Dealer Jolliffe explains the issue.
"The biggest problem in service departments is communication," he says. "It always has been and always will be." Service advisers "are afraid to call the customer and say "I've got to keep your car overnight.' They wait for the customer to call them and by then the customer is upset."
The weak link in the chain is the telephone. Customers generally work during the day while their cars are being serviced. They're busy and miss phone calls.
A service adviser leaves a voicemail saying a part needs to be ordered or a bill needs to be approved. The customer doesn't get the message until it's too late to order the part that day.
"I can't tell you how many times I used to get phone calls from customers saying, "No one called me, and I'm really upset.' I'm telling you I heard that three to four times a month," says Jolliffe, whose suburban Detroit Ford dealership has 25 service bays and 20 technicians who process about 1,000 repair orders a month.
When Southward was working as sales manager at Gorno, he noticed the service department issues.
"It was a major concern because I kept a close eye on customer satisfaction, and that seemed to be the biggest complaint," he says.
Southward discussed the problem with his childhood friend Mapes, then working as a business development manager at Route-One, a Farmington Hills, Mich., company that provides a portal connecting automotive dealerships with finance sources.
Working together, Southward and Mapes founded a company called Michigan Software Design and developed a platform called Singlethread. They knew they could come up with something better than telephones and the table pagers then in use at Gorno to alert customers when their vehicles were done.
Mapes says Singlethread allows customers to do things they previously had to rely on phone calls to accomplish.
"It gives them the ability to approve work, decline work, even pay for service all by text message," he says.
When the customer drops the vehicle off, the service writer captures the mobile phone number and asks the customer whether he or she would prefer getting service updates via phone or text. Jolliffe says customers increasingly check the "text" box.
Lloyd Schiller, a consultant specializing in dealership service department operations, says during the last year he has seen an accelerating transition in customer preferences regarding how they would like to communicate with the service department.
"At this point in our evolution, I would say the majority of customers prefer being texted on progress updates [rather] than phone calls," he says. While there are many basic text messaging apps for service departments, few offer the means to carry out the entire transaction via text, he says.