The role of the service writer in particular is often not properly developed.
RV Pro April 2010
Duane Spader is the founder of Spader Business Management, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based dealership management and consulting firm. John Spader is the president of Spader Business Management. For more information about the company, visit https://spader.com.
Editor’s note: This guest column from Duane Spader originally appeared in the very first issue of RV PRO, in April 2005. RV PRO is reprinting the column in its 15th anniversary issue in recognition of its timeless advice – along with a special addendum from John Spader, who succeeded his father as president of the company in 2003.
A common mistake made in many industries where service skills are required is to take the business’s best technician and promote that person to service manager. This was the case at one dealership we visited, where the owner, “Jack,” was about to promote his best tech to service manager.
We advised against it.
As we walked into the dealership, a young woman with the name of “Ginny” on her employee badge was leaving Jack’s office. She was carrying a stack of work orders and was headed for the service department. The look of uncertainty on Jack’s face was unmistakable.
After a few minutes of casual conversation, Jack mentioned that he was unsure about employing Ginny as a service writer. He admitted that it was too soon to measure her effectiveness because she had just started. However, he already had some misgivings.
Customers seemed hesitant to visit with Ginny about their service needs. The techs resisted supporting someone who assigned their work but had no technical or mechanical skills.
The Chain of Command
Jack also was unclear about who should be her boss – should she report to Bill the foreman? Certainly Jack wouldn’t have time to help her. He wondered if the shop could afford her in the first place. It was going to be difficult to make money in that department anyway.
“Jack,” we said, “you’re using the key ratios that we recommended. Therefore, we cannot deny that any additional personnel costs to the service department are undesirable. But Jack, without a service writer, how much time do your techs waste switching from job to job?”
Jack thought for a moment and said, “At the dealership where I used to work, it was not uncommon to see the techs wasting 10 to 15 minutes several times a day while they were waiting for instructions.”
“If a tech is held up four times a day for 12 minutes,” we said, “that is 48 minutes, or 10 percent of an eight-hour workday. What is the value of increasing a mechanic’s production by 10 percent?”
Jack said, “I know there is some value, but I can’t calculate how much.”
We showed Jack the following:
2,080 hours X 10 percent X $60/hour = $12,480
2,080 hours X 10 percent X $70/hour = $14,560
2,080 hours X 10 percent X $80/hour = $16,640
The 2,080 hours are derived by multiplying 40 hours per week times the 52 weeks paid to the tech. So, 10 percent is the increase in efficiency as a result of eliminating four, 12-minute delays each day. The $60, $70 and $80 are the hourly retail service rates (editor’s note: in 2005) for the dealership.
Jack was surprised by the dollar amounts attributed to a 10 percent rise in productivity. He was also surprised to learn how a $10 per hour increase ($60 to $70 to $80) made a substantial difference.
Jack thought a moment and said, “You know, I think that my foreman will be able to increase his productivity at least 15 percent by having a service writer. If I can increase the efficiency of the other two shop people, I can determine the dollar value of having a service writer.”
We agreed with Jack. Along with the potential increase in efficiency in the service department, if a service writer is doing the job properly, the communication between service and customers, service and sales, and service and management will improve.
Defining Job Roles is Critical
With that, Jack asked, “Can you help me further define the role of my service writer and her relationship to the foreman?”
“Jack,” we asked, “have you considered making job descriptions for your employees?”
“I didn’t think our dealership was large enough to need that. But then again, last month I didn’t think we needed an organizational chart.”
We laughed and presented Jack with the job description for the service writer. He studied it and said, “I’m surprised to see it fits on one page. I thought it would be longer than that.”
“Jack,” we said, “a job description that is longer than one page is usually task-oriented. A result-oriented job description can usually be summarized on one page. It is the result that management should be interested in defining. In accomplishing a goal, people do different tasks. Therefore, task-oriented descriptions are usually conflicting.”
Jack said he thought he understood, but that he would have to think about it some more. He then remarked, “I see that the service writer reports to the service manager. Should we change that to the service foreman?”
Our answer was no. When a dealership is not large enough to have a service manager, the service writer reports to the general manager. To be able to afford a service manager, a dealership must employ between seven and 10 full-time techs and riggers. A dealership with fewer than seven service people usually requires a service writer and a shop foreman. The service writer reports to the general manager, and the service writer and the shop foreman work together 95 percent of the time to solve shop problems.
The general manager need only be involved occasionally, when major changes or decisions are required. To achieve this state of affairs, the general manager must delegate certain authority to the service writer.
In reviewing the service writer’s areas of authority, we added brief notes of explanation to help Jack (see “The Service Writer’s Authority” on page XX).
It is the role of the service advisor to buffer the shop foreman and keep him from standing around giving out free information. This is especially true when the do-it-yourselfer buffs “drop in to visit.” Nevertheless, when a customer of the dealership needs help of a technical nature, the service writer should get the foreman involved in order to keep the customer satisfied.
Jobs & Assigned Authorities
After listening to these explanations, Jack sat back and said, “I see the value of assigning authority to each position. In glancing over the responsibility list the same value is apparent. What I anticipate is that the service writer will start making many of the decisions that I have made in the past.”
Jack was correct in his observation. What happens in too many dealerships is that the general manager doesn’t clarify the authority and responsibility of the position. Consequently, many managers end up continually making simple, routine decisions that could be made by staff employees.
Then, when sales pick up, the general manager is so busy with thousands of little details that he cannot do his primary job – manage. When that happens, it is like a basketball coach who jumps into the ballgame to help the players: No one is sure of what plays are appropriate because they no longer have a coach.
Addendum: Thoughts from John Spader in 2020
Spader Business Management has always said, and still agrees today, that the service writer is a key position in the dealership. There’s no one the service writer doesn’t interact with, from accounting to sales to parts to retail customers; they are the hub of the dealership.
At times, it can be one of the most thankless jobs, but it also can be one of the most critical jobs, allowing everyone else to excel and keeping the dealership running smoothly.
A few things I might add:
When the dealership does have a service manager (if its size warrants one), how do the roles fit together?
The service manager’s role should be focused on people and processes. Service managers hire, fire, and manage the people (including technicians), and they manage key processes in the service department.
The service writer and shop foreman are supervisory (not management) roles, that should be structured around administration, operations, tasks and technical processes and issues in the service department. Higher-performing service departments understand and separate these roles properly.
From working with dealers, we have developed two different job descriptions for the service writer role: One for service writers with a service manager, and a second one for service writers without a service manager, because the service writer job changes somewhat depending on whether the department has/needs a service manager or not.
The service writer is a more important position than ever – and it’s critical to get the right people in the position. With today’s high-demand customers, stiff warranty requirements, changing advanced technology, etc., it’s more important than ever that you have people with the capabilities and motivation that match the job. There are many assessments and tools to help you get the right fit for this key role.
Collect-able™ Efficiency levels that were considered “good” 15 years ago are now considered to be at the bottom or below acceptable levels in today’s environment.
Why is this? Unit sales markets are more competitive; you can’t make the margins on units to cover for an inefficient/ unprofitable service business. You need to make the service department efficient, or the dealership doesn’t make money.
And, as industries evolve, they mature. Service departments overall are getting better at being efficient and customer-responsive – raising the bar for all.