Profits follow process in the service department

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Alain Sabbah
Columnist

Ask any industrial designer or architect and they’ll tell you the key to outstanding design is understanding the function of the piece they’re designing. Once the function is clear, the form will follow.

In a dealership, if you understand the processes behind the work you do, the profits will follow as directly as form follows function in a well-designed automobile. Nowhere is that more evident than in the service department.

In the midst of one of the most chaotic markets we’ve seen in years, there are two trends bearing down on dealerships from opposite ends of the spectrum. 

On the one hand, the downturn has put a premium on those dealerships that execute the fundamentals of a service operation flawlessly. Those basics usually can’t be learned overnight; they are built on a solid understanding of the functions within service, how they fit together, and the processes that support each function.

On top of the basics, now we are seeing a new generation of point-of-sale and customer relationship management (CRM) tools aimed at helping parts and service departments build and strengthen customer relationships.

As with executing the fundamentals in any business operation, the processes in place are key to gaining the most from CRM and marketing tools aimed at fixed operations. 
Here are six ways to serve more service customers more profitably.

Get more personal with consumers online

Offering an online service portal for your dealership is a necessity, not an option. A service portal on a dealership website can improve dealership service department accessibility and convenience for consumers; it also makes dealers more efficient in their daily service operations.

Industry data indicate eight out of 10 consumers use Internet search engines to research car dealerships; as many as a quarter of the searches are related to the fixed operations area of the dealership.

Typically, service portals can offer online service appointments, which allow consumers to schedule service appointments through the dealer’s website at anytime, day or night. Appointments can be integrated in real time into the DMS for use by the service advisor at the dealership. This also saves the service advisor time with fewer incoming phone calls and less re-entering of appointment data.
Other features of service portals can enable consumers to check on the repair status of their vehicle online, thus eliminating telephone tag with the service department, view and print their dealership service history directly from the dealership’s website, check for outstanding recalls or recommended services for their vehicle, and, even pay for service online before picking up the car.

From checklist to future sales opportunity

One of the more important traditional tools for the service advisor is the vehicle inspection form, which serves as a checklist of the customer’s immediate needs.
This form can also be one of the most effective ways to market your dealership’s services – if you use it consistently and persistently.

Today, a number of companies has developed electronic inspection forms tied to the DMS. These tools make it easier to follow a step-by-step process in greeting a customer and inspecting the vehicle.

The service advisor literally can walk around the car with a small handheld device and note any damage or safety issues and identify possible service opportunities.

The inspection input is saved in the DMS and available to use in reaching out to the consumer – both during the service visit and in the future.

The vehicle inspection form also provides a ready-made follow-up to the customer at a future date, when you invite them back to have the service performed that they had declined originally – and you add a percent-off coupon to pique their interest.

From hangtag to marketing medium

There are companies that have taken the traditional service hangtag that is slotted on the rearview mirror and redesigned it to include front and back coupons and service specials alongside the traditional tag number.

Every time a consumer picks up a car from service, the consumer will at least have to remove the hangtag from the mirror, even if all they do is place it in the glove compartment. It’s turning a plain, utilitarian tag with a number into point-of-purchase advertising.

From service reminder to one-to-one marketing

Service reminders remain a proven way to improve fixed operations traffic in the dealership. But the discipline to maintain the data base and consistently plan and execute the reminders is where most dealerships fall down.

One trick to service reminders is close integration with data in the DMS and being able to manipulate the data to target specific service customers. For example, all those whose vehicles are turning over 20,000 km or 50,000 km, or those customers who refused service last time for tires or brakes.

A service reminder with a coupon or special for the specific service that had been previously declined is far more effective than sending a stock reminder card. It’s personal and targets the consumer’s need and vehicle.

Hearing is believing

There are also new CRM tools that use broadcast messages, often with text-to-speech technology convenience. Broadcast campaigns are an automated approach to reach your customers by phone with targeted announcements, service reminders, or recall notices.

Traditionally, broadcast campaign users record a message in their own voice; now, there is an option of typing a message that is then converted automatically to a voice recording through text-to-voice technology.

In addition to saving time and effort, when the text-to-speech is combined with data from a lead management tool or CRM service campaigns, it can include specific customer information such as a name, or vehicle details, making contact personal and specific.

Make the first service appointment in the sales department

It may surprise some to view the sales department as an extension of the service appointment desk, but for new car owners, that’s what it needs to be.

The first service appointment ideally should be made before handing over the keys and completing the paperwork. If the consumer is buying a car, then they’re already a dealership customer. The next logical step is to make them a service customer, too.
It can be a simple process to build in the steps in your new car checklist to set that first service appointment before the consumer drives off the lot in a new vehicle.

The point is to persuade them to return the first time for service; from then on, it’s up to the service department to build the customer relationship with them potentially using many of the steps I’ve just outlined.

The processes your dealership puts in place for setting appointments, greeting customers, recommending service, and follow-up after service are important foundations for profit. That’s especially true in a downturn. 

Still, regardless of what you do to improve operations during a recession, every business is dependent on customers coming in the door.

Improving your operations alone isn’t enough. But, if customers come back and you haven’t improved operations, you will have missed an opportunity to catch the forward momentum of an economy turning around.

Now is the best time to prepare for the economic upturn that will naturally increase customer interest in your dealership. The service department is the best place to start.

With the right processes and tools in place, service can help lead your business to thrive after the recession.

Alain Sabbah is vice-president of sales for Reynolds and Reynolds. He has been managing all of Reynolds’ system sales within Canada since May, 2008. He began his career with Reynolds in 2004, leading all OEM Sales in Canada. Shortly thereafter, was promoted to director of OEM solutions for the U.S. Market.