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Service departments play a crucial role in dealership profitability, yet many service managers find themselves navigating complex financial waters without a clear map. Enter the 7 controllables – a set of key factors that, when mastered, can transform a struggling service department into a thriving profit center.

The 7 Controllables

These controllables aren’t just abstract concepts; they’re tangible elements that service managers can influence daily. By understanding and optimizing these factors, managers can gain unprecedented control over their department’s financial performance, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

1. Expenses: The Foundation of Financial Health

Expenses form the bedrock of your service department’s financial structure. Every dollar saved in expenses is a dollar added to your bottom line. However, managing expenses isn’t just about cutting costs indiscriminately. It’s about understanding where your money is going and making strategic decisions to optimize spending.

Key areas to focus on include:

Service Policy: This account often becomes a catch-all for various costs. Regularly review what’s being charged here and why. Look for patterns in repairs covered and seek opportunities to reduce costs through improved quality control or customer education.

Outside Service: Analyze your sublet work and specialized services. Are you outsourcing only when necessary? Are you getting competitive rates? Consider developing in-house capabilities for frequently outsourced services if it’s cost-effective in the long run.

Shop Supplies: Implement systems to track usage and minimize waste. Consider bulk purchasing for frequently used items, but be cautious of overstocking perishable supplies.

Personnel Expenses: Regularly review staffing levels to ensure they align with workload. Cross-training employees can improve efficiency and reduce the need for overstaffing.

Equipment Maintenance and Depreciation: Properly maintained equipment lasts longer and performs better. Develop a regular maintenance schedule and budget for eventual replacements to avoid unexpected large expenses.

To get a handle on your expenses:

  1. Conduct monthly expense reviews, analyzing each category in detail.
  2. Implement a system for approving expenses above a certain threshold.
  3. Train your team on the importance of expense management and their role in controlling costs.
  4. Use financial software to track expenses in real-time and identify trends.

Remember, the goal isn’t to slash expenses at the cost of quality or employee satisfaction. It’s about finding the right balance that allows your department to operate efficiently while maintaining high standards of service.

2. Gross Profit: The Engine of Your Service Department

Gross profit is the lifeblood of your service department. It’s the difference between your revenue and the direct costs associated with providing your services. Understanding and optimizing gross profit is crucial for long-term success.

Calculating gross profit is straightforward: subtract your cost of goods sold (COGS) from your total revenue. In a service context, COGS primarily consists of technician labor costs and the cost of parts used in repairs and maintenance.

To improve your gross profit:

Optimize Pricing: Regularly review your pricing strategy. Are you charging appropriately for your services while remaining competitive? Consider value-based pricing where you charge based on the value you provide rather than just cost plus markup.

Improve Efficiency: Streamline processes to reduce labor hours per job. This could involve investing in better diagnostic tools, improving workflow in the shop, or providing additional training to technicians.

Manage Parts Inventory: Implement just-in-time inventory practices to reduce carrying costs. Use data analysis to predict demand and maintain optimal stock levels.

Focus on High-Margin Services: Identify which services provide the highest profit margins and develop strategies to promote these services. This doesn’t mean pushing unnecessary services but rather ensuring customers are aware of all the valuable services you offer.

Train Service Advisors: Enhance their ability to communicate the value of your services to customers. When customers understand the value they’re receiving, they’re less likely to balk at prices or seek discounts.

3. Clock Hours Worked: Maximizing Technician Productivity

Clock hours worked refers to the actual time your technicians spend at work. This includes their scheduled shifts, any overtime, and even those moments when they’re waiting for parts or their next assignment. The key is to maximize the productivity of these hours.

To optimize clock hours worked:

Minimize Downtime: Implement efficient scheduling practices to ensure a steady flow of work. Use a triage system for incoming vehicles to quickly assess and assign jobs.

Improve Workflow: Analyze your shop layout and processes. Are there bottlenecks that slow down your technicians? Could the placement of tools or equipment be optimized to reduce wasted motion?

Invest in Training: Well-trained technicians work more efficiently. Provide ongoing training on new vehicle technologies and repair techniques.

Balance Workload: Avoid overbooking, which can lead to rushed work and errors. At the same time, ensure you’re not under-utilizing your technicians’ time.

Track and Analyze: Implement a system to track billable vs. non-billable hours for each technician. Use this data to identify areas for improvement.

4. Percent of Productivity: Efficiency in Action

Percent of productivity measures how efficiently your technicians are utilizing their time. It’s calculated by dividing the number of hours billed to customers by the number of hours technicians are clocked in.

A high productivity percentage indicates that your technicians are spending most of their time on billable work, effectively converting labor costs into revenue. Here’s how to improve this metric:

Efficient Work Distribution: Train your service advisors to match jobs with the most appropriate technicians based on skills and experience.

Optimize Shop Layout: Ensure your facility layout minimizes wasted motion and improves workflow. This might involve reorganizing tool storage, parts delivery systems, or even the placement of lifts and diagnostic equipment.

Tool and Equipment Management: Ensure all necessary tools are readily available and well-maintained. Time spent searching for tools or waiting for equipment to become available is time that can’t be billed to customers.

Improve Communication: Establish clear channels for technicians to quickly get answers to questions or resolve issues that arise during repairs. The faster they can get the information they need, the less unbillable time they’ll accrue.

Set Targets and Monitor Progress: Establish individual and team productivity targets. Implement a daily productivity report and review it with your team. Celebrate successes and address challenges promptly.

5. Days Worked in a Month: Balancing Productivity and Well-being

At first glance, this controllable might seem straightforward – more days worked should equal more productivity, right? However, the reality is more nuanced. The key is finding the right balance between maximizing available work time and ensuring your team has adequate rest to maintain high performance.

Consider the standard five-day workweek. In a typical month, this translates to about 20 to 22 working days. Many service departments operate on Saturdays, potentially adding four or five more workdays to the month. While this might seem like a great way to boost productivity, it’s essential to look at the bigger picture.

Adding Saturday shifts can increase your total available hours, but it often comes at a cost. If technicians work six days a week, they’ll likely need a day off during the traditional workweek. This means you’re essentially shifting hours rather than adding them. The result? You might end up with the same number of total hours worked, but now spread across more days, potentially increasing overhead costs.

There’s also the question of efficiency. Technicians who work excessive hours or too many days in a row may experience fatigue, leading to decreased productivity and potentially increased errors. This can negate any benefits gained from the extra workday.

So, how do you optimize the days worked in a month?

Analyze Customer Demand: Are Saturdays truly busy enough to justify being open? Use data to understand your customer patterns and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Implement Rotating Schedules: If Saturday operations are necessary, consider a rotating schedule where technicians take turns working Saturdays and having a weekday off. This ensures coverage while maintaining a reasonable work-life balance for your team.

Consider Extended Weekday Hours: Instead of adding a full Saturday shift, you might extend weekday hours slightly. This can provide the extra availability customers need without significantly disrupting your team’s schedule or increasing overhead costs.

Account for Seasonal Fluctuations: You might find that Saturday hours are more beneficial during certain times of the year. Adjust your schedule to match these patterns to optimize labor utilization.

Factor in Support Staff: Remember that adding workdays means your service advisors, parts personnel, and management team need to be there too. Ensure you’re considering the full picture of staffing costs and efficiency.

By thoughtfully managing the days worked in a month, you can create a schedule that serves your customers well, keeps your team productive and satisfied, and contributes positively to your bottom line.

6. Effective Labor Rate (ELR): Maximizing Your Earnings Per Hour

Effective Labor Rate is a crucial metric that directly impacts your service department’s profitability. It’s not just the rate you charge customers for labor – it’s the average rate you actually collect after all discounts, adjustments, and warranty work are factored in.

Calculating ELR is straightforward: divide your total labor sales for a given period by the number of hours billed. This gives you a real-world picture of what you’re earning per hour of work, rather than what your posted labor rate might suggest.

The difference between your posted rate and your ELR can be eye-opening, revealing the true impact of discounts and pricing strategies on your revenue. Here’s how to optimize your ELR:

Implement Strategic Discounting: While discounts can be a useful tool for attracting customers or rewarding loyalty, excessive or poorly managed discounts can seriously erode your profitability. Develop a clear policy for when and how discounts are applied. Consider targeted discounts that bring in business during slow periods or encourage customers to bundle services.

Manage Warranty Work Efficiently: Manufacturer-paid warranty rates are often lower than your standard labor rate. While you can’t avoid warranty work, you can manage its impact. Consider assigning your most efficient technicians to warranty jobs to minimize the time spent on lower-paying work. Also, ensure you’re capturing all allowable charges and not doing any extra work that isn’t covered by the warranty.

Implement Menu Pricing: Menu pricing can be an effective tool for maintaining a strong ELR. By bundling services into packages, you can offer perceived value to the customer while ensuring a healthy effective rate. Just be sure to regularly review and adjust your menu prices to account for changes in costs and market conditions.

Train Service Advisors: Your service advisors play a crucial role in maintaining a strong ELR. Train them to understand the importance of ELR and how their pricing decisions impact it. Teach them to sell value rather than relying on discounts to close sales. A well-trained advisor can explain why your services are worth the price, reducing the need for discounts.

Monitor and Adjust Regularly: Track your ELR daily, weekly, and monthly to spot trends and address issues quickly. If you notice your ELR dropping, investigate the cause. Is it due to increased discounting? More warranty work? Inefficient technicians? Identifying the root cause allows you to take targeted action to improve your rate.

Remember, your goal should be to maximize your ELR without sacrificing customer satisfaction or market competitiveness. It’s a balancing act that requires ongoing attention and adjustment.

7. Calendar Utilization: Filling Your Schedule for Maximum Profitability

Calendar utilization is all about making the most of every available minute in your schedule to maximize productivity and profitability. When we talk about calendar utilization, we’re referring to how effectively you’re filling your appointment slots and managing your technicians’ time throughout the day.

Efficient scheduling is the cornerstone of good calendar utilization. This means not just booking appointments, but strategically planning them to optimize your department’s output. Here’s how to improve your calendar utilization:

Understand Your True Capacity: This isn’t just about how many bays you have or how many technicians are on staff. It’s about realistically assessing how many hours of work you can effectively complete in a day, considering factors like the skill levels of your technicians, the types of services you offer, and the average time required for different types of repairs.

Implement Load Leveling: Distribute work evenly throughout the day and week. Avoid the temptation to front-load your schedule, which can lead to rushed work early in the day and idle time later. Instead, aim for a steady flow of work that keeps your technicians consistently productive without overwhelming them.

Use a Triage System: Implement a system for quickly assessing incoming vehicles and slotting them into your schedule appropriately. Quick, simple jobs can be used to fill gaps between longer repairs, maximizing your technicians’ billable hours.

Build in Buffer Time: While it might seem counterintuitive, building in small gaps between appointments can actually improve overall productivity. These buffers allow for unexpected complications in repairs, brief team meetings, or catching up if earlier jobs run long. Without them, a single delayed job can throw off your entire day’s schedule.

Balance Your Service Mix: A mix of quick services (like oil changes) and longer, more complex repairs can help maintain steady productivity throughout the day. Be strategic about when you schedule different types of services based on your staffing and equipment availability.

Leverage Technology: Modern scheduling software can help you visualize your department’s capacity, track technician productivity, and even predict busy periods based on historical data. Use these tools to make informed decisions about scheduling and staffing.

Regularly analyze your calendar utilization to reveal valuable insights. Look for patterns in slow periods or overbookings. Are certain days of the week consistently underutilized? Are you frequently running into overtime on others? Use this information to refine your scheduling strategies continually.

The Interplay of the 7 Controllables

While we’ve explored each of the 7 controllables individually, it’s crucial to understand that they don’t exist in isolation. These factors are interconnected, each influencing and being influenced by the others. It’s this interplay that truly drives service department profitability.

For example, your efforts to improve calendar utilization directly impact your clock hours worked and percent of productivity. A well-utilized calendar means your technicians are spending more of their time on billable work, boosting productivity. This, in turn, can lead to improved gross profit.

Similarly, your effective labor rate is closely tied to your gross profit. By maintaining a strong ELR through strategic pricing and efficient warranty work management, you’re directly boosting your gross profit. At the same time, a focus on productivity can help offset pressures on your labor rate – if your technicians are more efficient, you can maintain profitability even if market conditions force you to lower your rates slightly.

Your approach to managing days worked in a month impacts all other controllables. Finding the right balance of workdays affects your ability to control expenses, influences your calendar utilization, and plays a role in maintaining high productivity levels.

Expenses, while a controllable in their own right, also influence your ability to optimize the other factors. Smart expense management can free up resources to invest in training or equipment that boosts productivity. It can give you the flexibility to offer competitive pricing while maintaining a healthy effective labor rate.

Bringing It All Together: A Strategy for Service Department Excellence

Mastering the 7 controllables isn’t about focusing on each in isolation, but about understanding how they work together and leveraging these relationships to drive overall performance. Here’s a strategy for bringing it all together:

Start with a Comprehensive Analysis: Conduct a thorough review of your current performance in each of the 7 areas. Identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Set Balanced Goals: Based on your analysis, set goals for improvement in each area. Remember that these goals should be balanced – pushing too hard in one area might negatively impact another.

Develop an Integrated Plan: Create a plan that addresses all 7 controllables in concert. For example, your plan to improve productivity might include elements of calendar utilization, training (which falls under expenses), and effective labor rate management.

Implement Systematically: Roll out your changes in a systematic way, being mindful of how changes in one area might impact others.

Monitor and Adjust: Regularly review your performance across all 7 controllables. Look for both direct impacts of your changes and any unexpected ripple effects.

Educate Your Team: Ensure that your entire team understands the 7 controllables and their role in optimizing each. This shared understanding can lead to better decision-making at all levels.

Continuously Refine: The work of optimizing these controllables is never done. Market conditions change, new technologies emerge, and customer preferences evolve. Stay agile and be willing to adapt your strategies as needed.

By mastering the 7 controllables and understanding their interplay, you’re positioning your service department for sustainable success. You’ll be able to navigate financial challenges more effectively, adapt to market changes more nimbly, and consistently deliver value to both your customers and your dealership.

Remember, the goal isn’t to maximize each controllable individually, but to optimize how they work together to drive overall profitability. It’s a complex dance, but mastering it is the key to running a truly successful service department.

As you embark on this journey of optimization, keep in mind that change takes time. Be patient, stay committed to the process, and celebrate the small wins along the way. With persistence and a strategic approach, you’ll see your service department transform into a model of efficiency and profitability.


Elevate your Fixed Operations department with our custom-tailored solutions. Our team offers in-depth assessments and specialized training programs, crafting strategies designed specifically to boost efficiency, maximize customer retention, and ensure long-term profitability. We’ll work closely with you to identify areas for improvement and implement targeted solutions that drive sustainable growth for your business.

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