companies must undertake measures to make their employees feel essential and successful. This feeling of belonging, which is absent in many employed by our industry, is essential to increased morale and productivity and is accomplished, in a large part, through various forms of training. The research is pretty clear on this next point. Companies that train their employees will always out-perform those similar-sized companies that don’t.

For example, in 1995, a large company based in the Southwestern part of the United States was studying the effect that training plays in helping workers become “socialized” to their work environment. Two groups of employees were utilized in this experiment.

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The first group was comprised of 50 newly hired employees. Their orientation consisted of a day’s worth of activities. Company policy and procedure were explained, they chatted briefly with key executives and were given a two-hour oral training session on how to perform the basic steps of their new jobs and then shown to their work stations. In other words, it was a typical orientation you might expect to find new employees going through in any given job on any given day in the United States. All other training was thought to happen “on the job.”

The second group was also comprised of 50 new hires. Their “socialization” process was directed mainly at removing any barriers that might prevent them from achieving high levels of success on the job. To do this, it was first determined what types of training were necessary to develop the employees to a level that would allow them to efficiently and effectively handle most any situation they’d encounter on their jobs. The process, from start to finish, stretched over four weeks. During that time, they weren’t allowed to engage in any part of their job for which they hadn’t received complete training. In other words, they were far from fully productive their first month on the job.

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Some managers, particularly those who won’t allow themselves to think long term (another of Deming’s quality points, by the way) might see this approach as a huge financial drain on the company’s coffer. Because of this type of “managing for profit” mindset, many companies, large and small, probably wouldn’t take the same approach to training as this Southwestern company. And that’s too bad.

Let’s take a look at the performance of both groups after two years on the job.

  • Group one, who received a single day’s worth of training, had a turnover rate of 69 percent (34 of the original group had left the company for various reasons). Group two enjoyed a turnover rate of less than 9 percent (four people left).
  • Group one took, on average, six months to master their jobs. Group two took eight weeks.
  • Group one produced work at a rate 20 percent slower than Group two.
  • Group one was tardy or absent from work 40 percent more often than Group two.

Once again the math is simple. While the effects of training must be measured over the long term and there’s no denying that training costs money up front, the benefits enjoyed by companies that support training throughout the organization are too numerous and too significant to ignore. A well-trained employee increases value to his shop and to the industry as a whole.

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Developing Your Employees
Numerous training avenues are available for your employees. In the collision repair industry, much of our training is provided by vendors and jobbers who supply body shops with their paint and materials.

Industry groups such as the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and I-CAR also play an important role in bringing education to the people within our sector. A few of the more forward thinking consolidators in our industry are recognizing the value of well-trained employees, and some of these consolidators have started assembling in-house training staffs – specialists compensated by the shop who provide continuous training and re-training to keep employees performing well in a rapidly changing industry.

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Why ongoing training? Because the training employees received two years ago won’t serve them well today.

In an attempt to capture a body shop manager’s basic responsibilities as they relate to employee training and development, I offer this simplified checklist:

  • Identify all of the skills each of your employees will need to perform at high levels on their jobs.
  • Hire people who have these skills up front. Hiring skilled employees allows these individuals to faster achieve competency on their jobs, saving shops tens of thousands of dollars in productivity-related costs the first few months on the job.
  • Assess the existing skill levels of your employees to identify the type and amount of training necessary to fill any gaps that may exist between what you expect from them and what they’re able to produce.
  • Send your employees to the best training your money can buy (quality training costs more but generally comes with better instruction and professional learning methods and materials for the students).
  • Budget close to 1 percent of your annual revenues for training.
  • Be knowledgeable about the content of the training programs your employees attend. This will allow you to observe them back on the job and provide opportunities to reinforce the training, minimizing the chance that the employee’s new skills will atrophy or fade.
  • Make training an ongoing commitment.

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Trained to Win
Listening to me, you might begin to think I’m postulating that all you have to do to develop high-performing employees is to train more often. Not exactly.

Training won’t compensate for the old or poorly maintained equipment. Training won’t cover up for outdated processes and systems. Training won’t offset poor-performing products or overcome a deteriorating market. Nor will it compensate for managers who employ questionable (read: insensitive) supervisory practices.

Training also won’t completely overcome the problems that come through mistakenly hiring the wrong people – people without the necessary interpersonal attributes required on a particular job. For example, customer contact employees must be outgoing and friendly. These are traits that cannot be taught in a classroom.

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Training is a necessary link in any chain of events meant to produce high-performance organizations, but it can’t stand alone. American business managers – shop owners included – need to pay more attention to the issues of job satisfaction, that is, the actual physical and psychological environment in which their employees perform their jobs. Once this is accomplished, training can produce near magical results.

Remember the White House Office of Consumer Affairs mentioned earlier in this article? Their summary of the report given to President Clinton went something like this:

“The single greatest source of profit growth (for American business) will come from better management of human resources. Organizations that fail to recognize this and to properly prepare may well fall behind in the profit race, perhaps even disappear.”

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Writer John Waller is a consultant supporting the ICI Autocolor value-added program, G.E.M., Gateway to Effective Management. Waller has served as keynote speaker and provided training for several industry conferences throughout the United States and Canada, including ASA and I-CAR.

One Shop’s Story

Want to increase your CSI? Train your employees to display caring behavior with customers. Want your closing ratio to increase? Train your estimators to focus on customer needs that extend beyond simply restoring the car to pre-accident condition. Want your employees to demonstrate a greater sense of teamwork? Train them to effectively communicate requirements between departments, and help them understand the concept of internal customer service. Want your employees to perform at consistently high levels? Train yourself in coaching and motivating techniques.

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Mark Quiroz, manager of Colorado Coach Collision Center in Boulder, Col., recently had his entire staff of estimators, customer service reps and technicians trained in interpersonal skills, hoping it would increase his staff’s effectiveness with customers and co-workers. How did the training impact the shop’s daily operations?

“The training allowed my estimators to move beyond simply reacting to a customer’s response or request to using what would best be described as an interviewing technique,” says Quiroz. “This allowed my estimators to uncover additional customer needs that could be satisfied during the repair process. As a result of this technique, our closing ratio has increased about 20 percent.”

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Also, because his front office staff is now capable of responding to emotional and upset customers with a higher degree of empathy – a skill called “active listening” that was learned in the training workshops – incidents of hostility between his customers and his employees have “virtually been eliminated.”

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