In the beginning, Lindsey Trett had no idea how many customers might want to have their vehicles picked up for service and dropped off when the work was completed.

What Trett and her colleagues at Walser Automotive Group in Edina, Minn., did know as the coronavirus began to spread across the country in March was that they had to offer that option if they wanted to drum up business for their service bays. There wasn’t much of it in those early days: Repair appointment volume cratered in March, dropping by up to 80 percent in the last two weeks of the month, across the dealership group’s 20-plus stores in Minnesota and Wichita, Kan.

Walser rolled out a suite of services under the banner of You, including service pickup and drop-off, at-home test drives and home vehicle delivery. The idea for the services had been in development since last year, CEO Andrew Walser said, and company leaders quickly mobilized to put them into place in response to the pandemic.

Trett, who manages Walser’s service business development center, said her team launched a basic pickup and drop-off program for service customers in late March and refined it over the following weeks as they learned what worked and what didn’t.

“Store by store, we just started to offer it on the phone to customers with basically limited to no information. We just had to go for it. It was fly by the seat of your pants,” Trett told Automotive News. “If we booked one, we emailed something down to the store. They’d go, ‘OK, we got someone; we’ll go pick it up,’ and that’s when we started to figure out some best practices. But at that point, you’re thinking, ‘How do I survive?’ ”

As interest grew, Trett said, service business development center employees developed a strategy that emphasized communication and simplicity. They built codes specific to pickup and drop-off within the group’s scheduling software and set parameters on distance. In Minnesota, it’s generally 15 miles, although jobs requiring less than an hour of labor are limited to 5 miles. Walser’s Wichita customers live farther away, Trett said, so the radius there is 100 miles.

The service requires additional cost to operate, but it provides value to customers and will continue to be offered for free, according to the group, which retailed 18,057 new vehicles and 24,124 used vehicles in 2019, ranking it No. 54 on the Automotive News list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S. The company did not quantify the additional expense but said it can be attributed to the need for more employees to run vehicles between homes and the service department.

Trett’s department worked with each store’s service department to structure the program to fit their individual needs. Trett’s team created a tracking system that produces reports each night on the day’s Walser To You activity. Her department sends follow-up emails for each pickup and drop-off to the service department, confirming the appointment.

All of the setup happened remotely, as service business development center employees began working from home in March — and with a smaller staff, Trett said. Roughly half of the positions on the 40-person team were eliminated, though those employees were eligible to move to other jobs in the group. Going forward, Trett said, her department will stay smaller because productivity has remained high.

From March 23 through the first half of August, Trett’s department had made more than 3,500 appointments under the Walser To You program, an average of 6.9 percent of total service appointments it set. That was up from about 5 percent through the first half of July.

For dealerships considering a similar program, Trett said, these concepts were important: Use existing software to avoid adding steps. Keep the process simple. Make sure everyone understands the goal and the reason behind the initiative. Create a system to accurately track and report results. And communicate often so employees in multiple departments are on the same page.

“It’s almost like we needed this to happen,” Trett said of the pandemic bringing the program to fruition. “We’ve been able to strip everything back and really look at the future in a different way.”