AAMCO Overhauls Its Training Strategy

An inside look at the new AAMCO University training facility and insights from senior leaders about the company’s revamped training strategy, best practices, and performance results.

Every time I let off the gas,” the guy explains to the AAMCO technician, “it makes this kind of…”

He trails off and looks at the large dog sitting next to him.

“Rrrr, rrr,” the dog mournfully bays.

“Like that. Just like that!” the guy exclaims.

“It’s just your idle. It’s a bit… ‘ruff,’” the AAMCO technician says with a smile as the commercial ends with the familiar refrain: Double A…Beep, Beep…MCO.

In some ways, the same once could be said for AAMCO’s training, much of which previously was done at various locations throughout the years, with the latest rendition held at the total car care company’s headquarters in suburban Philadelphia, PA. “The experience in all those locations really wasn’t befitting such an iconic brand, and students weren’t immersed in all the brand has to offer,” according to Brian O’Donnell, senior vice president of Franchise Support, who has been with AAMCO for 30 years.

But that all changed two years ago when the 50-plus-year-old company decided to invest more than $1 million in a new learning management system (LMS) and the creation of AAMCO University, a state-of-the-art training facility in Newnan, GA, that opened in February 2015. The training facility is next door to AAMCO’s sister company, Global Powertrain Systems (GPS), and its 200,000-square-foot factory, which produces remanufactured transmissions and also offers employee training. Both facilities were major parts of AAMCO’s five-year, eight-step strategic plan for 2014-2018 that aims to modernize the brand and win customers for life.

AAMCO University houses training activities for AAMCO technicians and managers, as well as prospective, new, and current franchisees. The educational facility offers both lecture and hands-on technical instruction with a theater-style classroom that holds 60 people and a full-service AAMCO center, including a replicated front office and repair shop. In addition to recorded Webcasts and videos, AAMCO University offers more than 300 interactive courses via its online LMS.

AAMCO leaders recently gave Training magazine an exclusive tour of the new training facility and GPS factory and detailed their amped-up focus on learning and development.

“We view training as an investment, not a cost,” explains Rob Rajkowski, COO, who joined AAMCO 1.5 years ago and is in charge of marketing, operations, recruiting, and in-market training. “We wanted to align our training strategy with our five-year plan and use training as a strategic foundation for growth.”

President and CEO Brett Ponton is similarly passionate about training. “We needed to modernize this 50-plus-year-old brand and create a culture committed to lifelong learning,” he says. “Cars now are computers on wheels and the issues cars have are more complex to solve for customers. We want AAMCO to be recognized by consumers as a brand they can count on to solve all of their car needs, both routine maintenance and complex repairs. We want to win customers for life. The best way to do that is to have well-trained employees who consistently solve problems for their customers.”

When looking at what it takes to win with the consumer, Ponton points to four moments of truth:

  1. If a consumer has a problem with a car, where do they go? Consumers go online to gather information and make their decision. We must win that decisive moment.
  2. Next, we want to invite consumers to our centers. We believe it is important to build a relationship with our customers; to effectively do that, we must be face to face and physically inspect their vehicle to assess their issues.
  3. Once in-store, we have to work with the consumer to understand both the vehicle issues and the consumer’s personal situation. This allows us to clearly communicate the options they have in getting their vehicle repaired and offer payment options for most consumers.
  4. Finally, we have to deliver on our brand promise: to fix the consumer’s car right the first time, every time. To do this, we are focused on having the best-trained technicians in our industry who diagnose issues correctly and perform the necessary repair in a timely fashion.

At all four moments, “training is a key enabler to allow us to do those things really well and deliver the right customer experience,” Ponton says.

“In addition, on the franchisee side,” notes Ponton, who spent 20 years as an operations and marketing executive at Goodyear, “people buy franchises wanting to leverage the brand equity and capitalize on the strong processes and training systems the franchise offers. Employees, in turn, want to work for AAMCO centers as they see this as an opportunity to develop their professional and technical skills and have a career path that provides an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. With our commitment to training and their career path, they can find that working for AAMCO. With well-trained and motivated employees, we are able to deliver a great experience, and that leads to consumers being more loyal to the brand. It is really the foundational element in us creating customers for life. We’re creating that mindset and culture at AAMCO, and AAMCO University is a critical element in bringing that mantra to life.”

As the tour begins, O’Donnell points out the clear, consistent AAMCO branding that starts in the lobby with the large AAMCO University sign over the reception desk and continues throughout the facility. This includes a mural of the AAMCO timeline showing how the brand has changed in the kitchen area, along with the façade of the outside of an AAMCO building seen when exiting the facility and heading into the GPS factory.

“AAMCO University hosts ‘Discovery Day’ for potential franchisees, where they get the chance to meet with the leadership team and learn more about the company, so it’s important that the branding message is front and center,” O’Donnell says.

Outside the conference room is an area with small bar-height tables where learners can check their e-mail during session breaks. The theater-style auditorium with a soaring ceiling allows for instructor-led sessions or virtual presentations—on that particular day, an instructor is covering key performance indicators (KPIs) in the store, showing the students how pulling different levers can impact the P&L, sales, and revenue.

Sessions can be recorded and played back. Sometimes AAMCO brings in a guest speaker, records the session, edits it, and puts it up on www.aamco.com. There is a big screen at the front of the room. Each student has a laptop, and there’s a video connection to the repair shop down the hall, allowing learners in the auditorium to watch a live feed of other students working on a car in the shop.

Featuring two lifts and an array of equipment, the AAMCO Technical Institute allows for hands-on training of technicians, from entry-level to master. It also helps customer service managers (CSMs) understand what techs are doing, so when their customers’ cars go on a lift, they can walk them into the shop and explain what the tech is evaluating and show them what’s wrong with the car. “We can have a camera under the car and show it on screen,” O’Donnell notes. “We can rotate five people under the car while the other students are watching via video.”

Another room is set up to look like the lobby of an AAMCO center. This shows franchisees what the store will look like at the point where employees meet and greet customers and what the experience should be. This is where role-playing on the 15-step customer interaction system takes place with Jason Herman, dean of AAMCO University. As in the shop, role-play sessions can be recorded in the service lobby and played on the big screen in the training auditorium. O’Donnell notes that the lobby was carefully designed to decrease customer anxiety while waiting for their car’s diagnosis, with warm touches such as hardwood floors and reassuring poster boards touting AAMCO’s reliability and car care knowledge.

AAMCO University also houses a call center, which is in the process of building a Website that will have screens with performance levels. It also has recording technology.

Next door, at the GPS factory, O’Donnell explains that the idea was to move building transmissions to a factory rather than individual stores, which helps with consistency. “There used to be just six transmissions, but today there are 420 families of transmissions and 4,500 skus. That makes it difficult for techs to be familiar with all the different types and be able to diagnose and fix problems. Plus, there are no cables on the gear shift now, for example, so training is moving from mechanical diagnoses to electrical.”

On the first day at GPS, techs get a four-hour plant safety instruction. Each worker has a specific product line and works within a “buddy system.” They are not expected to produce anything in the first two weeks. At one station, they learn how TO take apart valve bodies, clean them, and put them back together. Workstations have printouts with the steps to rebuild valve bodies, plus job aids and instructions on what tools to use. “We like to see employees up to full productivity within eight to 12 weeks,” O’Donnell says. “We’re also looking at implementing one week of new employee training. We’ve grown at 50 percent year over year, so training will be critical.”

The test area makes sure the transmission shifts and has the right gears; more than 300 data are points tested and measured through a sophisticated piece of equipment called a Dynometer that confirms functionality. “Every transmission comes with a certificate showing the consumer that it went through these quality checks and passed,” Rajkowski says.

Back at AAMCO University, O’Donnell explains that it is more than just a new training facility, boasting a revamped curriculum and career paths. AAMCO University now consists of four schools:

School of Franchise Ownership (growth strategies, optimizing financial performance, reputation management, and employee recruiting and retention)

School of Management (customer relations, sales, quality assurance, inventory control)

School of Technical Excellence (vehicle inspection and diagnostics; routine maintenance and repair; entry- to master-level courses, including transmission rebuilding)

School of Franchise Support (career paths, department structure, brand excellence, AAMCO culture)

This last school is designed for the AAMCO support team to build their skills and competencies to better support the franchisees.

















The newly developed curriculum shows the training and progression needed to navigate a successful career path—either technical or management—at AAMCO. Rajkowski notes that such career paths aid recruiting and retention.

The hierarchy, from high to low, for a technical career path at an AAMCO center would be:

  • Master Transmission Rebuilder
  • Master Certified Diagnostician and Repair Technician
  • Certified Repair Technician
  • General Maintenance Technician

For a management path for managing and owning franchises, the hierarchy would be:

  • Multi-Center Owner
  • Center Owner
  • General Manager
  • Customer Service Manager

Ponton points to the newly developed Advanced Customer Service Manager training that takes place at AAMCO University and in the field as a recent “big win.” “Our goal is to increase CSMs’ confidence and performance and achieve better business results,” Ponton says. Indeed, comparable store sales were at 4.8 percent before Advanced CSM Training vs. 13.4 percent after. “Many CSMs are paid on commission, so they see the training as getting a raise,” says AAMCO University Dean Jason Herman.

“Training like this allows for our franchisees to build a strong Employer Value Proposition (EVP) with prospective employees. It really shows them that this is much more than just a job and they care about the employees’ individual development and career,” Ponton adds.

On customer satisfaction surveys, Advanced CSMs scored between 8.8 and 9.7 out of 10. “More of our competitors are using remanufactured transmissions and they are becoming a real choice for consumers. We now are training on best practices for selling and engaging with the customers on remanufactured transmissions, in addition to custom building them,” Rajkowski adds.

O’Donnell predicts AAMCO University eventually will offer remanufactured transmission training with techs and CSMs in the same room.

“Franchise owners do not need a background in automotive repair,” O’Donnell says, “rather, AAMCO is looking to partner with good businesspeople who are passionate and committed to taking care of customers.” Some 15 to 20 percent of franchise owners are former AAMCO employees, but the rest are new to the brand and need some foundational training.

“The training at AAMCO University starts with a welcome and pictorial introduction, history of AAMCO, details on the five-year plan, and expectations,” explains new franchisee Naim (Nick) Barakat, who is on-site for the training that day. “The training covers everything from A to Z: managing your shop, managing your fleet, your KPIs, recruiting, finance, e-learning, accounting, sales, etc. There are some Webinars—including those on bankcards and parts suppliers—plus PowerPoint presentations. We got both paper and digital copies of those. You leave here with all the tools you need. How you use them is up to you.”

Steve Barley, another new franchisee at AAMCO University that day, describes the training as “well-thought-out and intentional with great resources.” He explains, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom setting. The use of illustrations is more powerful than just the factoids and data. I believe people learn more from stories and illustrations.”

New franchisees do a competitive analysis in which they pretend they are consumers. They spend two weeks at AAMCO University, then one week in the field at an AAMCO store, and one final week back at the training facility. “I thought I would be able to pick the store I trained at, but AAMCO picked it,” Barakat says. “They want us to see stores that are doing things right and learn the process.”

During the training, Barakat says, owners create 60-, 90-, and 120-day plans—some going up to two years—that include advertisements, how to move the shop forward, and how to keep customers.

Barakat and Barley say they learned how the Web-based LMS gives owners visibility into the training of everyone in their organization—detailing courses started and passed, as well as tracking where employees are on a particular career path. The 300 courses are laid out by job role, and O’Donnell says new courses are added every month.

Franchisees get points for the President’s Club Award— AAMCO’s award/trip for the best franchisees in the system. AAMCO uses the points as a carrot to motivate franchise employees to take online training. In fact, the No. 2 franchisee in completed training courses is holding a contest in Utah for its techs—the one who passes the most online courses will be flown to AAMCO University for on-site training at the facility.

“AAMCO also is rolling out salesforce.com in the form of a franchisee relationship management (FRM) system,” Ponton says. “We’ll be able to synch performance and training and show the franchisees all this in one place. It will be a business dashboard that provides franchisees with the key performance indicators (KPIs) that drive their business performance, one-stop shopping for all their center’s information. Ultimately, data is only as good as our ability to connect the dots and execute better; with FRM, we’ll be able to assist our franchise owners in analyzing their business and making recommendations on areas to improve their performance—in real time, all in the palm of their hand.”

Once the franchise is in business, the operations team does center visits to help identify opportunities for the franchisees to grow their business. The operations team does a physical audit of the store’s performance. “Part of that visit is connecting dots between the performance opportunities and training to see if the employees are taking advantage of the tools available to them to succeed,” Rajkowski says.

The day concludes with the leaders citing a famous exchange:
CFO: What happens if we invest in the development of our people and then they leave us?
CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

As Barakat says: “AAMCO University is the transmission. Senior leaders are the fuel. And franchisees and our employees are the engine to move AAMCO forward.”

Looks like AAMCO is running smoothly on all cylinders these days.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.