Employer/Employee Relationships Must Adapt to Uncertain Times

John Stuef and Nancy Friedman
John Stuef, left, is an automotive collision industry consultant and author; Nancy Friedman, right, aka the Telephone Doctor, is a popular customer service keynote speaker.

Whether it’s a small shop with two employees or an MSO employing hundreds of people, the pandemic has radically changed employee/employer relationships in many ways with strong leadership now more important than ever.

The pandemic has altered people’s personal and work lives as companies furlough employees to adapt to a general lack of work. Thankfully, collision repair has been designated as an essential business and many shops have kept their workforce employed.

People are still getting into accidents and even though customers are dragging their feet when it comes to getting their damaged vehicles fixed, most shops in this country are still in operation.

If you’re the manager of a body shop, your employees are probably a little shellshocked after months and months of more questions than answers.

Back in 2008, when people lost their homes and watched their 401Ks disappear, savvy and forward-thinking shop managers saw right away their leadership roles needed to change on the fly. With so many employees’ lives changing overnight, these managers had to become more compassionate and transparent without forgetting about the bottom line along the way.

We recently interviewed two nationally-respected experts within the areas of human resources, management strategies and behavioral psychology about this subject.

John Stuef is an automotive collision industry consultant, former regional manager with two large MSOs and a former shop owner, as well as the author of "From Doing to Lending: Your Guide for Inspiring People on the Front Lines," written with Amy Bradshaw, Ph.D.

Nancy Friedman, aka the Telephone Doctor, is a highly-respected and popular customer service keynote speaker, who has been hired by more than 30,000 organizations to improve their Customer Satisfaction Scores (CSI) and provide a better customer experience overall.

Keep the Channels Wide Open

Some managers over-communicate, with lengthy meetings and a constant barrage of emails, and that works for them. Studies show communication can alleviate fear and indecision and ensure your crew hears your message loud and clear.

While many shop owners and managers get tired from repeating essential messages, they also realize after a while that reinforcing them is more paramount now than before.

A good leader finds the right type of communication and adapts quickly, Friedman said.

“Some people may need to hear messages in diverse ways and through dissimilar channels for them to sink in," she said. "Reinforcing key messages about things related to the pandemic might need to be conveyed differently. Certain folks like things in writing while others are more comfortable processing the spoken word, so a good leader determines that early in the game.”

Embrace Virtual Employees Where Applicable

The pandemic has proven many employees can be highly productive and successful while working remotely.

However, there are very few positions within a body shop that can be performed effectively off-site. MSOs with large customer service departments have allowed some of their CSI agents and front office personnel to work from their homes with good results.

“Working virtually is ideal for employees with families who require child care and other obligations, but it’s not an ideal fit for most people in the collision repair industry,” Stuef said. “In 2020, we discovered ‘Zoom fatigue,' and that is why many managers are going old school with telephone calls as opposed to video meetings when connecting for one-on-one or smaller group discussions.”

“If you do have remote workers, find out what you can do to make them comfortable and productive,” Friedman said. “Some people can excel in the virtual working world, but others might require a little more direction. It’s a different ball game altogether, and some people truly need help managing their time.”

Provide that Peace of Mind

Understandably, people are concerned and likely stressed out about the future of their jobs, and that is why leaders should continually reassure their crew that their employment is safe.

Conversely, employees will value truth and full transparency. Don’t withhold bad news, because you want your employees to be able to act quickly and definitively if necessary.

Friedman said honesty will go a long way with both employees and customers, even if the news isn’t warm and fuzzy.

“It’s just as important as it is to communicate well with your clients during these uncertain times,” she said. “They’re entitled to know what’s going on, so being more open and honest until we get this thing in our rearview mirror is the best way to go.”

Keep Your Glass Half Full

From Dr. Norman Vincent Peale to Andrew Carnegie, no one has ever said anything negative about the art of positive thinking. Positivity is contagious and will often create a ripple effect that can transform people from chronic complainers to helpful team members.

“At a time when so many people are experiencing bad news and negative consequences largely not of their own doing, leaders will need to remember to find the bright spots and highlight them,” Friedman said. “You can also offset bad news by reminding your crew that we’ve faced other challenges in the past and the organization is still alive and well.”

Steuf sees the pandemic as an opportunity for managers who want to grow during these challenging days.

“Great leadership starts with 100% commitment to your team’s safety and growth,” he said. “The pandemic has created the perfect opportunity for collision center managers to show great leadership by leading by example and following the CDC guidelines and keeping their team safe.” 

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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