Are rigid business practices too brittle for the times?

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It just doesn’t pay to be rigid these days. One needs to be flexible to adapt to the changes in this sour market, to meet the demands of the workplace and to wear the many hats required to cover the bases now vacated by our long-lost coworkers. Even technical schools are flexing their programs to better prepare their graduates for the lean business climate they’ll soon confront.

Last March I had the opportunity to serve on the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute’s Program Advisory Committee (PAC). This year, PAC consisted of representatives from the Japanese manufacturers and Harley-Davidson, two dealers (metric and H-D), an independent owner and myself. Our charge was to observe MMI’s entry-level training and provide feedback on what works and what needs work. MMI has been training motorcycle technicians for almost 40 years now, and PAC has been providing input for at least the last 10.

At one point during our two-day session, we received a presentation by MMI staff that included an update on its 2010 enrollments. MMI estimates around 2,500 students will flow through its campuses this year. That’s a lot of people who’ll want employment in this tight labor market. To meet this challenge, MMI created what it calls clinic 7B. Over the span of three weeks, student learn the day-to-day processes and procedures of the parts and service departments. They practice using MMI’s computer stations, running Lightspeed and Talon, two of the biggest names in dealer management systems. It’s an excellent introduction that reduces graduate shock of transitioning from school to the workplace.

Students also role-play customer scenarios in 7B to get the feel for what it takes to interview customers, write repair orders and deal with dissatisfied owners. It’s common-sense training, and MMI’s students were gaining flexibility from this experience. They understand that to increase their hireability, they need to be more flexible in the positions they apply for. It doesn’t make sense to pigeonhole themselves by applying only for a tech position. They understand their No. 1 goal should be to get a job in the motorcycle industry first, and then lobby months later for the job they’re more interested in.

I should also mention that the PowerSport Institute (PSI) in Cleveland provides business process training in their courses. PSI does so by assigning students to the role of service manager, service writer, parts-to-service liaison or technician on a rotating basis, day to day, so all students experience these duties firsthand.

What does this mean to you? For one, if you’re an owner you now know that the MMI and PSI grad that comes knocking on your door next week has more experience and potential than just twisting wrenches. Combined with their previous job experience, they may be well-suited to work a parts counter, parts-to-service desk, service counter or even the motorcycle sales floor. In any case, owners will typically encounter a graduate who is excited and appreciative about the opportunity to work in the industry, and who is well-schooled in the technical workings of his or her chosen motorcycle brand. (Side note: I’m sure that just about every other technical training institute in the U.S. prepares their graduates for duties such as service writer, parts-to-service liaison, etc.; I simply didn’t have time to contact every school.)

For employees, the idea of flexibility should enlighten them to consider that in this crappy economy, when it comes to staffing, shops will keep the best and fire the rest. Employees should ask themselves, “If I were the boss and needed to shrink staff, would I keep the employee who can work one area of the store or the employee who can handle multiple positions?” It seems clear to me that the flexible employee wins hands down and that if it’s not too late, employees should let their managers know they are ready, willing and able to take on any challenge in any department that needs help.

Additionally, I believe store management would be wise to consider ideas such as flex hours. It’s good for employees who have kids to parent after school, and it provides a way to cover a longer workday that’s appealing to customers. Shops should be able to do this without overtime pay. I mention this because I know of a few dealerships that are closing early (5 p.m.) to reduce expenses. A smarter idea might be to flex staff hours so the store is open longer to catch all the customers they can.

Other examples of being flexible might mean adjusting to a trend, such as reducing inventory in dirtbike accessories, and increasing the display of cruiser accessories; even if cruisers aren’t the store’s thing. It’s about flexing product focus to adapt to the herd. In service, it could mean starting a pickup-and-delivery service or if you already provide this service, expanding your coverage area. It might mean trying some of the successful practices of Harley-Davidson dealers, who have gotten very adept at attracting customers through regular events and seminars. If you’re a metric dealer, there’s no shame in doing what the Harley dealers do. Desperate times require desperate measures.

It all comes down to being flexible enough to make consistent and incremental sales to make up for the drop in unit sales. Yes, the times have changed. We all need to be more flexible to bend to the market and not break under its pressure.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2010 issue.