OEM service tech training can improve dealer profits

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Service tech training is a necessary evil to some dealers, and the various OEMs understand this. Each OEM constantly refines technician training efforts to improve its dealer network and make the most of new technology.

Many of the OEMs contacted by Dealernews seem to be making major investments when it comes to providing service training at the dealer level. We talked with representatives from Honda and Yamaha, and then Ducati, Piaggio and Triumph from the transatlantic side of the business. We queried each OEM on a range of topics, such as basic and continuing tech certification, in-the-field dealer support, new technologies such as computerized tools and web-based training, and key areas of focus in the coming months.

Computerized diagnostic tools are now required by most brands. Just a few years ago, computerized service tools were only required by a few manufacturers and were being slowly integrated by others. Today, every brand has its own system, from the diagnostic systems Ducati and Honda use to Triumph’s laptop-based service program and the Piaggio Group’s new Bluetooth-equipped Navigator.

In each case, the computer diagnostic system enables technicians to monitor, tune and reset a variety of parameters, such as EFI, braking and security systems. Data logging ability helps techs track down potential problems.

The proliferation of computerized tools might have required some technicians to warm to the new technology, but resistance is futile as computers play a larger and larger role in service. “With any vehicle, car or motorcycle, you have to be adept at using the tools that are available,” said Austin Gray, technical director at Ducati North America. “The DDS is like any other critical tool; it’s there to make the technician’s life easier.”

Ducati is on the verge of releasing version 2.0 of its DDS, primarily because the continuing advancement of motorcycle technology is utilizing more and more parameters, outpacing the older system’s ability to adjust them.

Piaggio Group’s new Navigator system uses wireless technology to connect the motorcycle to a technician’s laptop or desktop computer.

With more advanced engine control units and fuel injection systems becoming common, rider interaction will take advantage of these electronics soon. Triumph uses a version of its customer diagnostic system for its racing programs, and Aprilia has come a long way from the days when techs used to tune Mille superbikes using a Nintendo Gameboy adapter. While this next boom in bike tech is still top secret, Piaggio Group America’s director of technical services Erik Larson gives a direct hint: “There’s an App for that.”

Compared to advanced ECUs, technician training and certification is still a relatively simply affair. Most OEMs continue to use tiered levels of certification for the technicians. Each brand uses its own qualifications and testing methods, of course, but the end result is a standardized certification level within the brand. Whether it is Honda’s Bronze/Silver/Red qualifications or Ducati’s Level 1,2 and 3 tiers, each system allows OEMs and dealers to know where an individual technician’s abilities stand within the brand.

It also allows a canny dealer to market his dealership on the certification strengths of its technicians.

Across the industry, each OEM does its best to ensure training class availability and flexibility for dealers. “Even though we’ve moved into an age where everything is available online, nothing replaces the hands-on classroom training from someone who knows the product,” said Piaggio’s Larson.

But some OEMs are going beyond basic service training. Yamaha, in order to foster competition and aspiration in technicians, holds its U.S. Technician Grand Prix, where top-scoring service techs compete to become the best wrench in the OEM’s dealer network.

In another example, Ducati North America wanted to make sure that its dealer network was fully prepared as the brand continues to launch a variety of high-tech new models. To that end the OEM held a record 48 weeks of training in 2010, during which Ducati retrained its entire dealer network. Ducati also offers its Level 3 training program, which consists of several modules focused on specific topics such as engine blueprinting or Öhlins suspension. The aim is to put top-level tuning ability into the hands of Ducati dealers to offer high-end customers the ultimate in servicing and tuning options.

When it comes to bringing training to dealers outside of the normal classroom environment, many OEMs are taking advantage of the flexibility of the Web. Most brands offer basic entry-level training or specific model update training via the Internet.

A specific example concerns Aprilia’s latest superbike, the RSV4. The machine required classroom training for technicians before the model even hit dealerships. With the new APRC version launching now (mainly differentiated by the advanced engine electronics such as launch and traction control), techs are only required to study the tech-y electronic upgrades via remote training.

Triumph America is unusual in that many brand-wide initiatives such as marketing programs are created in-house at Triumph U.K. This includes video training in progress for Triumph America. By having a centrally developed curriculum, Triumph America is freed from having to create those materials on its own, and the brand remains consistent from market to market around the world. Ducati North America is also incorporating a similar system from parent company Ducati Motor Holding.

Sometimes the Internet isn’t enough to get a problem sorted, and a dealer may require an on-site visit from the OEM’s service representatives. Compared to the near-universal adaptation of remote training and various brands' intranets, OEMs are all over the board when it comes to making house calls. Honda maintains a fleet of district service managers for this purpose, but smaller brands have to make due with smaller sets of manpower.

According to Piaggio’s Larson, “Our tech reps handle different sections of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. One of the things we’re working to improve is to spend more face time with dealers, and that’s a major goal for us, but as a small company with a wide range of products, that’s a challenge. After all, we’re basically three companies but staffed as one.”

Triumph faces similar issues but utilizes technology to minimize potential issues. According to Scott Callander, after-sales manager for Triumph Motorcycles America, the OEM is not able to dispatch service reps for retraining on a specific issue at a dealership; however, its latest diagnostic system allows Triumph’s technical service representatives to remotely log in and help diagnose the machine -- in effect performing hands-on service assistance with the dealership’s technician via the Internet.

Dealerships are now trying to step up their service department’s training from a sales perspective. Many dealers keep their technicians updated with the latest tools and techniques, but don’t do the same for the department as a whole -- saleswise.

Several OEMs already train dealership service personnel with the skills to grow their departments' sales figures. Honda helps its dealers turn service departments into profit centers with tips and tools on the company intranet to help develop service business and planning. Triumph incorporates a segment in classroom sessions dedicated to service writer and manager training, focusing upon best practices, workflow management and upselling. Finally, Ducati also runs service writer/manager training courses designed to grow a service department once the techs are in place.

According to Austin Gray, Ducati North America’s technical director, the auto industry is one place to look for inspiration on setting up a service department. “We benchmark against all other service providers,” Austin said. “A lot of it is process-based, and the auto industry figured this out many years ago.”

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