Is Your Shop Infected?

How shops get sick when they get too busy

It starts innocently enough: the shop gets busy, and the little things start to slide.


First, the inspection process breaks down. Technicians start pencil-whipping their inspection forms, trying to get their billable hours by running as many cars through their bay as possible (or cherry-picking jobs) rather than doing a thorough inspection.

At the front counter, the service writers stop taking their time with each customer. They see the line of customers and focus on helping them quickly rather than taking the time to answer questions and address concerns. Many service writers also slide incoming phone customers until tomorrow or next week.

Or maybe the owner hires a new service writer. We put them on the front counter on Day One to help handle all of the traffic we’re getting, and figure they’ll learn quickly from the other service writers. At first, we have every intention of training them when things slow down. Then weeks turn into months, and the costly mistakes start to pile up. How do I know? I’m speaking from experience!

When my shop hit $1.5 million, we were easily losing $50,000 per year because our systems broke down. Communication problems, inspection breakdowns, and poor service advising and customer service were all pushing our average repair order into the garbage.

And that’s not even the end of the story.

When systems break down like that, we do more than just ruin our relationship with trusting customers. We end up infecting our shop with a virus. We teach the team that training doesn’t matter if it’s busy enough, that culture and purpose don’t matter if there’s a line at the front counter, and we teach the team that our mission is about protecting ourselves instead of protecting our customers and protecting the company.

Growing a shop doesn’t have to be this painful. But it does mean fighting this infection before it can take hold and bring down the entire shop.

How to fight infection

When I was growing my shop, every time I’d hit a new performance level, it felt like I was taking two steps forward and one step back. It was painful to get systems in place that were only barely functional – and even then, they could break down at any time simply because car count was higher that day. My systems were only workable at a certain volume. That’s hardly a system at all!

The big lesson, no matter what level of performance I was trying to break through, was this: as with most problems in the shop, there’s no “easy button.”

For instance, start at the beginning: why is your shop suddenly busier in the first place? If a new marketing effort has your shop flooded with low-quality customers, all of the systems in the world can’t prevent your loyal, long-term customers from being trampled. In other words, fixing your policies at the front counter will only go so far if your marketing is working against you.

But that brings us to the heart of the matter: how you can fight the infection in your shop. Because ultimately, it comes down to sustainable policies and procedures that don’t break down just because you have a few extra cars on a particular day.

One of the problems is that policies carry ugly connotations. Setting policies makes you a petty dictator. Setting policies makes you a tyrant.

Nonsense! Policies are the reason why, when other shop owners come to our shop for training, they say things like: “I can’t believe how little chaos you have!” Policies are how you avoid dealing with the same mess over and over again. More importantly, policies are how you keep the inspection process from breaking down on busy days.

The key is not to lay down the law from on high. For instance, in the example at the beginning of this article, how do you suppose the policy was put in place for doing inspections? In my shop, for years it went something like, “You will do a complete inspection and fill out this inspection form because I said so.” Which is why it all fell apart so quickly on busy days.

If I had taken the time to explain that policies are there to protect them, the company and our clients, how differently would things have gone? If I had helped them understand that doing a thorough inspection helps keep our customers safe, keeps our pipeline full, and helps our customers trust us more, would the techs have been so quick to start pencil-whipping them?

By not taking the time to put the policy in place correctly, I made the infection worse. Because it’s not just that some techs abandoned the policy the moment car counts were up, but it also created division between the rule-followers and rule-breakers. Half of the shop ends up resenting the other half – and which type of employee do you think you’ll lose first in a situation like that?

The real key

How does your shop get policies and procedures that work no matter how busy you get?

The place to start is checklists. What should your team do every morning when opening the shop? What should happen for every vehicle? What happens during each customer check-in?

The thing to watch out for, however, is when you start adopting policies and procedures from other people. Think of a policy like a sauce bottle in your fridge. When a situation comes up, you apply the sauce that makes the most sense. Borrowing a policy from one person and a procedure from another isn’t too different from going into your refrigerator and mixing all of those sauces together.

But the real key is follow-through. Over and over and over again, we’ve seen it in shops: when a shop owner tells us there’s one area of his shop that isn’t working the way it should, a vast majority of the time we can dig in and find that the owner hasn’t been willing to hold his team accountable to following all steps – using a third of the sauce instead of the whole bottle.

Policies, procedures, checklists – these things require ongoing change and upgrade. The final takeaway here is that you need to measure daily so you can see what’s working. How else can you know whether that particular recipe is working for your business?

Ultimately, growing your shop doesn’t have to be painful. Being busy doesn’t have to lead to an infection. But you have to actively fight the infection even before it sets in: get the right policies and procedures, measure daily, train, adjust, hold your team accountable … and don’t mix your sauces together!

Good luck!

Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of management articles contributed to AutoInc. by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit AMI administers the distinguished
Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) program.