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Okay, Now What? Getting Customers Back to the Service Drive

car sanitizing

By Charlie Polston, Automotive Customer Retention and Profitability Consultant, BG Products, Inc.

America is once again open for business… sort of. The threat of catching the virus through person-to-person contact will be with us for some time, but savvy businesses are figuring out how to move forward.

I refuse to accept the current situation as the new normal, although, I must concede it is the ‘now’ normal. The issue is not reopening your service department (since 95% of you never shut down); the issue is getting customers back to the service drive.

The centerpiece of restoring your traffic revolves around customer confidence – a fragile perception that is easily lost. Specifically, I’m talking about vehicle owners having confidence that they won’t contract the virus after visiting your dealership. With that said, it doesn’t require much effort to instill confidence that you are going above and beyond to sanitize vehicles before returning them:

  • Advertise the sanitization procedures on your website and in any emails that you send to your customer base.
  • When your advisors or service BDC personnel proactively reach out, make sure they explain all that your team is doing to protect the vehicle owner’s health.
  • Tell them about your sanitization procedures when you set the appointment.
  • Remind them at the time of the write-up.
  • Let them see you sanitize their vehicle before delivery.

The sanitization process is simple. First, spray down all the hard surfaces like steering wheels, shifter knobs, and door handles. Next, disinfect and deodorize cloth seats, headliners, and seatbelts. Lastly, you kill the bacteria, viruses, mold, and fungi in the A/C system.

You complete the process by cleaning the key fob and putting it in a Ziplock bag.

The entire process takes just a few minutes, but like hand washing, social distancing, and covering your mouth when coughing – sanitizing vehicles must be a standard operating procedure. And again, remember that the customer needs to see you doing this. Perception is the key to restoring customer confidence. Allow me to illustrate.

Just before our governor shut down all the restaurants, gyms, nail salons, and barbers in our state, I was able to get Joni to squeeze me into her schedule for a haircut. I arrived in time to watch her finish up with the guy ahead of me.

He paid her in cash. She sprayed the money with disinfectant (both sides) before placing it in the cash register. Then, she began an elaborate process of spraying the chair, sink, counter, and hairdryer. Next, she washed her hands with the thoroughness of a surgeon.

She intentionally did all of this while I was watching. Realize, this happened at the height of the pandemic with dire predictions of death and devastation. I was deeply impressed with the extra effort she went through to protect my health. I’ve told the story countless times since then and my consumer confidence in her hair studio went sky high. (By the way, I gave her a 200% tip… it was worth it.)

I’m telling you, if you’ll get this sanitization-prior-to-automobile-delivery process in the fiber of your DNA (every car, every time) it will make a lasting impression on how customers view your shop. The word will spread, and your drive traffic will increase.

On a related subject, let’s talk about pent-up demand versus pent-up need. As America gets back to business there will be a pent-up demand for many goods and services. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for hair and nail salons, barbers (I went seven weeks and started looking like the neighbor’s dog), movies, and taking your sweetie out for a romantic dinner.

There’s pent-up demand for elective surgeries, dental work, business suits and dresses, hand soap, and toilet paper. Demand means that people know they have been denied these things for several months and they will buy it without any prompting at all. They want it!

To a lesser extent, there is some pent-up demand for automotive repair. If the car is broken, it must be fixed to reliably get to work. Demand will naturally bring a few vehicle owners to your dealership. They are forced to come to your shop to avoid disruption to their lives and their livelihood by having an unreliable vehicle.

But there is no pent-up demand for preventative maintenance. However, there is a tremendous pent-up NEED for preventative maintenance.

“If you’re waiting for pent-up demand to provide a post-pandemic revenue stream, you’re going to starve. But if you proactively pursue pent-up needs (needed preventative maintenance) the possibilities are endless – including increased CSI, retention, and profitability.

There is no demand for preventive maintenance, because while everyone knows they must fix their car when it breaks – no one knows what to do to keep their car from breaking. Therefore, we must point out what their car needs. We cannot passively wait for them to ask for preventive maintenance services (that will never happen.) We must proactively ask them to have those services performed.

Pent-up demand requires no salesmanship; people know what they want, and they demand it.

Pent-up need, on the other hand, requires a trained sales professional to point out the maintenance need, present the solution, and ask the vehicle owner to purchase it.

Two kinds of service advisors, technicians, and service managers will emerge as this national crisis fades.

The first group includes those that sit back and wait for vehicle owners to demand their cars be fixed. They will have low paychecks, low CSI, low retention, and bad attitudes. These folks watch things happen and hope for the best.

The other group consists of winners and leaders that proactively point out necessary maintenance to protect vehicle owners from costly, catastrophic failure. They’ll have satisfied customers that return to the dealership to spend more money. They’ll have higher paychecks and will be able to earn enough money to make up for any losses during the pandemic. These folks make things happen.

So, there are two kinds of people; those who make things happen and those who watch things happen. (Okay, I guess there’s a third kind: those who wonder what happened.) Which are you? *

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The Perfect Dealership: Mastering the Basics


Dealership BasicsEarlier this year I ran across a book by Max Zanan called “Perfect Dealership.” It is a must-read for all of your dealership management and leadership team leaders. Seldom do I quote so extensively from another writer, but Zanan’s observations are so spot-on that I felt I had to let you hear directly from him.

The book takes an in-depth look at all departments in the dealership, yet Zanan reminds us the wisdom of becoming masters of the basics. What follows are selected insights from the chapter on parts and service, used by permission:

Sales-to-Service Introduction

All departments in the dealership must work toward a common goal. A lot of times I see that there is a total disconnect between the service and sales departments. There should be regular meetings between the general sales manager and the service manager to coordinate the transition of customers from sales to service and back to sales. In other words, never let go of the customer. It is in everybody’s interest to ensure customer retention.

The sales department absolutely must introduce every customer to the service department — and I am not talking about a nominal 30-second walk-around. This must be an active introduction to make the customer feel comfortable and know where to go when the first oil change is due. It is a good idea to introduce service advisors and the service manager.

New-Car Clinics

Dealerships must schedule new-car clinics on a regular basis (monthly or quarterly). These new-car clinics need to be promoted in the showroom and on the dealer’s website. They should take place at night, so customers can visit after work. Snacks and soft drinks should be provided. Technicians should teach customers how to use basic controls and answer questions. Again, these clinics serve a dual purpose: helping customers learn how to use their new car and also gain familiarity and feel comfortable with the service department.

Brag on Techs and OEM Parts

It is a good idea to display your technicians’ certificates and relevant information in the customer waiting area, so customers know that factory-trained technicians using OEM parts are working on their cars. Factory training and OEM parts are the reasons to use the service department instead of an independent mechanic. Furthermore, OEM parts and OEM-trained mechanics are the only reason to charge higher prices compared to independents.

The Service Sales Department

Every time I visit a service department, I have a feeling that service advisors are the opposite of the salespeople. You cannot assume you will make a sale, but it seems to be the mindset with many service writers that cars inevitably break—so they have a passive strategy.

Another problem that contributes to the lack of sales in service departments is understaffing. I am a big believer that an effective service advisor needs to spend time with each customer in order to get to know him or her and the car so he or she can upsell the necessary work. In order to do that, the service advisor needs to see no more than 12 to 15 customers per day. If your service advisors are seeing more than 15 customers per day, what you have is order-takers. And order-takers do not make money!

Service managers must have regular sales meetings to outline their goals and methods for accomplishing them.

Service Advisor Walk-Around

It is critical to make a positive first impression and build a long-lasting relationship with every customer. One specific way to do so is to conduct a walk-around when the customer comes in for scheduled maintenance or repairs. During an active walk-around, a service writer inspects the car with the owner, which can dramatically increase the chances of up-selling additional maintenance or repair work. An active walk-around is essential when you consider that parts and service is an extremely profitable business for dealerships. The profit margin on labor is about 75%, and on parts it is between 40 and 50%. A Perfect Dealership trains its service advisors to perform an active walk-around at all times, so it becomes a natural part of their daily routine.

Multipoint Vehicle Inspection

Multipoint vehicle inspection (MVPI) must be utilized on every single car, and maintenance and repair recommendations must be made on this MPVI.

Menu selling should be utilized with every customer, similar to what we do in the F&I department. This approach ensures 100% presentation of proposed maintenance and repairs to 100% of customers, 100% of the time.

Wear a Uniform

The Perfect Dealership transmits professionalism at every level. We need to make sure that service advisors, porters, and even cashiers wear a uniform. First, a uniform identifies employees and showcases professionalism that many dealerships lack. It goes without saying that uniforms must be clean, and name tags should be worn by all employees.


The Perfect Dealership trains its staff on a regular basis. Service technicians must be up-to-date with factory training. Service writers need sales training and phone-skills training. And every employee in the service department needs customer-service training. 

Quick Lube Operations

Perfect Dealerships offer quick lube service without an appointment in order to compete with independents. Unfortunately, many dealers are not maximizing sales opportunities in their quick lube and express service operations. A lot of dealers are caught up with an idea that if they change the oil in 15 minutes or less, they are doing a great job. The point is not to rush through the process but to maximize the revenue by up-selling items such as air filters, wiper blades, light bulbs, belts, and cabin filters. To ensure maximum up-sell opportunity, an A-skilled tech should oversee the work of lube technicians.

Good stuff, isn’t it? I know what you’re thinking, “Hey, I already know all this stuff—I’ve heard it before!” Okay, you know it. The question is, are you doing it?

If you follow Zanan’s recommendations, not only will you have a perfect dealership, but a profitable one, too!

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