Perspectives, Ideas Shared by Dealership Management Helpful for Independent Shops as Well

Scott Doering of Volvo
Scott Doering of Volvo Cars USA said customers want an “Uber-like experience” from shops offering pick-up and delivery of vehicles.

In a series of webinars in October, dealership fixed operations and service department managers shared their experiences and lessons learned during the pandemic, including perspectives and ideas that could be helpful for independent collision repairs as well.

During one of the online group discussions, three of the four panelists said they’d had personnel test positive for COVID-19.

“It got pretty scary for a little bit, when we had a couple people who tested positive,” said Becca Kroeger, service manager at Universal Nissan in Orlando. “We got right on it. As soon as we found out someone had symptoms, they had to self-quarantine for two weeks. They would have to be tested and get a negative result to come back.”

Each time, she said, she went into the dealership herself and disinfected every service advisor’s office and all the technicians’ work stations, even though the dealer had a company already doing that overnight.

“I sprayed everything,” Kroeger said. “I just did it myself because then I knew it was done. I felt safe. My biggest focus day in and day out is keeping my parts and service people safe so that we can stay open.”

She said early on, the dealership owner chose to offer free maintenance labor for all first responders.

“It was amazing how much business it brought in during those times,” she said, noting that service advisors often found other needed work on those vehicles. “We were able to upsell. So we absolutely came out ahead."

Keeping up morale has been one of her focuses, asking service advisors at each morning meeting to share something positive that happened the day before. They’ve bought lunches or brought desserts out to employees.

“This is going to sound really silly, but I went out and bought a huge number of smiley face helium balloons and placed one at every advisor’s office, one at the parts counter and on the tables in the café in the dealership,” Kroeger said. “I bought helium replacement, and for the month and a half when things were really rough, we kept those smiley faces going. You’d be amazed how much people appreciated it. It just reminded everybody to smile, even behind the masks.”

Her advice as the pandemic continues?

“The thing I learned from day one is to be flexible,” she said. “You never know what another [employee] has going on personally, or what they’re thinking. If they’ve needed to go home, I absolutely let them. It did not matter what the situation was. I didn’t question them.”

Francisco Mora, service manager for Esserman International Volkswagen in Doral, FL, said management at the dealership considered closing for a time after a parts counter employee, who delivers parts to technicians, tested positive. Instead, they sent half the staff out to be tested and quarantined for two weeks, then sent the other half out for two weeks when the quarantined employees returned.

“So I was half-staffed for a month,” Mora said. “We’ve done that process probably four or five times when other people have had [COVID-19]. So a lot of employees have had to wear other hats. I was a cashier for about a week. My parts manager was a parts counterperson for about a week. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. The point was to stay open.”

Mora said the dealership kept employees incentivized even for the two slowest months in the spring by paying time and a half for flat rate workers, and by ensuring everyone would make what they averaged the prior year.

“A lot of our employees said, ‘You know what, the owner has our back, so we’ll have his back,’” Mora said. “They came to work when we asked them to work. They worked hard.”

The management team went through the difficult process of building a furlough list of employees just in case, he said, but it fortunately wasn’t needed. The hourly techs in the dealership’s express department were high on the list, given their expense and the lack of business in that department last spring, but they were kept on to instead handle all the pick-up and delivery of customer vehicles to keep the rest of the shop busy, Mora said.

By June, the shop’s repair order count was close to normal, and more recently it was a “September to remember,” he said, “the best month for parts and service we’ve had since March of 2017.”

His lesson heading into the end of the year: “Consistency. We have to remain consistent,” he said.

“What happens is if people get too comfortable, they’ll forget to put the mask on, they won’t wash their hands, they won’t keep social distancing," Mora said. "For the coming months, we have to make sure we remain consistent in enforcing PPE. Because we want to remain open, and I want to continue to grow. But we have to continue to work through this together.”

With body shops more frequently offering pick-up and delivery of customer vehicles during the pandemic, they may be interested in what some automakers and dealers are learning about using that service to draw more work into dealership service departments.

Scott Doering, vice president of customer service for Volvo Cars USA, said his company was about a year into a pilot of Volvo Valet with about 20 dealers when the pandemic hit, so they could ramp it up quickly. It has had 21,000 bookings since March.

“With COVID-19 hitting, consumers were looking for different solutions. They wanted convenience,” Doering said. “It’s a user-friendly platform for our retailers, and provides consumers with an Uber-like experience, a fully-transparent experience.”

Consumers can use an app or call to schedule pick-up, and the app allows the customer to see where the driver coming to get their vehicle is, and when the driver will arrive. That driver generally is dropping off a loaner at the same time, taking images of the condition of both vehicles at the handoff.

Customers receive notification when their vehicle arrives at the dealer’s shop, and a similar process is used when the vehicle is ready to be returned.

Dawn Matthews, service and parts director for the David Auto Group in Glen Mills, PA, said they are working with a third-party vendor to provide a similar service for their Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler customers, and agrees that transparency is the key.

“That Uber-like experience, where a customer can track the driver on their phone, I think customers really yearn for that,” she said. “The customer is looking for all the tools they have when they use DoorDash.”

Doering said though it’s too early for Volvo to know if its valet service will positively affect customer retention as hoped, service ROs for customers using the valet service have been 21% higher compared to non-valet service ROs.

“I think it comes down to trust and taking care of the customer’s problem,” he said. “If we can administer service in a way where we can be very transparent and provide convenience, consumers are willing to pay.”

He said Volvo this year is providing a per-leg reimbursement to dealers to cover their labor costs for valet drivers, but is working toward implementing a convenience-fee model next year.

“In every other industry, consumers pay for convenience,” he said. “People pay to have groceries or food delivered because the convenience is a value to them. Why shouldn’t that be the case with something like pick-up and delivery?”

John Yoswick

John Yoswick is a freelance writer and Autobody News columnist who has been covering the collision industry since 1988, and the editor of the CRASH Network... Read More

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