Software is a unique tool. Every time it is used, it becomes more valuable to your shop. With every customer profile, parts data and billing information that you input, it will become more valuable to your operation. Also, with every technical service bulletin or bit of repair information found, you become more valuable.
For automotive repair shops, the choices of software applications for repair information, shop management and customer database management can be endless. Sometimes it might feel like you need to hire an IT guy instead of a new technician. But, if you arm yourself with some “computer commonsense,” you can build a suite of software applications that can let you get back to what you do best ‹ fixing cars.
Unlocking the Potential of Your Software
First, no software application is going to run at its full potential if it is running on old or slow hardware. Every shop should have an annual budget for computer hardware improvement. Some shops have adopted a “rotation program” where new hardware is purchased for the most critical stations on an annual basis. Instead of upgrading everything at once, the new computer may be installed at the front desk while the old one is rotated either into the parts room or the shop.
Many people believe if they are not having any problems with the current version of a program that they do not need to buy or install the updated software. Updates can not only address problems with software, but also improve the software with new features and increased functionality.
Many software applications are dependent on an Internet connection to unlock their full potential. This connectivity allows you to share data with parts suppliers and other vendors. Make sure to check if an application needs dial-up, DSL or cable access.
Many shops worry that an Internet connection will be abused by the employees to surf and play games. One tactic to curb this behavior is to print out the web history from every terminal and post it on a bulletin board for every employee to see. It is amazing to see how a little embarrassment and peer pressure can stop people from visiting inappropriate websites during work hours.
Unlocking the Potential of Your People
So how do you unlock the potential of the software and the user? The most obvious answer is to use it every day. The next answer is to explore. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt anything, chances are that any mistakes can be cleared up with a few keystrokes.
Determination, intuitiveness and curiosity will only take you so far when maximizing the potential of your software. Training is the next step in the process. Just about every application offers a tutorial or “help window” built into the software. These programs can be very helpful and can direct the user to the needed information. Also, these programs can allow the user to learn at their own pace.
One of the most valuable forms of support is interaction with other users and the “code warriors” that write the programs. This exchange of information usually takes place on the Internet in “user forums.” This allows users to discuss problems, ask questions and share experiences.
The programmers and customer service personnel typically monitor these forums. They can usually help users out, and they also learn how to make the product better. If an application doesn’t have a link to a web forum, a chat or link to live online help on their website, be careful. This could be a sign that the company is not committed to serving you or improving the product.
Another form of support to look for is offsite or onsite training. See if the application provider offers classes or conferences. The interaction between the user and the authors can be very valuable.
Data as an Asset
One of the most important assets is your customer and operational data. Every keystroke of information that you enter into your shop management system makes it that more valuable.
When you’re looking for new shop management software, look for features that leverage your customer data for marketing purposes. The fancy dealership term for this is Customer Retention Management (CRM). This marketing approach means that you can market your services to your existing customers. This can be done with follow-up phone calls, mailings or e-mails.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’ve just started to carry a new line of tires. How do you get a quick return on your investment? Sure, you could buy a big vinyl banner that says you sell tires. Or, you could create an advertising campaign that targets your existing customers through a mailing campaign.
You could extract a list of customers by asking the software to pull names that might spend the most, or meet other parameters that would make them candidates for new tires. Next, you could take the data down two roads depending on the level of integration of CRM functions into your shop management software.
The first road is to take the list to an outside provider, like a fulfillment house, that can take the data and create a mailing piece and perform the mailing. Make sure the software you are purchasing can export the data into a format that is compatible with the fulfillment house. Some of the formats include Microsoft Excel, Access and Crystal Reports.
The second option is integrating these functions into the shop management software to give you a turnkey solution that is seamless. With some software applications, CRM and marketing functions can be carried out from start-to-finish in one program. This level of software integration lets you create effective marketing campaigns that you can track so you can target your marketing dollars.
Back to the tire-marketing situation, you can then create the design of the mailer that can include your shop’s logo and information about your new tire program. The fulfillment of the mailing is then done through the software company. There are several advantages to this. First, by using the software provider’s services, it is possible to take customization to a new level. Instead of just a generic mailing, you can insert the customer’s name, vehicle and mileage on the card. Second, it is possible to monitor the effectiveness of the campaign with the software. Also, follow-up reminders can be sent by e-mail.
Also, CRM management software that is integrated into your management application allows you to scale campaigns to go out to just one customer or your entire list.
Can Software Really Make a Difference?
In some ways, shops are in the information business. Also, shops are in the time business. For both items, the more you have, the more profitable your operation will become. Combine the two and you have efficiency. When the customer walks in the door, time spent fumbling through awkward keystrokes and unnecessary menu scrolling is time not talking to the customer. Also, spending an excessive amount of time looking for repair information can cost your technicians productive time. Having software that puts information at your fingertips is critical to making your shop productive and efficient.
But, it is a two-way street. If you fail to feed your software with information, it will not grow to serve your needs. This means that if you take the easy road out and do not enter in proper parts descriptions and numbers for your inventory or customer invoices, the system will not be able to provide you with an accurate picture of what is happening with your business. As the old saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.