How to Hire and Keep Mechanics

We are a AAA approved automotive service center and an ASE Blue Seal Shop, independently owned by a husband and wife that live in the community.

Hiring, promoting, firing, and enforcing protocol with employees is by far the biggest problem our stores ever had and every other owner we talk to agrees. We have learned a lot from having 6 stores over the course of 15 years, and most of what we've learned has been from our failures.

We have had employees steal enough from us to fund a small nation's space program, buy seven states worth of fraudulent voter registrations, and bail out the banks also. I do not exaggerate when I say there is a double-digit list of people who are in jail right now either directly due to or at least in part due to being caught stealing from us, and/or in the process of paying us restitution possibly dating back into the last decade. I can make a huge list of what not to do, but the crew we have right now is terrific and I know exactly why they are succeeding for us right now.

You can buy equipment. You can even buy knowledge (subscribe to Alldata, Identifix, etc.). You can buy enough advertising to get people knocking down your doors to wait in line at the counter. If your employees don't show up, or show up drunk, or show up crying because their girlfriend broke up with them, or show up and leave without finishing a job, you make no money.

Hiring new mechanics

Interviews should not make the "yes" decision for you. You will hire someone you like or who says something that resonates with you if you just go by the interview, and that will be dangerous because each of us has our own internal standards that may or may not be objective. Of course, interview, because an interview will uncover things like bad hygiene, do they show up on time and prepared for the interview, do they have needle marks on their arms or twitch strangely, do they get 15 cell phone calls while you are trying to talk to them, and other "no" things. But you have to hire based on something objective that is outside of yourself and your own feelings and is only based on data. We use a screening tool that is available online (I won't mention the name unless you really want me to because I don't want to sound like a commercial) that has an exercise that is not easily "gamed". It is not easy for the candidate to tell from the components of the test that you are trying to test for decision making ability, dependability, how one values work, how stressed out the person is about their home life, how well they follow directions, and a total of 18 work-related factors that we need to do our job well.

We charge $30 for an oil change. Someone who doesn't follow directions well or thinks they are too good to follow someone else's process and does not pressure-check to be sure the oil filter is on tight will blow a $5000 engine on a new car on their third day of work. Yes, that happened to us. This guy was hired based on glowing recommendations, had a stellar interview, and he got along great with the guys and fit in wonderfully. We did not use the screening tool on him because we were romanced out of it. 72 hours later, the honeymoon was over and we were left screwed.

So ... with the price of labor, taxes, overhead, and the price of oil eating up about 70% of that $30 oil change, anyone want to do the math and figure out how many milleniums we will need to sell enough oil changes to pay for that mistake? I haven't bothered because I can't stand to think about it.

Do not do what people tell you to do. Do not follow your feelings. Do not care about anyone else's feelings. Hiring is life and death. Use something objective that will tell you "yes" or "no" and use a process you can trust.

1. Use an objective screening tool
2. Check on them in person for obvious red flags
3. Drug test
4. Criminal records check
5. Credit check if they will be handling money
6. Photocopy driver's license

Do not leave anything out of this process no matter what, and do not ever apologize or explain. Some people will self-eliminate and will not subject themselves to part of the process, in which case, they saved you some time and an empty cash drawer and a police report.

Never admit that it is the objective parts of the process that will make your decision for you. Some states have laws about equality, fairness, discrimination, etc. that will stipulate that you can not use anything but #2 in the list as more than 30% of your decision making process. So don't ever say why you are not hiring the person if they interview well but they are wanted in four states for bounced checks and have declared bankruptcy twice and their driver's license expired three presidential administrations ago and the screening tool you are using is advising you to call 911. Don't ever admit it, just say it does not appear to be a fit at this time.

Keeping and making the best use of mechanics

Now, a foregone conclusion that you have hired people you are happy with, and people have been with you a while. Here's something that's going to sound crazy but you will thank me later. Don't promote anyone.

Don't promote anyone.

DO NOT PROMOTE ANYONE.

If they are doing a good job, pay them more. If they want recognition, get them business cards. Or fancier uniforms. Or a different title. If they keep doing a good job, pay them more and more and more.

Do not promote anyone out of a job they are doing well and risk putting them in a job they will not do well, when you do that, you lose two jobs (the job they left behind and the job they are now unable to do).

Somehow, the craziness got started somewhere in this industry that it was a natural progression to be a tech, then be in charge of the technicians, then to be a manager. It does not work. It is not a natural process. Some people are techs. Some people are managers. Someone is one or the other. If they are a good tech, pay them more. Offer some other benefit. Give them recognition - print out awards, post their diplomas in the waiting room, publish a notice in the newspaper thanking them for their service, do whatever you have to do, but keep people in the jobs where they do well. You want the right people in the right jobs, and you will pay as much as you have to pay to have the right people in the right jobs.

Exceptions of course - when there is a pool of jobs that are all similar, and giving someone a title will not change what they actually do in a day, but will make them more important. Or moving through layers of the same types of jobs - such as assistant manager to manager if the manager retires. Or ... a tech who is older, can not use his back or his knees like he used to, and still has a head full of knowledge and several good years left to work - give him a chance in the parts department.

Do not ever give a guy in his 20s or 30s, who went to auto tech school, who worked as a lube technician and then a mechanic, the idea that he will ever be a manager and wear a tie and talk to customers. He won't. Trust me on this. He will, by the time he is 45, be making far more money than your best paid manager, and he will be happy happy happy and doing great work, and you will make more money.

A tech who is good will never do anything to screw up his job with you if you are paying that well. You will be happier to keep him than to try to train someone new. He will occasionally feel that sting that he's not in a management position and he will look around, only to find he's making more money turning wrenches than any shop who doesn't know him will pay him considering he has no manager experience. If the sting he feels is bothering him enough that he keeps asking you, then do something to help him with his outward appearance - maybe he is getting pressure from his family or he wants something more to tell his friends. Change his title, his uniforms, his business cards, benefits, publicly acknowlege your devotion, whatever you have to do, but his day-to-day duties remain the same. Everyone will be happier because this notion of promotion is deadly.

Fraud and cheating

I have a huge list of ways to prevent fraud, stealing, cheating on commissions, manager pay, etc. I think a lot of independant shops actually have the owner working in the shop (like we do now) but when we had 6 stores at once I couldn't be everywhere so we had developed a system of checking on the money that was tested in every way possible. Hence the 19 people paying us restitution and 11 people still serving time.

1. Get an accounting program
2. Check every store's numbers, every day
3. Only trust the reports
4. All communication is in writing, nothing is verbal
5. Mystery shoppers
6. Password protected cash drawer
7. Randomly call customers
8. If you can not be there in person, have your cash drawer system set up to alert you by cell phone when certain events occur (store open, store close, no sale, petty cash withdrawl, whatever parameters you set) so you can suddenly call the store and ask about it

There's more, but these were my greatest helpers in preventing fraud.

Paying people - don't ever pay a salary. Either they are hourly or commission. If anyone wants a salary, or a guarantee, you don't want them. I mean it. If they are hourly, then that means every aspect of the shop is possible for them. Comebacks? Left off a hubcap or a drippy oil plug gasket? Hourly guy can do it. Nothing to do in the shop? Clean the toilets, get a ladder and clean the windows inside and out, mop the floors, straighten out the tires on the racks so all the labels face up and are lined up straight, clean the waiting room, go through the entire parking lot with a broom and dustpan and pick up debris and trash, or clock out and go home. I have a standing list called the "nothing to do" list with those items and some more so that if I see an hourly guy not working, I pick something off the list for him to accomplish. Or if I see more than one milling around, I ask for volunteers to clock out and go home. At that point someone will find something to do.

There are many theories for good commission plans out there. There's no way for me to recommend just one because there are all sorts of shops and different mixes of duties. But do not pay a salary. Do not pay someone to take 2 hour lunches and talk with his girlfriend on the cell phone all day. Find a commission plan that will work for you. If you are already mired deep in the "I have a guarantee/salary/free money for nothing" problem, you will probably have to take a several step process to claw your way out of it. If you lose anyone along the way, I promise you that you are better off without them.

30+ felons and 200+ fired ex-employees agree on one thing, my policies don't work for them.

— Beth

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