Automotive Service Department – How to Run Yours Effectively

automotive service department

Automotive Service Department


For Subject Matter Expert and automotive service department manager Gary Fenelli and his team at family-owned Frank Toyota in San Diego, California, running an effective automotive service department is all about one thing – Service. Ranked number one out of 76 Southern California automotive dealers, Frank Automotive Group was founded in 1965 and is now in it’s third generation of family ownership. We interviewed Gary about what it takes to operate a successful business for over 50 years – advice that we hope will be helpful for any service-based business, automotive or otherwise. Here are Gary’s top 3 suggestions:

For an Effective Automotive Service Department, Hire Qualified People and Treat Them Well

Whether we’re talking mechanics, technicians, sales people or management, hiring a qualified, top-notch team is essential. What begins with the hiring process continues with an investment in quality training, which results in a high level of employee retention. Frank Toyota experiences an extremely low employee turnover because of the way in which they value and train their team. This retention in turn, allows them to provide better service to their loyal customer base.

According to Gary, “I don’t run our business – I just help steer it. Our employees run the business and do all of the heavy lifting. If I think upper management does then I’m absolutely dead wrong.” Retaining good people comes down to one thing… treating them well – with respect and dignity. “Our shop foreman is a master technician who’s been in the industry for 25 years. Many facilities have not made the investment in a quality control technician of his kind and it’s partially because of our investment in him that we’re ranked number one in Southern California. Besides our shop foreman, our service advisor has been with us for 20 years, our service manager for 25+ years, our parts manager 30+ years and our service director has been with us for 40.”

“I don’t run our business – I just help steer it. Our employees run the business and do all of the heavy lifting. If I think upper management does then I’m absolutely dead wrong.”  -Gary Fenelli

Put Efficient Systems and Processes in Place

As a large retail business and automotive service department, Frank Toyota has a lot of moving parts. To keep everything running smoothly, it’s essential to have effective processes in place and everything they do at Frank has a proven, corresponding system. For new cars fresh in from the manufacturer they perform a Pre-Delivery Inspection (PDI) – a comprehensive list of items that ensures that each vehicle is fully operational before heading to the sales lot. For used vehicles coming in from different sources, whether they be privately owned, lease trade-ins or coming in from auction, rental car companies or other dealers, each car has a Carfax run on it to show a full history of previous damage and a full 160-point inspection is performed on vehicles deemed worthy of resale. Says Fenelli, “Having an effective process is critical, and it all comes down to training your people. For example, we have a specific process for customers coming in for a mechanical problem where our service advisor comes out to check the mileage and tires and to assess the vehicle completely in order to get the full story. To gain information, we perform a multipoint inspection before we’re able to make a thorough diagnosis. It’s really no different than going to the doctor to hone in on a medical problem.”

Have Excellent People Skills and Treat Everyone With Dignity and Respect

To Gary Fenelli and his team at Frank Toyota, service has a double meaning.  According to Gary, “You have to have state of the art equipment, technology, training and personnel to deliver effective automotive service, but service doesn’t just mean servicing a car – it means serving the customer – slowing down and really listening to them. Regardless of what business we’re in, it’s real simple… we’re in the ‘people business.’ We just happen to sell rubber, metal and glass.” Treating people with dignity and respect is a top priority at Frank Toyota. “Every business has what I call ‘special customers,’ and they deserve the same respect, regardless of whether or not we can help them. Regardless of whether they’re having warranty work done or if they’re buying a new car, you need to treat every customer well. The customer needs to get exactly what they’re expectation. I want to know what their concern is so that I can find a solution.”

“Regardless of what business we’re in, it’s real simple… we’re in the people business.” – Gary Fenelli

Don’t Become Complacent

Head Coach of Northern State University, Don Meyer said, “Complacency is the forerunner of mediocrity. You can never work too hard on attitudes, effort or technique.” In our conversation with Gary Fenelli, he echoed that sentiment with a word of caution. “Don’t become complacent. This is critical. Don’t discredit what your customer is saying to you. They may not be experts in what’s going wrong with their car and they may not know the technical details, but they known the symptoms. Take their information, listen to them and don’t take a shortcut or assume a solution.” From a management standpoint, the same vigilance can be applied. “My management team meets with our service department every morning and our entire staff meets once a week, going down the line of each automotive service department to see if there’s a common thread. If there is, we can communicate to the people who are directly responsible and make changes. This requires continual education and communication.” For Gary, it’s important to continue to learn every single day. “Along the way you will make mistakes. You just have to make more right decisions than wrong ones. We have things pretty dialed, but we’re always intentionally breaking them and putting them back together to see what else we can do.”

A Proven Recipe For a Successful Automotive Service Department

According to Gary, running an effective automotive service department for over 50 years doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. “With a very complicated business like ours it’s best to keep things as simple as possible, and if you can help people get what they want, they’ll help you get what you want. If it’s good for the customer it’s good for the business, and again, no matter what business we’re in, we’re in the people business. If we maintain our focus that we’re in the people business, we’ll continue to be successful. By having the right attitude, the right people and the right commitment, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Contact an SCL Consultant Today

In a wide range of industrial sectors, if there’s metal touching metal, we’re involved. At SCL, we’re here to protect and optimize the machines that keep our country moving and we pride ourselves on providing superior logistics and solutions, extensive product and industry knowledge and total performance satisfaction for our customers. As a customer service oriented wholesale distributor, we can appreciate Gary’s words of wisdom on how he and his family have successfully operated Frank Automotive Group for over 50 years. Click here to learn more about Frank Toyota and contact an SCL consultant today for information on how we can support you with your wholesale lubricant needs.

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