Service advisor Sandi Nguyen of Courtesy Toyota in Tampa, FL, spots a white-haired woman stepping out of her blue Camry and planting her four-pronged cane on the service-lane floor.

Clipboard in hand, Nguyen escorts the oldster to an air-conditioned service lounge, offers her a seat and asks her what needs to be done for her vehicle.

Oil change? Why not review the printed service menu, suggests Nguyen who keeps several at hand. The customer reviews options for tire balancing and rotation, tune-up and detailing, while Nguyen records mileage and vehicle information, returns to the lounge, offers a free snack and finalizes the write-up.

Nguyen promises the $24.99 oil change with factory filters will be ready in 30 minutes or the customer gets her money back. She beams at the customer and dashes off to the next appointment.

“Our advisors write up every vehicle with a clipboard on the service driveway or in the customer lounge,” says Bradley Schafer, Courtesy's service director. “There is no reason for the customer to go into their small confined offices; I call them vaults.”

With $6 million in service department labor sales, Schafer recognizes Nguyen and eight other service advisors are the ambassadors of the dealership. Greeters stuff their clipboards with daily specials and menus to help reduce the load of 130 repair orders a day.

Schafer notes the repair order count is up 27.9% in first-quarter 2006 over the same period in 2005, largely because of over-the-top courtesy processes at Courtesy Toyota, part of the Asbury Automotive chain.

The dealership is doing something others can emulate, says Dick Kelly, a spokesman for Toyota's Southeast region.

Courtesy ranks among Toyota's top 50 in all operations among all 1,300 franchises. It is a 10-time winner of Toyota's President's Award for excellence, despite an ever-increasing supply of customers.

What is good news for Toyota (sales increasing 300-400 cars a year at large dealerships) is an added burden for service departments that must scramble to better utilize space and handle more customers. Schafer came from another dealership 16 months ago to meet the challenge.

He promptly hired Joyce Miller as customer-service manager, promoted Nguyen from cashier to service advisor and converted all nine advisors to a system where by 33% of their pay is based on Toyota's report on customer satisfaction surveys.

The advisors earn $40,000 to $100,000 a year. “Advisors won't stay here if they remain at the low end of the pay scale. We know it is a stressful job, but we expect excellence,” says Schafer

He meets twice a month with the advisor and greeter team for 60-90 minutes on a wide range of issues. “We listen and talk as a group because collaborative leadership works best in the long run,” Schafer says.

Wayne Phillips, a National Automotive Dealers Assn. 20-group leader and a former Ford-Volkswagen-Subaru dealer, suggests the first car a customer buys may come from marketing, but long-term loyalty is made or broken in the service lanes.

“It isn't about price; the bigger issues are trust and satisfaction,” says Phillips. “The better stores have wireless Internet hookups, sodas, donuts, snacks in the customer lounge. They meet the completion time as promised or give a customer a loaner.”

Dealerships compete with storefront oil-change shops and tire centers that might be located closer to a customer's home. But dealerships can offer more, including effective service advisors, says Phillips.

“Smart service directors are re-emphasizing the role of advisors,” he says. “On average, they produce more gross sales than any employee in the dealership.

“If they become the consultant who promises to prolong the life of the car or keeps the vehicle from breaking down on a lonely road, the customers will drive across town to maintain that relationship,” he says.

When the work on the elderly woman's car is complete, Nguyen meets her with a fresh smile. She sits next to her and announces that besides the oil change, a seat-belt problem was fixed, eliminating a second visit. She take the credit card and runs it up to the cashier, saving the woman the trip. Then Nguyen escorts her to a washed, waiting Camry.

Some days the team takes its lumps. But kindness usually wins the day, says Nguyen.

“Everything we can do to make the transaction easier for customers we do. Customers are our most important asset,” Nguyen says. “I like helping people. This is the best job I've ever had.”

Good Service Advisors Need These Skills

What skills are important for an advisor? The California Occupational Guides list these assets:
  • Troubleshooting. Determining causes of operating errors and deciding what to do about them.
  • Reading comprehension. Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.
  • Writing. Communicating effectively in writing, as appropriate for the needs of the person who will read it.
  • Speaking. Verbalizing information effectively.
  • Active listening. Giving full attention to what someone is saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions when appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.