Cover Story: Five easy pieces

The independent shop owner has an uncanny ability to make things work. He fosters strong relationships with customers, provides reliable service and can source an obscure part in no time. But when it comes to making peace and building bridges between the parts and service departments, many a good business owner has stumbled.

Too often, parts and service go together like oil and water. Technicians away from their stalls, parts staff ignoring the service department’s sense of urgency, poor department layout and inadequate inventory are all factors that can raise the emotional temperature. Tensions between these symbiotic departments often run high, which is costly because when working together, these two departments can reap higher profits.

Some in the industry call it the impossible dream.

But there are shops that are making it happen. Promoting open communication and getting all employees to buy in to a unified, clear business plan can bring lucrative peace between the parts and service departments.

Get started on these five steps to regaining parts and service equilibrium and see your profits leap.

Step One: Get everyone to see the big picture
If you don’t have a clearly defined and communicated business vision for employees to focus on, your staff may tend to see things their own way – and that way may be what serves their individual needs best, not necessarily what best serves the company.

As a manager, you have a unique, bird’s eye view of why your business thrives (or doesn’t) and you know the many ways departments interconnect and influence one another. But it’s not enough to be able to spot glitches and communication hang-ups; you have to be able to share your view with your staff, and have your staff communicate that view with their direct reports.

In other words, everyone needs to be held accountable for understanding and executing the mission and vision of the company.

“If I’m a parts manager and I’m being graded on how well the parts department does, I might assume that the service department is captive,” says Mark Martincic, professional advisor with Keith Ely & Associates. “If I have a technician in front of me at the counter who wants a part and the phone is ringing for an outside customer, if I don’t answer the phone, he may call someplace else. On the other hand, if I don’t take care of the technician, he can’t go anywhere else so he becomes captive.”

That bird in the bush becomes even more attractive when you know the bird in the hand isn’t going anywhere.

Rob Martin, branch manager, Midwest Wheel, Kansas City, Kan., agrees. “The service department needs to be seen as a customer, not as a separate department. If it’s not, the parts department will put the service department on the backburner.

“On the reverse side, the service department sometimes needs to have more information on the vehicle and parts that they are working on in order to give the parts department enough detail to order and lookup parts.”

By first pinpointing these tension hotspots managers can effectively address them. Identify problem areas and talk to your staff about how wrinkles in service can be smoothed.

Sometimes, employees get so focused on the performance of their own departments that they succumb to tunnel vision without even realizing that they’re missing the big picture.

“Delays at the parts counter when supplying technicians with parts can be costly,” says Jeff Bennett, assistant professor of automotive marketing at Northwood University.

For example, he says, if there are five technicians with a gross profit margin per hour of $30 each spending an hour a day waiting for parts, it would result in a $150 a day loss in gross profits, or $39,000 a year.

“The key to a successful service department is the ability to sell all the hours available in a day, every day,” says Robert Atwood, management instructor at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s Dealer Academy. “If I don’t sell parts today, I can sell them tomorrow. But when it comes to a technician’s time, if I don’t sell all the hours I have available today, I can’t carry them forward.”

Making this bottom-line argument clear to parts and service department employees helps them see that their cooperation is essential to the company’s welfare.

Step Two: Get the right people in the right positions
Most shop owners who have been in business long enough have learned the hard way that their best, brightest technician doesn’t always make the best service supervisor. Or that their most efficient parts counterperson might be a poor parts department manager. While communicating a clear business vision is a good first step toward parts and service cooperation and efficiency, if the right people in the right positions aren’t in place to follow that vision, it will fail.

It’s always best to promote from within if the right person is already on board, but it’s not worth the risk to promote an existing employee to a position for which he or she isn’t well suited. This move can breed resentment in your shop and create a dangerous ripple effect of discontent, especially considering the industry’s labor shortage and an employee’s ability to jump ship and land on his feet in your competitor’s shop.

Before moving anyone into a management position, spend time considering what skills and qualities you need in that manager. A good way to start this process is by writing a detailed job description, outlining the job specifics and the necessary experience level.

“Typically, what I advise is to look for someone who, first of all, has good character. Somebody who has management ability or experience, but not necessarily in our industry, can work out quite well,” says Martincic. “It’s a plus if they have experience in our industry or in an adjacent industry, but it’s not absolutely required.”

Martincic suggests considering a manager from another customer service-oriented business, like a department store or a restaurant. “Find someone who can deal with people, take care of customers and who can manage the numbers,” he says.

“It’s preferable to hire someone with a good attitude and work habits and train him or her rather than hire an experienced person with poor work habits or a bad attitude,” says Bennett.

When hiring a manager for either parts or service, you want to make sure he or she is a strong communicator who will be able to work with other managers and who can grasp the big picture. Find an independent thinker who can make strong decisions on behalf of the company, not just on behalf of his own department. And if your hire isn’t working out, don’t ignore the situation.

“You might hire someone who you think is perfect for the job and then, after 30 days, you realize, ‘wow, I screwed up,'” says Atwood. “The key is that if it’s not the right person, make the change before it impacts everyone.”

This can be a difficult situation to deal with, but it must be weighed against a drop in department morale or profitability just to keep one person in a position for which he isn’t suited.

Step Three: Pay like you preach
Finding the right person for the job is part – but not all – of the battle. You also must figure out how to properly motivate and pay managers to yield optimal job performance. Typically, parts and service staff are paid based on their departments’ bottom lines. Often, each employee will put the department’s gross profits first to protect his individual paycheck, which can be detrimental to overall profitability. As a general manager, you should create an incentive plan that builds cooperation and efficiency between departments.

“General management should make each department head aware of how improving communication between departments makes each department more money,” says Bennett. “You might consider developing a pay plan for parts and service management that will reward each based on the total profitability of the combined departments. This will require managers to cooperate to maximize their personal earnings, which will result in improved communication and cooperation in the total enterprise.”

Atwood sees how parts back-counter staff typically are paid as a stumbling block on the way to increased parts and service efficiency. “The parts back-counterperson is usually paid a bonus on parts sales, but if you think about it, that person doesn’t sell anything. Therefore, why don’t we change compensation?” asks Atwood.

Instead of paying back-counter parts staff a bonus on sales, he suggests paying them a bonus on hours produced in the shop. “Now that person has an incentive to get the technician his part and away from the back counter as quickly as possible,” says Atwood.

The jury is out, however, when it comes to whether or not incentives between departments should be tied together. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Martincic. “If I pay my employees across the board in both departments, some people will lay back because their efforts are only going to produce half of the incentive portion of their pay. They might think they don’t have to work as hard because they can count on the opposite manager’s work ethic.”

Actual monetary compensation should only be one tool a manager uses to motivate his staff. It can be dangerous to put too much emphasis on tied-pay plans.

“In my opinion, the monetary incentives that one person can earn needs to be left between the manager and the employee,” says Martin. “Sometimes the more someone else knows about an incentive, the more interference and conflict it can cause.”

Whether you tie together employees compensation or leave it within each department, remember that it’s not only about how an employee can maximize his pay plan, but how well he or she can fulfill job objectives.

“Goal setting, constant communication about what you’re trying to accomplish, and a clear vision and mission statement can go a long way toward making sure your employees are on target and focused,” says Martincic. “Those things can work better than any pay plan.”

Step Four: Take a critical look at shop layout
An incentive plan isn’t the only area of parts and service communication that might benefit from careful planning. There is no greater time (and monetary) drain than time wasted hunting and retrieving parts for a truck occupying a service bay. Looking closely at your shop and parts department layout, and considering how technology can expedite processes, will eliminate bottlenecks and pave the road to interdepartmental peace.

Everyone knows the perils of the back parts counter. Technicians can congregate there to catch up on news and sports scores while parts people answer phones and fill orders for non-captive customers. It’s hard to keep things moving across the counter. There’s not much a manager can do to keep staff from shooting the breeze on company time, but there are things he can do to keep technicians in service bays and parts staff attentive.

Before making any changes, spend some time determining where exactly parts and service bottlenecks are occurring. Are technicians not giving the parts department enough input so they can efficiently and effectively pull parts? Is the service department treating the parts department like a second-class customer? Are parts pickers walking long distances to pull fast-moving parts? Eliminating these common knots can reduce frustration and increase productivity.

Small physical steps can go a long distance toward achieving efficiency. Reorganizing the parts department to keep fast moving items near the service counter may be a good move for your shop. “It is nicer to have your ‘A’ parts that are smaller and fast sellers closer to the pick table,” says Martin.

“Can the back parts counterperson hand a technician a box of parts and say, ‘here, go to work,’ or does the technician have to stand there while someone walks down every aisle collecting those items?” asks Atwood. “Items used on a repetitive basis should be prepackaged. The parts manager can run a report of the 100 most frequently used parts numbers and move those close to the back parts counter. The fewer steps a parts person has to take, the faster a technician is away from the counter.”

The same theory can be applied to service stalls. Locating stalls dedicated to fast turnover jobs near the parts department to save time retrieving and delivering parts while keeping slower-moving repairs and rebuilds farther away can be another way to reduce lost time and employee frustration.

Another possible solution that’s gaining popularity in truck dealerships is to do away completely with the back parts counter. “You’re going to sell more service and parts if you can keep a technician in a stall, working on trucks,” says Martincic. “It might be better to have a communication device like a two-way radio for a technician to use in the stall to order parts, than have the parts department physically deliver parts to the bay.”

Make technology work for you; it can make a shop layout more productive and efficient.

Although many owners frown upon the time it takes to introduce new technology to a business, communication technology can be a huge time and tension saver.

“In-bay computers now make it possible for technicians to requisition parts from the service stall, which eliminates waiting at the parts counter and the resulting lost profits,” says Bennett. “If parts personnel were to deliver requested items to each stall, even more time could be saved. Many of these systems have software that is updated with improved repair procedures frequently, which technicians can use to advance their efficiency and resulting productivity.”

Be cautious, however, when purchasing new computer systems. Make sure your vendor will be available to help you navigate all the bells and whistles, not just at the time of purchase, but also on an ongoing basis.

Step Five: Make time for a barbeque
Technology, layout and pay incentives aside, an occasional lunchtime barbeque can go a long way toward solidifying workplace peace. Shop owners are operating in lean times, but that doesn’t mean a cloud must settle over your business.

Once you have a clear mission statement, get all your department heads on the same page, establish an incentive program that reflects your goals of efficiency and camaraderie and reorganize your layout for optimal efficiency, it’s time to put yourself and your staff on a preventive maintenance program and keep the doors of communication wide open.

“There has to be a good working relationship between the parts manager and the service manager,” says Atwood. “They need to have coffee every day and talk about what’s going on.”

Keeping managers on the same page is the first step to keeping departments working toward a unified objective of increased efficiency. Schedule weekly meetings and set obtainable, incremental goals that don’t overwhelm employees or make them feel that meeting your objectives will be an impossible task. Make sure your staff knows that you have an open door and value their input. This message delivered from the top will foster a spirit of open communication that permeates staff down to the most junior employee.

Establishing common goals and keeping them at the forefront of your daily operations provides a focal point for your business. Look for opportunities for parts and service department staff to interact and get to know one another. An occasional social event at work can dispel animosity and tension, helping employees to stand in their coworkers’ shoes.

“Leadership is earned by example, not assigned because of a title,” says Bennett. “Managers should get to know those they lead and each team member should understand that they are part of a shop community. Managers should make sure that each employee knows that there are no unimportant jobs.”

Paying attention to individual pieces of the parts and service department, while not losing sight of the big picture, can require delicacy. But the rewards – both in terms of avoiding personnel headaches and gaining larger profits – are well worth putting the puzzle together.

Three E’s of a Good Manager
Many hours of research have been spent trying to whittle down a set of personality traits that guarantee a successful management career. While experts don’t agree on all the habits, most concur that finding a candidate who embodies the following three E’s is a good bet.

  • Empathy: Empathy, or the ability to identify with another’s feelings and put oneself in another’s shoes, is a key management characteristic. Psychologists have found that employees have an easier time trusting empathetic managers. They spend less time questioning their motives and more time working with them to accomplish shared goals.
  • Emotional stability: The parts and service departments both can be high pressure work environments. The ability to keep cool under fire while imparting a sense of calm in the midst of chaos is a priceless trait in a manager. You don’t want a volatile personality who can’t leave personal issues at the door in either of these important positions. Panic and frustration spread quickly.
  • Enthusiasm: Find a person who can get excited about his job and you’ll find that his enthusiasm is infectious. This isn’t to say that a good manager is always sunny, but someone who likes what they do will be able to show others how their roles in the company also are valuable.

Keeping the Peace Between Generations
It’s no secret that the trucking industry is aging. Distributors are fighting tooth and nail to bring young people into their shops, but once they arrive, there are other battles to fight.

Sometimes experienced older staffers will regard these new arrivals with skepticism. Conversely, young entry-level employees may show little patience with an older generation’s potential lack of computer knowledge. One way to curb these tensions before they grow is by setting up a mentorship program.

“I don’t care what industry we’re talking about, the younger person seems to be more computer savvy than the older person,” says Robert Atwood, management instructor at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s Dealer Academy. “And that older technician might be one hell of a technician, but unless he truly understands the value of a computer in diagnostics, he’s going to be wasting a lot of time.

“What works is to take a young person who’s computer savvy and pair him with one of the older technicians who is extremely knowledgeable. Then they can learn from one another.”

Internet Guide
To help you find aftermarket products and services online from leading suppliers in the heavy-duty industry, Truck Parts & Service offers this listing of companies that have websites.

Alliance Brand Parts
Daimler Trucks
North America LLC

Allison Transmission

ArvinMeritor, Inc.

Av-Tekk/Diesel Injection Service

AxleTech International

Bee Line Co. Inc.

Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems

BorgWarner Turbo Systems


Chevron Products Company

Cummins, Inc.

Dana Heavy Vehicle Technologies & Systems Service


Eaton Corp.

Gates Corp.

Grote Industries



Hunter Engineering Co.


Karmak, Inc.

Luber-finer/Champion Laboratories

Mahle Clevite

NTN Bearing

Old World Industries

Peterson Mfg. Co.


Shell Lubricants

Spray Control Systems

Tracer Products

VIPAR Heavy Duty

Whelen Engineering


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