Lou Fusz and Karpel Design Service Scheduler

Lou Fusz Automotive Network is best-known for selling and repairing cars driven by many St. Louisans. But the Kirkwood-based company recently has become involved in a side business: a sophisticated software application service for automotive service departments.

Karpel Computer Systems in south St. Louis County has developed an innovative software application, CarScheduler.com, which allows customers to easily schedule service appointments online. It also gives dealerships the ability to track productivity and better manage the work flow in their service departments.

Instead of a software package installed on a personal computer, the application is hosted on a remote server controlled by Karpel Computer. Customers access the program through their dealer's Web site.

Lou Fusz has rolled out the service at all five of its Saturn dealerships and will expand the application to its other 11 stores.

Now, Karpel Computer plans to sell the service to other Saturn dealerships nationwide. Marketing efforts start this week.

Customers love the convenience of the online system, said Chuck Tucker, fixed operations manager at Lou Fusz Saturn in Creve Coeur.

Since introducing this capability in May, about 25 percent of the Creve Coeur customers now use the online service requests, and the store hopes that eventually increases to 50 percent, he said.

"Right off the bat, it picked up faster than what I thought it would," Tucker said.

Before, customers phoned the service department and talked to a service writer, who made the appointment.

Now they can schedule online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the request, customers can pick one of 20 common problems or services, or they can give a detailed description of a problem.

The new program also means service writers can spend more time talking to customers instead of juggling incoming calls from people wanting to schedule a simple oil change or brake job.

Most importantly, the program only allows a customer to schedule an appointment when a technician with the right experience to handle the job is available.

"If a customer wanted an engine overhaul and I had only two beginner technicians here (at the requested time), it wouldn't let you schedule," Tucker said.

The beta version

By matching a specific appointment with an available technician, CarScheduler.com allows dealers to turn around jobs more quickly and finish jobs by a specific time.

The application grew out of frustration with scheduling programs that fell short of the dealer's expectations, said Chris Hedgpeth, operations manager for all Lou Fusz Saturns. The stores already had a scheduler program, but it was archaic and not much more than a simple calendar, he said.

"That's why we've converted back to paper" to make appointments, Hedgpeth said.

Then last year, a Lou Fusz manager mentioned the problem to Jeff Karpel, president of Karpel Computer. The dealer had used Karpel Computer to maintain mainframes at the Saturn businesses.

Karpel was excited about the chance to work closely with Lou Fusz in creating a new automotive product. Besides being the largest dealership group in the St. Louis area, Lou Fusz is the 69th-largest auto dealer group in the nation, posting $481 million in revenue last year, according to Automotive News.

Working closely with the Lou Fusz staff for about six months, Karpel Computer rolled out a trial, or beta, version of the software in May at the Creve Coeur store. By August, the four other Saturn stores were running the service, too.

Dealers using CarScheduler.com would be charged a fee, initially set at 95 cents, whenever a customer made an appointment. That includes a reminder e-mail and automated phone call to the customer as well as a follow-up e-mail, asking about the service.

A fee would make the service affordable for smaller dealerships, Karpel said.

"Within a year, I hope to be offering this service to independent repair shops," he said.

Making a match

Lou Fusz expects the online schedule to improve customer satisfaction. But the company hopes to see additional benefits on the business side, too.

"This is just not a service scheduler, it's an actual management tool," Hedgpeth said.

The dealer benefited the first day it introduced the program at the Saturn store in Columbia, Mo. Early-bird customers were requesting work that required higher-level technicians than the store regularly had at the start of the day. That spurred the dealer to change its staffing, Hedgpeth said.

Matching the right job with the right technician also saves the dealer money, he said.

"I don't need (highly skilled) technicians, earning journeyman wages, doing oil changes and rotating tires," work that can be done by lower-wage apprentices, Hedgpeth said.

Michael Behrmann, associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, hasn't had the opportunity to examine CarScheduler.com.

But dealerships are certain to give the application a good look, because they already face a tough task juggling complex repair work and a large volume of jobs, he said.

Behrmann estimates that roughly 40 percent of service departments use some software, which varies from the simple to the complex.

"A lot of service departments are looking for better management service software," he said. "If it has the capability, is priced correctly and offers ease of service, it is going to be a wonderful tool."

Besides keeping costs down, dealerships want to keep customers happy, which often means doing repairs as quickly as possible, Behrmann said. "If you can get them back on the road as soon as possible ... that will help customer satisfaction."

Gregory Cancelada
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Oct. 02 2005