Independent Shops: The Training Gap

MY ORGANIZATION AND I ARE CURRENTLY involved in a series of planning meetings for the HD distributor and service shop education programs at HD Aftermarket Week ’09 next February. We begin this process each year with brainstorming sessions at a big committee meeting of all 12 of the service provider, distributor and supplier organizations that sponsor the annual event.

Following the initial session we have a very large list of topics, ranging from personnel issues to sales and marketing-related topics, technical training, etc. We further vet the topics with a process that involves more brainstorming, attendee surveys and discussions with end-users.

The challenge for the planning groups is to develop training and education programs that are essential to the long-term survival of the independent distributor and repair shop in the commercial vehicle industry. Since time is their most valuable commodity, we need to be sure we’re not wasting their time with any of these sessions.

Most are independent, entrepreneur-owned businesses where the owner also runs the shop, or is an outside salesman or the purchasing department. All of these individuals are willing to take a few days out of the year if they feel they receive a new, valuable, ready-to-implement, guaranteed-to-make-a-difference tools for them to use the minute they arrive home at their businesses. That doesn’t sound too tough, does it?

The commercial vehicle industry is a market segment that I have worked in throughout my entire career. I have watched it go from the day when almost all fleets and truck owners repaired their own vehicles, to where they all claimed that it was more cost-effective to outsource their repairs and service, and back and forth again, about four times.

The current situation has evolved to where the majority of the PM and repair work is being done at the truck owners shop, roughly 75 percent of it today.

Even warranty work is being performed at the fleets’ shops; courtesy of major fleet arrangements with OEMs to serve as warranty repair facilities. The independent shops and parts distributors tend to focus on braking, suspension, and electrical work, such as wiring.

Dealers were at one time spending 80-90 percent of their shop time on warranty work and new vehicle make-ready. Major improvements in components and manufacturing processes have greatly reduced that element for the dealers. Today they are competing for the same work as the fleet shops and the independents.

New vehicle and component quality is light-years from where it was a generation ago. Downtime is the single biggest productivity enemy for trucking companies. Truck and/or component brands are dropped by fleets that experience too much of it with their products.

Vehicle manufacturers and major component suppliers have resorted to advanced technology for product improvement. Along with all of the new technology comes another problem, a training gap for distributors and service providers. Even OEM dealers are having a difficult time keeping up with all of the advances in technology on the newer trucks. Training is something that everyone likes to talk about but not many like to jump into if they feel they can make more money staying on the job.

That is short term thinking.

A wise man once said that you can chop a lot more wood in a week if you always work to keep your axe sharp. You can watch one lumberjack flailing away with a dull axe while he cuts half as much wood as the one that takes 10 minutes every hour or so to sharpen his. Training is the same thing.

But you need to carefully select the opportunities for training. I must receive a dozen E-mails a day telling me that I can become a better executive if I just sign up for a seminar at Hilton Head, or a webinar, or order a CD, or attend an immersion program in the Virginia mountains for a week of training, fly-fishing and golf. Although the latter sounds like a good idea to me, I would rather spend my time on education where I am assured of the intent of the trainers.

Our process for planning our education program for the annual HD Aftermarket Week is very different than most. We work with the end-users—the distributors and the shops to ensure that what we select for topics are things that can be readily implemented and used in their businesses as soon as they return home. Our trainers are typically industry volunteers who are selected due to their level of expertise and proven performance. They all do it for the good of the overall industry, and the survival of the independent channel.

Keep your axe sharp and join us in February at HD Aftermarket Week.