Expanding operating hours is one way to make dealership service more convenient for customers. Another way is to allow customers to drop off and pick up their vehicles after business hours.

The Service Express 24 key system allows that, according to its manufacturer, Spectrum Composites Inc. (SCI) of Troy, MI.

"Consumers today have a broad range of choices where to service their vehicles," says SCI Vice President Mac McCabe. "Service Express 24 can give service facilities a competitive advantage through increased customer satisfaction. If you look at the process from the customers' point of view, they will reward you with repeat business and positive referrals."

Service Express 24 is an all-weather, ATM-like system that gives service facilities the ability to securely deliver as well as to collect vehicle keys at any time.

"What drove me to try the machine was I had an early-bird customer's LHS stolen and taken for a joyride," says Steven Luckhardt, service and parts director at Naylor Motors in Ann Arbor, MI. "It cost me $10,000."

Mr. Luckhardt says Naylor Motors has had a Service Express 24 unit since April and 10% of his customers use it on a daily basis. "They absolutely love it," he adds.

Here's how it works:

A customer pulls up, fills out an envelope, inserts his or her vehicle key into the envelope and drops it into the system's slot. This could be either the night before or in the morning before the service department opens.

When the store opens, the service advisor calls the customer with an estimate. "We recommend the dealership service advisor offer the customer the express pick up option either when they come in with the car or on the phone if they used the system to drop off their keys," says Chris Batts, SCI's Service Express 24 project leader.

The customers pay with their credit card and are issued a five-digit personal identification number (PIN). The advisor calls the customers when the service is complete and they can pick the vehicle up whenever they want, using the PIN to obtain the keys.

"We use it more and more each day," explains Mr. Luckhardt. "We couple it with an express check out service where we keep the customer's credit card number of file. They never have to go to the cashier's window and it decreases traffic at the cashier's window. It works."

"Most people want to get their car and get out of there," says Mr. Batts. "You want to make it easy for your customers to do business with you."

CSI estimates the pick up transaction time at less than 10 seconds. In addition to express vehicle drop off and pickup for the service department, the unit can be used for loaner vehicles, unattended valet service or pool cars.

"Since the primary motivator for today's customer is convenience, service operations must respond to these customer needs," says Tom Kenny, president of Spectrum Composites. "If you don't service your customers, someone else will. Vehicle service is going 24-7 because that's what the customer wants."

Models are available in six-, 20-, 30- and 40-key configurations and range in price from $2,985 to $6,020. Options include a canopy, remote hand-held programming terminal and printer.

The system can be mounted on nearly any brick, masonry or reinforced steel wall.

CSI says software logs all transactions for auditing and provides customer satisfaction surveys.

Pilot models started appearing in dealerships in January and 12 currently are in the field.

"We've just wrapped up the pilot phase and now we're in production mode," says Mr. Batts who says he hope to get 200 units into operation during the next 12 to 13 months.

SPX Corp's Service Solutions unit offers a special tool-buying discount program exclusively for the Service Technicians Society's 6,500 members.

Technicians get a 10% discount on OEM approved special service tools from Kent-Moore, OTC and Miller.

"Technicians are important customers for SPX, and this shows our appreciation for their continued loyalty," says SPX Marketing Manager Tom Fisher.

He says the program will ease the burden of reinvesting money in the latest tools of the trade to stay competitive.

Dealers should work with their manufacturers' warranty representatives to avoid or lessen the negative effects of a warranty audit, says CPA Carl Woodward of Woodward & Assoc.

Retailers should meet with these factory representatives to find out the areas that their dealership might be "high" in warranty claim expenses.

Dealers that have a continuing above average amount of warranty claims/dollars can expect to be audited by their factory. An above average amount of warranty could fall into some of the following categories:

* Above average number of claims for each vehicle sold.

* Above average dollar amount per claim.

* Above average number of claims in certain repair areas such as transmissions.

* Factory computer detects possible mileage alterations.

The dealership principal also should meet with all service administrators at least once a year to let them know that the he or she expects them to follow honest warranty procedures as best they can.

Recently one of the dealers who works with Woodward & Assoc. had a warranty audit. Below are some of the chargeback areas in order of the highest to lowest error rate.

Labor time on warranty claim not supported due to a lack of adequate records.

Repair not covered under factory warranty manual.

Mileage inaccurate. This makes the dealership look dishonest even though it was only one service writer performing this without anyone's approval.

Labor repair efficiency.

Add-on operations not properly documented and/or approved.

Warranty repair orders missing and not available.

"We find the factories are flexible, when asked, in trying to take care of the customer that has an exemption in the warranty area," says Mr. Woodward. "Some employees, however, are just too lazy to take the time to have someone call the factory to approve an exemption.