Processes and profitability drive the success of any service department, and we tend to focus on the technical aspects of the work: Create better procedures, do a better walk around, find a new system to increase efficiency.
Service, however, is a people-centric department at its heart, and customer service is the heartbeat. Providing excellent customer satisfaction is the difference between the person who ruins a customer’s day and the hero that wants nothing more than to get them on the water sooner.
After all, the old saying goes that the sales department sells the first boat and the service department sells the rest. Top-notch customer satisfaction is the ultimate retention tool.
We combined suggestions and ideas from some of the industry’s existing service superheroes. They highlight processes that indirectly lead to happy customers, as well as several ideas to implement within the dealership, but they all attribute one defining point to the success of the department: Focus on the people.
1. Accountability builds loyal customers
Everyone wants their customers to be satisfied with the service work, but nobody’s perfect. Mistakes are inevitable but they don’t have to break a service department. In fact, how you handle issues defines a service superhero.
Sam Dantzler has consulted with a number of marine and powersports businesses, and he has seen first-hand that it is not about whether or not the job was done right – it’s how the customer feels about the job not being done right.
“If you take accountability and take the hit, I still want to come back to you. Obviously, I want you to do the job right but you get a lot of latitude with the mechanics of the job if the customer service is over the top,” said Dantzler.
This idea inverts itself as well. A service department can complete a job perfectly but if customers don’t like you, they won’t come back.
2. Customer-focused service writers
No one else in the dealership builds or breaks customer loyalty like the service writer, says industry expert Valerie Ziebron. With as much time as a customer spends at the service counter interacting with the service writer, it is paramount that whoever is in that position is cultivating trust.
“That person is the face of the department,” said Tom Mack, president and owner of South Shore Marine.
A service writer should have a high capacity for information and be well trained in communication. He or she must know how to ask the write questions to transfer the customer’s information to the technicians, and vice versa.
“Too many times we put emphasis on someone with technical knowledge in that position, and while that can be nice it’s more important to have someone with customer service and selling skills in that position,” said Ziebron.
A sales-focused service writer is just as beneficial to the customer as it is to the profitability of the department. Customers bring their boat to a marine dealership because they want to ensure their safety on the water.
“Sometimes our people at the service counter are afraid to sell. They see that as something that’s a disservice to the customer, when in essence it’s actually a disservice to not upsell the customer – to not tell them everything that their boat needs,” said Ziebron.
3. Use a warranty administrator
At George’s Marine & Sports, the warranty administrator is a liaison between the manufacturer and the dealership, as well as between the manufacturer and the customer. The administrator knows exactly what is going on at all times with the customer’s unit and can translate information to the customer on the status of a warranty or whether or not a repair is covered.
“Communication has got to be forefront. You have to keep the customer in the loop no matter what,” said Jeff Wilcox, president of George’s Marine & Sports.
The addition of the warranty administrator has helped customer satisfaction climb at the dealership and was named one of Boating Industry’s Best Ideas of 2014.
For Wilcox, there is no such thing as overcommunication. A service department can easily be customer-friendly through simple outreach.
“Even if it’s to call and say ‘I have no new information. I just want to reach out to you and say we haven’t forgotten,’” said Wilcox.
4. Constantly train your people
Training needs to be a top priority, according to Ziebron. It tangibly delivers dollars, customer loyalty and repeat business. The more you train your employees, the better.
Service superheroes should coach themselves on listening skills. The shop is a noisy place with any number of distractions that can take the focus away from the customer and their needs.
“We feel like we are the ones who need to be talking all of the time when we’re on the other side of the service desk, and that’s just not the way it should be,” said Ziebron, who also discussed these points during her “Turning Upset Customers Into Loyal Ones” session at the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo last November. “We should be asking good questions and the harder part is to genuinely focus on what they’re saying.”
Empathy training is also important. Service employees need to understand that the emotional part of the brain is much more powerful than the logical part. Managers should train their employees on how to start a conversation with a customer that has nothing to do with the service job, said Dantzler, and they should practice on each other regularly in the dealership.
Mack enjoys using Dale Carnegie training, which is a human relations and public speaking course. It teaches confidence with customers and co-workers, how to be more effective in your role, how to become a better leader and more.
Owners should keep a training file for all service employees, said Ziebron. This file can be an Excel spreadsheet with all of the training and certifications within the dealership and who has received them. It also helps owners work with employees on how to grow their career and show them “Here is where you’ve been, and here is where we would like to grow you.”
This is particularly significant in regards to employee turnover. The two most popular reasons people leave their jobs are a lack of training and bad management, but Dantzler said they are the same reason.
“If you don’t tell me what I am supposed to be doing and train me on how to do it, and then you’re yelling at me because I didn’t do it, I think you’re a bad manager because you didn’t train me,” said Dantzler. “Your core ESI or employee satisfaction, particularly in the service department, leads to employee turnover.”
5. Employee satisfaction fuels customer satisfaction
Employee satisfaction leads directly into customer satisfaction, said Dantzler. He discussed this trajectory heavily in his “ESI Fuels CSI” session at the MDCE. Dantzler said improving employee satisfaction is exactly the same as engaging a customer in the sales process: Get to know them on a personal level before you talk about why they are there.
“Before you ask that tech to go back to the bench and start spinning a wrench, ask him how his wife is doing. Ask him how his kid is doing,” said Dantzler. “Make the rounds as a manager and say hi to everyone in the morning before you jump into the work of the day, and that just goes so far.”
6. Outline specific job descriptions early
Employees can’t be satisfied if they don’t understand their job duties, and it breeds inefficiency in the service department.
“If there’s more than one person responsible for anything, nobody is responsible for it,” said Rob Brown, owner and general manager of Clark Marine.
Employees should be given the job description as early as possible – even before the initial interview.
“We hire them and train them up, and somewhere in the on-boarding process they get a job description, if they get one at all,” said Dantlzer.
Dantzler suggests asking interviewees to take five minutes to read over the description before the interview to make sure everyone is on the same page. Ask to get them a cup of coffee while you wait.
“Get very granular on the job descriptions. Tell [employees] exactly what is involved, not just ‘You’re going to fix some boats at an A-level rate,’” said Dantzler.
This means every single responsibility of that particular position, right down to cleaning the bathrooms once a month, needs to be included. If you start with only a portion of the required work and pile on later, that employee will feel discouraged quickly.
7. Communicate the company’s goals
Owners should be communicating what the company’s weekly, monthly and quarterly goals are and ask for employees’ input, said Ziebron. The employees’ job descriptions also need to align directly with those goals so employees can see exactly how their role plays into the overall success of the dealership.
8. Attracting and retaining young service employees
Attracting and retaining young employees is an industry-wide issue. The largest factor for being able to retain these young professionals is the existing team players and building a welcoming culture.
Over the past 18 months, Brown has hired and retained eight full-time team members with a median age of 26. Prior to these individuals coming on board, the median age of Clark Marine’s permanent staff was 49. Now it is 41.
“One of my new hires made a statement that he felt he was welcomed into the team just as though he had been here for years. He said he knew he was the low man on the totem pole but he had never been treated like he was. I thought that comment spoke volumes for my team,” said Brown.
9. Culture breeds new ideas
Service superheroes create a culture within the service department that cultivates new ideas from its employees.
“It’s the guys on the front line that are out there every day working on the boats, who are actually working within the processes set in the service department. Those are the guys that have the best ideas,” said Tim Sather, service manager at Oak Hill Marina. “You have to empower your players and you have to listen to them, and that will facilitate success.”
“When your team sees that you’re taking action on even the small things, it starts the momentum going,” said Ziebron.
South Shore Marine conducts weekly meetings, breaking down the service department into five teams based on their workload: rigging, mechanical, fiberglass, cleaning and detailing, and logistics. This allows the employees to discuss what is on their minds, praise each other for successes and offer ideas for improvement.
“When you put a bunch of people in a group, they are more hesitant to speak up. When we started doing departmental meetings where that group gets smaller, it changed everything,” said Mack. “You have to make a big deal out of it when someone shares a good idea, especially if it improves a process or saves money. People love recognition.”
“It empowers them and increases their self esteem, because ultimately they represent us when they deal with customers,” said Dani Goldenberg, CEO of Marine Connection. “We want to make them feel like they are a part of this company on a greater level. … They have the ability to impact our success.”
10. Praise and celebrate your service department frequently
Praising your service employees will breed the behaviors we want in the department. Ziebron said that dealers seem reluctant to give praise, and she is not sure if it is because they are concerned about weakening their position as the boss or they are worried employees will demand more money. Whatever the reason, she says dealers need to get over it.
“The more you notice the behavior you want, the more you’re going to get it. The more you create a vibrant energy, the more you create people who really want to come to work and pull hard for you,” said Ziebron.
At Oak Hill Marina, the team remembers to celebrate with each other, whether it’s excelling on a job, buying a new house, having a child, celebrating a birthday or anything else that is important to the employees.
“Our industry is putting heavy focus on making sure employees are fulfilled, and rightfully so,” said Sather.
11. Coaches, not “Service Managers”
One pivotal role defines the culture of the department and is responsible for the satisfaction of all service employees: the service manager. This individual sets the tone for morale.
Sather doesn’t like the word “manager” – he prefers to be called the service coach, because that is the heart of his job. It is his responsibility to facilitate conversations and to engage his team about how to improve the department.
For Brown, the defining trait of a service manager is the ability to lead, which is completely different from being a “leader.”
“If you can hire somebody who can actually lead, you have a person who has people … that want to work with them, and understand what they’re doing and are willing to follow – not because they’re told to,” said Brown.
“The service writers can dispatch the work appropriately and the technicians can turn the wrenches appropriately, but if somebody’s not holding their hands, pulling them all together and telling them ‘Atta boy’ and ‘Good job,’ then it’s just a job to everybody. It’s not a career,” said Dantzler.
Service managers build employee satisfaction in the service department but their job satisfaction is just as important. They need to be trained properly and constantly, much like how teachers and doctors are required to complete continuing education, said Dantzler.
12. Leadership defines the service department
Leaders have to coach and encourage others to follow, but they also have the responsibility of setting an example. This is particularly important for owners. If a leader has poor behaviors, the team members will have validation to do the same.
Owners should set core values and exhibit those traits every day, and to be sure the employees understand those values. They will ultimately resonate with service customers.
“If there’s any one thing we have to do, it’s that we have to be the example,” said Brown. “I think that’s a great responsibility.”
13. Understand the impact of all departments
The service employees aren’t the only ones who need to understand their importance – the rest of the dealership needs to be aware of their impact.
“Often times [the service department] is overlooked by owners, it is pushed to the back of the house,” said Dantzler. “[Owners] need to understand how important the department is to the success to the entire dealership and the other departments need to understand [as well].”
Equally, the service department has an obligation to the rest of the dealership employees to understand that without them, service doesn’t exist. Service employees should support sales at every turn.
Dantzler provided an example from the automotive industry: If a repair order on a car is estimated to cost $1,200, a customer would rather trade in for a new car than invest that money in the old car. This can be easily applied to the marine industry.
“At what point is the service department putting a flag up to the sales department, saying ‘I have a big enough repair order estimate that you might want to talk to this guy about buying a new boat.’ That’s a one-off scenario but that needs to be the norm in the service department,” said Dantzler. “There’s a lot of friction [between departments] normally. We need to grease the wheels a little bit in both directions.”
14. Use detailed scheduling processes universally
Processes define the service department and ultimately impact the customer. Using a dealer management system can drastically improve the department, but only if it is actually being used. Any system is only as good as the information that’s entered into it so everyone needs to be on board with contributing to the DMS.
“If scheduling is fuzzy, everything is fuzzy and it’s impossible for us to deliver customer service,” said Ziebron. “It’s really where a lot of internal strife and conflict comes from interdepartmentally – when we don’t have a schedule.”
15. Share tracked hours with the service team
Ziebron suggests that service departments also look at how many labor hours are on each ticket on a weekly and monthly basis, and share that information with the team. Often the service department will only complete the work the customer asks for and the customer ends up back in the service department the following week.
“A customer doesn’t buy a boat to be in the service department – they buy a boat to be on the water,” said Ziebron. “They want us to be able to catch everything when it’s there and tracking those hours per RO lets us know if our team is doing a good job of that, especially as we start getting busy. The knee jerk [reaction] can be ‘Get to the next ticket,’ but we need to slow ourselves down.”
16. “Triple Check”: Quality control on all service jobs
Marine Connection’s Quality Assured program was put in place to ensure all jobs were done properly before the boat leaves the service department. The technicians check their work, followed by a service manager inspection and ultimately completed once the operations manager reviews the job.
Goldenberg wanted to add the third step because the operations manager in his service department is responsible for all deliveries.
“If that boat gets delivered and it’s not done correctly, the delivery person faces that problem and it puts them in a very awkward situation because they don’t know what’s been done or if it’s been done properly,” said Goldenberg. “The customer is guaranteed that whoever is delivering the boats checked it and is aware of what’s been done. If something goes wrong, he can address it right there.”
17. Always be evolving
A commitment to continuous improvement is the mark of any service superhero. Just ask Brown: Clark Marine is the most recent winner of the Boating Industry Top 100 Best Service Department award. He will tell you that no matter how good you may think or be told you are, there are always holes to be filled.
“I think we would get bored if we were not constantly messing with our processes. Every time we adopt a valued change we always look at each other and say something like ‘How did we not see to do this all along?’ It’s all in the evolution,” said Brown.
Change does not have to be life altering; change can often be more appreciated in the simplest of forms.
“If it’s a little change and it really isn’t going to impact the process that great but it’s going to impact the team member and their opinion or attitude, you have to bring that into account,” said Brown. “It has to be good for everybody.”