Ideas for Your Service Department

Editor's note: The article below appears on page 66 of the May issue of Dealernews.

Many dealers neglected their service department during the euphoric years of double-digit sales growth. But stores with solid service departments tend to endure. As sales decline, any dealer would be smart to beef up in this area. The market is shifting toward used vehicles in need of TLC. What's more, a great service department retains customers and can capture market share from discounters that rode the new-unit wave. Take care of these converts, and they'll be around to buy from you when the economy rebounds.

Dealernews researched the 2008 Top 100 dealers to see how they run their service departments. Following are trends and ideas to discuss with your service manager.

Clean, Organized, Modern
Top 100 service departments are clean, well-lit and organized, and meet OSHA and EPA standards. They sometimes have central heat and air, and maybe heated floors. Often employees wear uniforms or specialty shirts, and have a locker room, a break room and their own restroom, keeping the public ones cleaner. Either overhead hoses or oversized fans evacuate fumes. As much as possible, the equipment at each service bay is the same — uniformity just looks better.

Top 100 dealers continually invest in equipment, including wireless diagnostic tools and a modern dyno. Many have bought the dyno upgrades necessary to test side-by-sides, and have obtained an eddy current absorber module so that they can recreate real-world conditions when mapping fuel-injected bikes. Dynos allow shops to test ride service units even during nasty weather. Some stores let customers watch how their bike performs on a computer screen, proving to them the worth of the accessories they just bought.

The departments are segmented. Special tools are kept in one area or room. This machine room (the dirty room, as one dealer calls it) keeps messes contained. Technicians at one store pick up fluids at a centralized "oil bar." Some stores have an area with smaller lifts for quick jobs. Assembly of new units is often done in the storage area or warehouse. Some stores have a battery room dedicated to activating them. Most Top 100 retailers also have an indoor wash bay with hot and cold water running through a pressurized washer. Outside may be a covered PWC test tank or an off-road test track. Some stores have a separate speed shop that does engine, suspension and chassis work, and a few mention a separate collision repair center.

Some stores have a technician's library with manuals, microfiche, telephones and computers. Others decrease waiting time by equipping each bay with its own laptop and phone. Many stores have converted to an electronic scheduler to improve service flow, and computers allow techs to punch in and out of jobs.

Most of the time, technicians have two lifts: a working lift and one for vehicles awaiting parts or customer approval. They also have a tear-down bench or racks, as well as floor mats. Techs may also have access to overhead hoists or a large crane.

Each technician is fully certified for each of the store's brands, or is working toward full factory certification. They continually participate in OEM training, whether it's on the computer or off-site. Many have attended trade schools. The dealership pays for all training and related travel. Training can be quite cumbersome for multiline dealers, but they excel at it anyway.

Most Top 100 shops pay their higher-level techs a flat rate to encourage a decent rate of speed. But at least one store said it pays all technicians based on billed hours. Many dealers mention incentive plans, both on department and individual levels, based on productivity, CSI scores, and levels of certification.

The stores don't lay off staff in the slow season; they create stuff for them to do. Technicians build trikes or customize bikes, recondition used bikes, or work on engine and suspension upgrades sold at a seasonal discount.

Works Well With Others
Top 100 service departments are fully integrated within the store. They are usually next to the parts department and have access to their own parts counter or a parts-to-service window. Many stores employ a dedicated parts-to-service liaison.

Prepaid maintenance is the link between service and F&I. OEM, aftermarket or in-house priority plans offer things like ID cards, a 50 percent discount on scheduled service, free unlimited oil changes, locked-in service rates, same-day service on basic maintenance, coupons, free seminars, free weekday rentals, free 10-point pre-trip checkups, scheduled maintenance within 48 hours of a call, free towing, a full tank of gas with every visit, and a lifetime battery warranty. Service departments also do their fair share of product selling. Write-up areas often display accessories that can be installed for free. One dealership displays accessorized motorcycles in the area. Another, tires. Yet another displays on its walls apparel that is available for sale in the P&A department. Displays in the service department make sense because some customers rarely go into the rest of the store. Besides, why not make use of the space?

Communication with the rest of the dealership is a must. Service departments usually meet weekly, the manager meets with the other managers monthly, and quarterly all-staff meetings seem to be the norm.

Treats Customers Like Gods
Top 100 dealerships make it easy for customers to get in and out. A service entrance is inside the store, but an exterior overhead door (often with an awning) and service-only parking (with room for trailers and trucks) allow customers to avoid crowds. Customers often ride right up to the service writer area. Several shops have electric garage doors that open automatically. An in-floor platform lift or a dock or ramp (maybe hydraulic) is there for unloading and loading. Almost all stores offer a free pickup and delivery service within a reasonable range. Some offer self-service express check-in. Store Web sites allow customers to schedule appointments and make requests.

When receiving a bike, the service writer does a routine inspection, records the VIN and checks for any recalls. The repair order is thorough. When delivering a bike, he does a complete walk-around and explains what was done.

The department is clearly labeled "Service," maybe in neon. The service counter is always clean, and some shops have realized it's better to have a few short counters instead of one long one, bringing down the barrier between employee and customer. Hours and the labor rate are clearly displayed. Located on or behind the service counters are awards, certificates and plaques.

Top 100 service departments let customers see what's going on. Large windows and double glass doors, and even glass walls, are common.

Stores in highly seasonal areas often have extended service hours in the off-season, even if they're unofficial. One store reports that its service staff often chooses to work from 8 a.m. to midnight finishing up on travelers' bikes.

Many stores offer roadside assistance and loaner bikes (often rental and demo bikes), with some offering the latter only to previous new-bike customers. Most stores wash every bike serviced for free, and several detail them for free, though most charge a nominal fee. In cold climates they offer winterization and summerization, and winter storage when they have the space.

When applicable, the technicians are certified to do state safety inspections, which are often free. This allows customers to buy a bike and get inspected at the same location.

Top 100 retailers have a customer lounge that acts as a home away from home. They dress up their lounges with a fancy TV, free coffee and popcorn, reading materials, vending machines, video games, wi-fi, Internet docks (maybe even with computers), pool tables, and other amenities. Leather chairs and couches are popular for their comfort and durability. Sometimes video displays in the lounges show the performance output measured by the store's dyno in real time. Top 100 dealers know that if they make the lounge comfortable enough, service customers may just make it a regular hangout. They may even bring their friends.

See how you stack up against the Top 100. Click here to see 100 Ideas From the Top 100, a Dealernews online exclusive.