Training in the Fast Lane

Like all franchises, every shop is owned and operated by an individual owner, but the corporate entity is responsible for creating a consistent brand experience.
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AAMCO Transmissions Inc. is one of those iconic franchises that has become as familiar as the fast-food chains and coffeehouses that line city streets across America. The first AAMCO franchise opened in the early 1960s, and today the company has more 700 locations across the country that have serviced more than 45 million vehicles, fixing transmissions and doing other auto repair work.

Like all franchises, every shop is owned and operated by an individual owner, but the corporate entity is responsible for creating a consistent brand experience.

Making sure everyone takes part in the necessary training can be difficult to execute in a franchise environment. Most AAMCO owners are independent entrepreneurs who don’t expect to be told what to do, said Brian O’Donnell, senior vice president of franchise development.To get them on board, he said he has to make sure they understand why training is a good idea, and how investing their time in coming to an extended off-site training event will benefit them.

Teaching franchise owners is also a challenge for AAMCO learning leaders, who often face classrooms full of people who come to the business with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. This put AAMCO trainers in a difficult position, said Jason Herman, director of training and dean ofAAMCOUniversity.

This diversity of experience, coupled with the company’s desire to create a more cohesive training program for franchise owners, led AAMCO leaders to fundamentally change their learning approach. “We wanted to create an industry-leading training program to ensure our people have the skills they need to solve complex problems for customers and to make sure AAMCO remains a leader in the industry,” said Brett Ponton, CEO of American Driveline, AAMCO’s parent company. That sparked the genesis of AAMCO University.

Driving Change

In 2013, the company acquired a plant in Atlanta that remanufacturers transmissions, and it had a 20,000-square-foot unused office space attached. “It was the perfect place to build a new training center,” O’Donnell said. They remodeled the space, creating a theater-style auditorium for classroom learning, a mini working AAMCO shop with two lifts and all the equipment in an AAMCO center, and an AAMCO waiting area. The idea was to give learners the full AAMCO experience so they could learn the basics in the classroom, and then test them out in the center.

Having a great learning space was only the first step. AAMCO also needed the curriculum to make it worth the franchisees’ time and money to attend off-site classes and to send their staff for training. Herman was brought on in 2014 to overhaul the curriculum. In the past, training focused on the nuts and bolts of car repair and transmissions. But he said franchise owners needed a lot more than auto training to run their shops. His goal was to provide general business as well as car care education. When building the new courses, Herman said he focused every piece of content on two key goals: how to increase potential profits and how to decrease potential liability. “I tell all of my students: If I teach you something that doesn’t tie to these goals, we will eliminate it.”

The biggest piece of the new curriculum is a four-week Franchisee 101 development program that teaches new franchise owners everything they need to know about running an AAMCO. The course features 41 learning modules cover various topics, such as how to deliver excellent customer service, developing effective marketing plans, managing profit and loss statements, and establishing key performance indicators for staff.

In week three, participants leave the facility to work in the field with seasoned AAMCO owners so they can have a firsthand experience running the business. In week four, they return to the center to review their experiences and create a business plan for their shop, which they present to the class.

It’s a significant amount of time to invest in learning, but considering how much money the franchisees’ invest in buying or starting an AAMCO, it’s a modest commitment, Ponton said, “and we make sure they get a clear return on investment.” It also shows owners that AAMCO is heavily invested in its franchisees, which is a key component of Ponton’s long-term business strategyfor the brand. “They have made a big commitment to us, and we want to show them that we are just as committed to their success.”

Business School in a Month

Gary Denton was one of the first franchise owners to go through the program, and he said he was skeptical at first to commit to four weeks of off-site training. Denton is a former construction company owner who gave up his dream of retiring on a beach in Belize after three weeks, and was looking for a new business opportunity. After exploring several franchise options, he determined that AAMCO had the best potential.

He was on the verge of purchasing an existing shop near his hometown in Prescott Valley, Arizona, when the company told him he couldn’t close the deal until he attended training. He agreed and attended the four-week course last June with eight other new owners.

Right away he said he was impressed by the facility and Herman’s business-focused approach to learning. “It was like completing a full-on business school,” he said.

Despite the fact that Denton had run his own company for years, he had no automotive or retail sales experience and was nervous about the prospect of running a customer-facing business. He said the training put him at ease. He got to role-play his new skills in the training facility’s customer lobby, then tried them out in the real world during his week three field work.

His mentor put him to work answering phones, estimating jobs and dealing with customers. After three days, Denton said he was so excited about working in the field that he asked to work with other AAMCO owners for the rest of the week to see how their approaches varied. Then he took all of those experiences back to the last week of training and presented his business plan. “That was the most important part of the training,” he said. “It was a way to show everyone — and myself — that I had thought of everything and was ready to get started.”

Herman said every class he teaches has a few experts like Denton who understand business but not the automotive side as well as many who have no experience with either. He said he starts each course with no assumptions. Before the session begins, he screens each group of students to get a sense of their background.

As he gets to know them in class, he asks them to share their work experience and uses those stories to draw relevant analogies. For example, in one class he had a senior engineer from the semiconductor manufacturing industry, so he used his experiences putting together a production team to help him understand what skills he would need on his new staff.

Accelerating Revenue Growth

The facility also offers a six-day customer service course for new AAMCO managers, a two-day advanced course for senior managers, and live webcast training and self-paced e-learning content for technicians who can take training in the office or at home. “All of the courses have been very popular,” O’Donnell said, noting that overall satisfaction rating average of 9 out of 10. More importantly, they are delivering measurable business results, he said.

While the effect of the new franchise training program hasn’t yet been measured, quarterly comparisons show franchisees whose managers attended the Advanced CSM Training program in June experienced a 9 percent lift in “transmission revenue” and “total car care” compared with the previous year — two key measures of AAMCO business success.

Similarly, the centers using the online training content saw a 5-point jump in revenue compared with those that didn’t. “It proves that franchises with trained staff perform at a higher level and have better sales,” O’Donnell said.

He’s now putting those numbers out to AAMCO owners across the country in a 23-market tour to communicate the value of training. “It’s powerful data to show the impact of AAMCO University,” he said.

These numbers also have been valuable to the AAMCO leadership team, who made a significant investment in the facility and programming to make the university a reality. “It gives further credibility to the management team, that this was the right decision,” Ponton said. “There is no better testimonial than the success of our franchisees.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com. 

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