Dec 03, 2021

How to Modernize the Industry: One Shop Manager’s Opinion

How to Modernize the Industry: One Shop Manager’s Opinion

Modernity, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Jimmy Wall, General Manager at Donahue Truck Centers, about the parts shortage. While supply chain issues are causing the bulk of the problem, shop owners aren’t doing themselves a lot of favors by staying away from things like the internet. “Don’t get me started on how shops need to modernize,” he said.

Naturally, we had to know more.

We pulled Jimmy away from a busy workday to ask him more about how and why the industry is falling behind, and what we can do to change that. We do want to emphasize that this is an opinion piece—specifically, Jimmy’s opinion! We’d love to hear your thoughts on it, too.

Four key areas where diesel is lagging

In the car dealer world, Jimmy says, there are heaps of training materials like books, pamphlets, and the like to help associates sell and repair cars. Even ASE, which we’ve pointed to as a great certification resource for the diesel industry, only has materials out there for truck parts certification and diesel technicians.

“But that’s it,” he says. “There’s a whole bunch more for the car world.”

We’ve talked a lot about the diesel tech shortage. Unfortunately, it’s not just diesel techs that are getting hard to find; our friends at WrenchWay have pointed out that the automotive techs are also getting scarce. They may not be as difficult to get as diesel techs, but we still need more than we’ve got.

Part of the issue, Jimmy believes, is that diesel training just isn’t as ubiquitous as automotive training. While there is an automotive tech shortage, it’s still an overall easier field to break into and get training for. He notes that it’s reached a point where his shop is actively recruiting car technicians with the understanding that he’ll have to train them in the Ways of the Diesel.

Is it ideal? Probably not. But it’s a good start. “At least they’ve got the automotive background,” he says. When it comes to processes, he says, “70-80% of what we do is the same. We write up a service order, get it back to the customer. So I do like to hire car people because they know where to start.”

Walking into a car dealership can be a breathtaking experience. Tiled floors polished to a reflective sheen. Beautiful model vehicles you can sit in. Artisanal coffee and food so you can snack while you admire the small forest growing in the corner.

“When I go to diesel repair shops, even a dealership,” Jimmy remarks, “a lot of them are pretty run-down…that’s not always the case, but the majority of car dealerships have grander facilities than truck repair shops.”

Some of this is due to manufacturer influence. For the last several years, automotive makers have wanted their dealerships to look a certain way; to exude a type of polish that impresses (and, let’s be honest, maybe intimidates) consumers. Some diesel manufacturers are starting to lean on dealerships to do the same, but it’s not happening.

The car world is filled to the brim with shop management software, and some of that software does all kinds of neat stuff.

The truck world has Fullbay and maybe a handful of others.

Jimmy identifies the big problem here as supply and demand: there’s just a lot more automotive repair shops and dealerships out there. If you’re running a software company, odds are you want to make a profit. You’re likely to do that if you have a larger client base. The result is that most software companies target the bigger potential customer base—in this case, automotive.

“I think we’ve always been behind the times on all advertising,” Jimmy observes. “When I started my career 20 years ago, I asked some mentors of mine, ‘Why don’t we get a billboard?’ and they said, ‘Oh, that’s just not in our market.’”

He never quite understood that. Billboards worked for other companies. So why wouldn’t they work for diesel?

He ended up getting a billboard for his current business. He got results.

His competitor promptly put up a billboard. Of course they wanted to see their name broadcasted across the entire city, too. The fun doesn’t stop there, though; another competitor has gotten heavily into digital advertising, which has spurred Jimmy into making his own digital adjustments.

But these are efforts made by individual shops, and they’re fairly reactive. Why isn’t more of the industry making an effort in marketing of all kinds, but specifically digital content? The internet has, overall, been an absolute game-changer for marketing; from online reviews to a slick website that acts as an inexpensive digital storefront, even the most reluctant shop owners now have more marketing options at their fingertips than ever before.

The mystery endures

Some of these issues can be explained, or at least understood, in the context of supply and demand. Car dealerships and shops just tend to have more resources at their fingertips, which means they just have more monetary and personnel room to train and experiment.

There’s more to it, of course.

Some of the industry’s problems, specifically in the digital realm, may come down to age. “If everyone on your staff is 45 or 50 years or older,” Jimmy says, “it’s likely their understanding of that stuff just diminishes.”

If you recall our conversation with TechForce, you know there was what felt like a huge societal effort to steer young people away from the trades and toward a four-year university degree. You can probably see where we’re going with this—in most cases, it’s the young people who are going to want to experiment with new techniques and certifications, and maybe introduce new marketing methods to the older hands in a shop or dealership.

That’s harder to do if you’ve been chased away.

But Fullbay, you may be asking, didn’t the automotive industry suffer the same problem?

Yes. But—and we’re reaching the point of speculation here—but the automotive industry, as Jimmy points out, has refashioned itself a bit. Those slick, towering dealerships and sexy commercials make them look like an intriguing, high-tech place to work. A lot of diesel shops are doing a lot of things right, and are very snazzy places to work, but the industry as a whole still needs to update the way the rest of the world sees it.

Still, Jimmy sees plenty of progress. There are wonderful opportunities out there for forward-thinking shop owners if they’re willing to work hard for them. The more a shop embraces technological and industry updates, the better chance they have of reaching the very top of the industry. We’d say that’s something worth modernizing for.

Suz Baldwin