Listen up!

Most of Mike Lazarus' service advisers are women. The reason: empathy and good listening skills.

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Mike Lazarus Company: Long Island Automotive Group Where:Amityville, N.Y. Age: 56 Title: COO Annual Revenues: $350 million Stores: Sporteque Jaguar, Huntington, N.Y.; Sportique Porsche, Huntington, N.Y.; Volvovile USA, Massapequa, N.Y.; Land Rover Glen Cove, Glen Cove, N.Y.; Land Rover Massapequa, Massapequa, N.Y.; Land Rover Smithtown, Smithtown, N.Y.; Land Rover Southhampton, Southhampton, N.Y.; Saturn of Massapequa, Massapequa, N.Y.; Saturn of Smithtown, Smithtown, N.Y.; Saturn of The Hamptons, Southhampton, N.Y. Franchises: Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, Saturn, Volvo How I came up with my best ideas: "Necessity; a lot of times, trial and error. You do something that turns out to be a good idea because you couldn't think of anything else."

The title "service adviser" conjures up images of a burly gentleman who, after spending years in the service bays, settled on a desk job. He might be a little gruff, but he seems to know just what's wrong with your car. He writes a repair order using his expert knowledge.

That's not the kind of service adviser Mike Lazarus likes to hire.

The typical adviser at Lazarus' New York dealerships is a woman. She leaves diagnoses to a technician. And she empathizes with customers, keeping careful notes on their repair needs.

Lazarus, 56, of Amityville, N.Y., sold his dealerships to Tokyo-based conglomerate Marubeni Corp. in 1997 and now is COO of the 10-store chain.

At Long Island Automotive Group, 14 of the 22 service advisers - 64 percent - are women. And because Lazarus often promotes advisers, five of the 10 service managers are women. The service director in charge of his three Saturn dealerships and satellite service center also is female.

Lazarus has emerged from a rut the car business has been in for years: having a male-dominated staff, even though women influence many car purchases and often are the majority of the service customers.

The long hours necessary to sell cars have discouraged many women with families from seeking work at car dealerships. And many women, turned off by the grease-monkey stereotype, would not think of applying for work in a service department.

But Lazarus has lured women to his service departments offering training, flexible hours and a relatively high-paying desk job.

Good listeners

Lazarus did not set out to hire more women.

In 1984, he decided to hire service advisers without technical expertise because experienced service advisers were diagnosing problems without listening fully to customers' needs. Repair jobs were botched because advisers wrote inaccurate repair orders.

"I just wanted someone who could listen to customers," said Lazarus. "Women listen, men tell."

Lazarus found it easier to teach automotive vernacular to a novice than to keep pros from making premature diagnoses. He wanted service writers to listen to customers and leave diagnosis to the technicians.

After changing his hiring philosophy, Lazarus found more of his service writers were women. And when he noticed how they empathized with customers - particularly with other women - Lazarus began recruiting women employees aggressively.

"The women (service writers) don't degrade you if you say your car makes a funny noise," said Lorraine Kuczwaj, of Suffolk, N.Y., a customer of Lazarus' Saturn stores since 1991. Female service writers also tend to be more patient with small children, said Kuczwaj, who has two preschoolers.

Bigger desks

Other than providing basic training on the parts of a car, the only adjustment Lazarus felt he had to make for female employees was an enlarged service desk, to provide a margin of safety in the wake of two disturbing incidents. On two occasions, he said, irate customers reached over the service counter and struck female service advisers.

"The men were just arrogant and egotistical," Lazarus said. "They didn't want to pay their bill or wait in line."

The counter now is 4 feet high and 3 feet wide so customers can't stretch across it and assault a service writer.

"If there was a man behind the counter, they would have gotten slugged back," Lazarus said.

Lazarus provides working mothers with flexible hours. He accommodates mothers of preschoolers by letting them work part-time, generally a four-hour shift on a Saturday or an evening. Long-term female employees can become part-time managers.

"We need someone to supervise the people who work on Saturday and the skeleton evening crew," he said. "It is a great job for a woman (with a family)."

His Saturn stores have a floating service manager who fills in for managers who are out sick or on vacation. The floater is a mother who wants to work part-time. "Somebody is always out. The floating manager can wear many hats," Lazarus said.

The floating manager job was created by Mary Lou Rocco, the service director for the Saturn stores and one of Lazarus' proteges.

"The hours are 9-to-5 or 7-to-3 or 10-to-7, something like that," Lazarus said. "You can have a normal shift."

Career moves

Lazarus advertises for service advisers in local classified advertising sections, emphasizing the pay and benefits. The ads state that the company offers training, and that the jobs are open to men and women. He often has recruited teachers and waitresses - women in lower-paying jobs who are good at dealing with the public.

"Service advisers are paid a low of $35,000 a year as an apprentice, to up to $70,000 a year," he said. "These are good-paying, middle-management jobs."

Lazarus also promotes from within, training bookkeepers and receptionists to be service advisers.

Mary Lou Rocco started working for Lazarus 17 years ago at his Volvo dealership as a warranty clerk. Though she and her husband formerly owned a repair shop, Rocco said she was "very, very nervous" when Lazarus first offered her a job as a service writer. She did not know how to fix cars.

But Rocco was at ease when she realized diagnosis was not her job, and quickly acclimated to the position. "I really didn't have that much problem," she said.

Rocco worked her way up to service manager in 1990 and service director in 1992. She finds Lazarus' faith in his employees inspiring. "After he opened a Saturn facility, he asked me if I wanted to be a service manager, and I flipped - 'Who, me?' " she said.

Grateful for the career opportunity, Rocco also tends to hire women. "Women customers are very happy to talk to a woman (service writer)," Rocco said. Having a woman behind the counter "is an asset, especially if you are a customer with one kid tugging at your legs and one in your arms."

And Lazarus said women tend to appreciate the job more than men do. "Hiring women is self-serving," he said. "I want somebody who wants the job."

Donna Harris is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Washington

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