THE SERVICE WRITER IS ONE OF THE MOST UNDERrated positions in the dealership. It's also a job that requires great communications skills, but not enough dealerships foster that.

This sensitive job, if mishandled, can create serious problems for everyone in the store. Conversely, well-trained and competent service writers contribute greatly to the dealership's bottom line and customer relations efforts.

The service writer is usually the first person with whom the customer comes into contact (after the euphoria of the new-vehicle delivery) or is the first person the new service customer meets. It's an important job.

Compensation plans for service writers must be thought out. It's important that the plan provides incentives to motivate the writer's efforts to turn a service department profit while satisfying the customer.

New customers' first impressions of the dealership service department often determine the customers' future relationships with the store.

This first encounter can permanently establish the quality of the customer/dealer relationship. The frenetic daily pace of a typical dealership's service department permits little communications training, especially if the training lacks a perceptible profit orientation. Typical service writers are trained to be pleasant and sell work for which they are rewarded with bonuses and commissions.

Training in communication skills should be a major priority. But, too often the service writer's communication efforts involve offering lip service, putting out fires and maintaining a peaceful coexistence with aggressive flat-rate technicians.

The most important function of a service writer is to listen to customer needs, and to ensure that the repair orders reflect those needs. That sets the stage for a satisfactory repair on the first try.

It's difficult enough to get things straight in a dialogue between only two people. In some service departments, the customers' needs may be routed through as many as three or four parties. Is it any wonder that service department customers' biggest complaint is that the work takes two or three visits to get it done right!

Communication training for service writers has several facets and should emphasize listening skills.

Too often the customer's complaints are misunderstood by a service writer who hears the customer's complaint about his vehicle but has not adequately developed the skill to really listen to the customer's version.

Here are some familiar scenes that occur in service departments:

  • The owner of a vehicle, experiencing a hard-starting problem, leaves the car at the dealership for the day so the service writer can see the problem first-hand.

    The writer later says, “Gee, I must have tested your car six times today and it started right up for me. Are you sure you're not flooding it?”

  • An owner is asked to bring his car in at 8 a.m. and leave it for the day at great inconvenience to him. He telephones at 4 p.m. to get a progress report and is told: “Oh yes, Mr. Cole. We'll be bringing it into the shop in about a half hour.”

  • It's a humid 90 degree day and a customer calls to see if someone could check out his air conditioning which is blowing warm air.

The customer is told, “We can't touch it for two weeks. The system's probably got a leak it and my air conditioning tech is on vacation. Do you want an appointment when he comes back to work?”

You're sure these things are not happening in your service department. Well, you'd better take a good look because they're happening somewhere, and too often, according to customer satisfaction surveys.

It's like the boxer who staggers to his corner after a tough round. His manager says, “You're doing great, he never laid a glove on you.” The fighter says, “Then you'd better start watching the referee because someone out there is kicking the hell out of me!”

Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.