James is a sales executive. He knows how to qualify the customer’s needs, make the offer sparkle and close the deal.
James is also a technician. He knows every step needed to replace a pair of brake discs within the time allowed.
Yet James is also a customer service specialist. He’s aware that keeping the customer happy will keep them coming back to spend more.
James, or his equivalent, works for you. You’ll find him behind the service reception desk.
Such diversity of tasks – the friendly host, the profit generator, the peacekeeper – all combine to make service reception such a challenging role, one that demands high standards and which, according to some in the industry, is insufficiently rewarded.
A poll at AM-online.com found that one in four dealers still pays service receptionists a salary less than £15,000, and one in three pays between £15,000 and £20,000.
At Fiat dealership Corts, managing director Richard Cort rewards service advisers with a salary in excess of £20,000 plus a car as he believes it is the most important role in providing an experience that keeps customers coming back, as well as generating additional revenue from the workshop.
Yet although Cort’s service receptionists are incentivised on their performance, he is uncomfortable with upselling extra maintenance. “Either it needs doing or it doesn’t,” he added.
“They can make or break a sale. They’re the continuous contact with the customer for the next three years, so if the customer is treated correctly and is kept in touch with, they will trust the business and come back next time.”
Steve Jellis, aftersales director at Mazda UK, agrees that it is a role which has to have the right calibre of person and reward.
“The service adviser now has the most face time with the customer and shouldn’t that be recognised in their salary? They must be customer-orientated.
Looking at the customer and smiling from time to time really makes the difference. It might be just five minutes with them when they come to pick up the keys, but those five minutes can be crucial.”
High-performing service advisers will ask questions about the customers’ needs, not just focus on the car.
So what is key to finding the right service advisers? There is no easy solution, according to Keith Kingham.
He relies on word-of-mouth for finding staff for his franchised dealership, Kinghams of Croydon, which came top for customer satisfaction in Motor Codes’ Golden Garages competition.
One of his service advisers had previously trained and worked in the hotel industry.
“I think each recruit is a case-by-case basis. You can’t generalise and say it’s best to find people from outside the industry or from within, it all depends on the person,” he said.
One aspect vital to keeping good quality staff is providing the right quality training and support for the team on the service desk, said Kingham.
Even though he’s the managing director, he will join in answering phones and greeting visitors when the team is already occupied.
He also empowers his staff to deal with any customer grievances before they become serious issues and will step in personally as necessary.
It’s an example which many dealer principals could follow.
Research by Castrol Professional, the dealer support arm of the oil supplier, found that one in two service advisers receive fewer than five days of training per year and one in five receive less than two days training.
Dealers also point out that service adviser training arranged by their manufacturer partners is often focused on technical aspects and dealership systems, rather than complaints handling and selling skills.
As a result, Castrol found, the service advisers who received the least training felt dissatisfied with their job, while those with the most training felt rewarded and were motivated to upsell.
Russell Stanley, Castrol franchised workshop and OEM marketing activation manager for UK & Ireland, said: “The improved reliability and extended service intervals on modern cars has meant that customers are visiting their dealership less frequently.
“As most customers’ main point of contact for the dealership, it is imperative that service reception staff present a professional image of the business.
“But service reception staff are expected to fulfil a demanding and multi-faceted role, often with little or no training.”
Independent coaching company Symco Training recently surveyed service advisers about the aspects of their role.
Three in four answered that they did not see themselves as salespeople.
That’s a statistic which Symco managing director Simon Bowkett found shocking, considering that in an average workshop a service adviser could be responsible for generating around £1,700 gross profit per day for the business.
Bowkett suggests that sales training is as important for service advisers as it is for car sales executives.
They need the skills to offer products to customers, to promote the benefits and to handle objections and maintain cust-omer satisfaction.
“We need to make sure they offer every product to every customer every time,” Bowkett said.
“It allows the customer to make an educated decision about what they want rather than take an ignorant risk.”
Nevertheless, dealers must be cautious “not to over-egg it” and make the customer feel they’re being taken for a ride.
One issue the industry has to tackle is that recruits with a drive to sell are more likely to be attracted by the much higher earnings achievable in the car sales department.
However, Bowkett believes some dealers are too quick to fire under-performing car sales executives, when these could be redeployed onto the service reception desk where they can still use their selling skills.
And does it really matter whether the service reception area has the latest newspapers, premium brand coffee and a basket of fruit?
If the service receptionist hasn’t got the right attitude towards the cust-omer, then most agree certainly not.
Russell Stanley of Castrol warned: “There’s an expectation, particularly within premium brands, that there is a set format for that customer interaction to take, in a specific corporate identity.
"It has its place, but if it’s not supplemented by staff with the right attitude and the correct approach it will not work fully.
“Look at the loyalty enjoyed by certain independents, they don’t have polished customer areas but they still get those customers coming back because they have the personal touch.”
Case study: Mon Motors Group
Daryl Kirk, group aftersales manager at Mon Motors Group in Wales and western England, explained how the business had taken an innovative approach to developing service reception staff and boosting their performance.
“In January 2007 Mon Motors established a guild for all of the service advisers across the group.
“This league table allows staff to monitor their upselling performance in relation to their peers’, with prizes awarded on a regular basis.
To help service reception staff to improve their position in the guild, and consequently the performance of the whole department, we placed many staff members on Castrol Professional’s Red Carpet training programme.
“Feedback on the course from service advisers was unanimously positive.
"All those who took part said that it was better than any course they had attended in both its content – which was specifically tailored to their role – and the way it is delivered in short, high impact modules, given on-site at the dealership.
“In addition to the positive feedback from service staff, we have seen real improvements in individual performances.
"Of those staff who have undergone the course, there has been substantial movement upwards in the guild tables.
“The training has had a clear and positive impact both to individual performance and department profits.”
At AM’s latest roundtable in Woking, dealers agreed that the role of a service receptionist sets the tone for the whole dealership and they should be given more attention.
Richard Roberts, Trident Garages managing director, said: “Traditionally service receptionists are not that sales savvy, but they should be.”
Kevin Parrington, owner of his own independent used car and servicing site, believes a bad service receptionist can ruin an entire business if the right person isn’t picked for the job.
Roberts believes service receptionists are underpaid nationally.
All dealers at the AM Roundtable paid their service receptionist above £24,000 a year, with most giving bonuses on top of that.
Martin Boon, Cambria Auto-mobiles’ group finance and insurance director, said it was important service receptionists could engage emotionally with customers.
He said: “There’s a counselling element in their job role. It can be a shock to customers when the bill is delivered, even if they’ve already approved the work to be done. It’s a distress purchase.
“If that situation is handled correctly a relationship can be built and trust will follow as a result.
"Service receptionists often have to do all this with an audience too, so it can be much more difficult than what a sales executive has to deal with.”