Jeff High, 42, has worked as a service adviser at Mercedes-Benz of Memphis in Tennessee for 19 years. He says advisers are "moving targets" as the expectations of consumers -- and thus of car companies and dealers -- become ever more demanding. The key to his success, he says, is to "keep communication up" with his service customers.
How can dealerships work to prevent burnout and keep valued service advisers on the job? It doesn't have to be merely a matter of more money, service directors say.
Service adviser is "the toughest job in our dealership -- in any dealership," says Tom Hernly, service manager of Shaheen Chevrolet in Lansing, Mich. He adds that the advisers at his dealership "have been here a long time" -- one of them for 28 years.
To combat rapid turnover, he says, Shaheen treats its advisers as assistant service managers. "They're empowered; they feel part of the process," Hernly says. "They know they're not going to get chastised for making a decision."
Bill Housholder is director of fixed operations at Ganley Auto Group, which operates 28 dealerships, mostly in the Cleveland area. He says the company is working to centralize its recruitment and training of service advisers and has initiated staggered shifts for advisers at several dealerships to limit their work hours.
"We want them to work at their pace and their stress level," Hous-holder says. "We want to keep our guys under 50 hours [a week], closer to 45 if we can. We would rather limit hours and keep our people highly productive than have them be less productive working long hours."
Instead of hiring advisers with experience at other dealerships, expecting them to be immediately productive, some managers say they increasingly are hiring nontraditional candidates, as long as the applicants have the right skills and customer-friendly attitude to be effective service advisers.
"Why would you want to hire someone who got fired from the store down the street?" says Paul Maggia, the general manager of Byford Buick-GMC in Chickasha, Okla. "It's more important to ask "What talents do you have?'"
Dealerships' recycling of "underachievers" continues to contribute heavily to the high turnover of service advisers, says Don Reed, CEO of DealerPRO Training in Gahanna, Ohio. Communications skills are more important for adviser candidates than experience that may not have been positive, he says.
"Whenever [dealerships] have an opening, they advertise for a service adviser, and they get someone who's worked in four or five dealerships in the past seven years and didn't perform well," Reed says. "But they hire him into their store."
At the same time, hiring applicants who lack experience makes it even more vital that dealerships train service advisers properly and consistently, says dealership consultant Lee Harkins.
"The way you're trained to do the job is: "Watch this guy for two days,'" says Harkins, CEO of M5 Management Services in Pelham, Ala. "And he shows you how to do this and that, but you don't understand why you're doing it."
Harkins says advisers need to learn first how to communicate well with service customers, not to maximize sales. Common measures that dealerships use to gauge the productivity of service advisers, such as hours per repair order, are "antiquated," he says.
Better criteria, he adds, are how many customers an adviser retains and how much needed service work he or she identifies during the basic service drive walkaround and multipoint inspection.
Brett Coker, president of Coker Automotive Consultants in Pensacola, Fla., says dealerships need to celebrate their best service advisers as conspicuously as they do their top salespeople.
"Advisers are really low on the dealership food chain," Coker says. "They are the face of our business, yet we give them the least amount of recognition and training and appreciation."
Too often, Coker says, the most productive advisers are "rewarded" with more responsibilities. Service managers should farm out routine paperwork and phone calls to clerical employees, he proposes.
Service departments can adjust other processes to help advisers succeed, says Jim Phillips, director of education at the NADA Academy. "I've never met a lazy service writer, but I meet service writers who don't get it done all the time because they're simply overwhelmed," he says.
Shops should avoid "feast or famine" scheduling of service appointments, exhausting advisers during the busiest hours, Phillips says. They can make sure advisers have the vehicle history and essential manufacturer's information when a customer arrives, he adds.