Tapping the Best in Your Techs

Members of the United Equipment Dealers Association offer insights on how dealership owners and managers can maximize service technician performance.

Clean, orderly and uncluttered helps set the tone for a highly efficient service department which technicians take pride in.
Clean, orderly and uncluttered helps set the tone for a highly efficient service department which technicians take pride in.
Morrison's Power Equipment in Plymouth, MA

The best technicians are those who are self-motivated. Unfortunately, not all are. Regardless, truly getting the best performance out of service department staff requires some action on the part of dealership owners and management. Pay plays, but there has to be more to it than that.

Dealer members of the United Equipment Dealers Association (UEDA) offer their insights on how to maximize the performance of your technicians. UEDA formed back in late-January as a result of the merger between the Ohio-Michigan Equipment Dealers Association (OMEDA) and the Mid-America Equipment Retailers Association (MAERA). UEDA now represents roughly 747 members in the four states of Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

Read on to see what these leading dealers have to say on the topics of:

  • Committing to a culture of efficiency
  • Creating a great working environment
  • Investing in tools and training
  • Paying for performance
  • Those little perks
  • Keeping techs busy all year long.

Committing to a culture of efficiency

A high-performance service department is one where both management and staff are committed to safety and efficiency. Communication and collaborative thinking help to lay the necessary groundwork.

"We have simply asked our technicians what we can do to make things easier," says Jim Bishop of Flint New Holland in Burton, MI. "Simple things can be missed by management and overlooked over the years. Simple things like upgrading floor jacks, LED trouble lights and lawnmower jacks make life a lot easier for the technicians." Flint New Holland operates a second location in Richmond, MI.

"We work with our technicians and encourage their participation in processes to help maximize our customers' expectations so, in turn, the techs can maximize their time and flow," says Dale Magie of Moe's Outdoor Equipment & Supplies in Liberty Township, OH. "We also strive to maximize communication with our entire team. We find that a lack of communication creates the most problems whether with a customer or our team." Moe's operates a second location in Springboro, OH.

"The owners and other dealership staff communicate with our technicians on a daily basis," says Jeff Voss of Voss Bros. Sales & Rentals in Powell, OH. "This is a two-way interaction. It helps supervisors know what tasks lay ahead and what the techs need to better do their jobs. It helps the technicians know what is expected of them in terms of quality, quantity and timeframe." Voss Bros. also has locations in Marysville and Sunbury, OH.

Staying on the topic of communication, Bill Wiggam Jr. of Carmel Welding & Supply Co. in Carmel, IN, says he and his management team strive to provide appropriate feedback whether the job is getting done correctly or not. "This helps motivate those productive techs to improve, and tells the others how to become more productive," Wiggam says. "It's a win-win situation in both cases."

In addition to solid communication, there are specific policies and procedures that owners can put in place to further help cement a culture of efficiency. For example, one UEDA member says he has implemented a dual computer monitor system in the shop. Having two monitors per computer allows techs to do both quotes and research simultaneously, helping to drive productivity.

This dealer has also taken to religiously utilizing a time clock, particularly when it comes to his setup tech. The objective is to pinpoint how the employee is using his time, in addition to figuring out what you can and can't charge the customer for.

"Our setup tech clocks in and out on every single setup job he does," the dealer tells. "He also clocks out to gas up product, clean product ready for delivery, unload trucks, and even for restroom stops. Sure, it is a habit he must get into. But it's well worth the little time it takes to do. You have no idea how inefficient employees might be until you manage their time. It's taking us an extra 5-10 minutes a day to use the time clock and write a brief record of what each job entails. But when you understand where all of the time goes, you can collect hundreds of extra dollars per week by billing otherwise lost labor."

Another UEDA member says he and his team have streamlined their service department by limiting what technicians will work on. "We only work on the residential brands we sell. This way the parts are usually in stock and we are more familiar with the equipment and common problems," the dealer shares. "This also lets our technicians be more efficient in diagnosis and repair, allowing faster turnaround time for our better customers who have invested in our company. We also have fewer comebacks from the cheaper equipment, further improving our technicians' morale. Plus, we are not keeping our box store competition in business by giving them a free service center to get their equipment serviced. Our service department has never been better."

At the end of the day, creating a sustainably high-efficient service department will not happen without the support of management. One more way to show that support is through leadership by example. "When I (the owner) go out and unload a truck at 4:55 p.m. so my crew can go home, they become more willing to do the same for me," one UEDA member relates. "A good small business can suffer from a lack of structure and procedure, but it can also benefit from a leader who is willing to go above and beyond for his staff and customers. That's what works for us."

Good work environment

Earlier, Bishop mentioned how things like lifts, jacks and LED trouble lights can go a long way in making a tech's life easier. Tools like that certainly can. As a general rule, creating a pleasant work environment should be a priority for today's servicing dealers.

"We recently did a lighting upgrade on our shop," Bishop adds. "We went to more powerful 4-foot high bay lights and got rid of the old 8-foot florescent lights. The technicians really appreciated that. It has saved time as they often do not have to drag a trouble light everywhere. It really did not cost much overall either. So from a morale standpoint, it was very easy and rewarding."

Magie says the clean, well-organized shop at Moe's Outdoor Equipment is climate-controlled with heat, air and appropriate ventilation. Fellow dealer Alan Worcester also recognizes this importance. "We provide a clean work area with environmental controls, i.e. heat and AC," says Worcester of Worcester's Inc. in North Ridgeville, OH. "Doing so demonstrates to our technicians that we value them just as much as their office, sales and parts department counterparts."

Keeping things organized also helps set the tone. "We provide a clean work area large enough to be effective for maintenance and repairs," says John Murphy of Commercial Lawnmower in Livonia, MI. "We continually try to eliminate clutter and also maintain an adequate inventory of repair parts so the lack of the right part does not slow down repairs."

Certain standard operating procedures can also be developed to help make your techs' lives easier. "We have our service manager quote every service job before repairs begin," one UEDA dealer shares. "He then keeps the customer informed if any additional problems are found during the repair. This takes the pressure off of the technician and keeps him more productive."

"I have hired an office employee who is responsible for warranty submissions and tracking," says another dealer. "This relieves both our techs and service manager from the task, which they don't want to deal with anyway. We kill two birds with one stone; the techs spend more time turning wrenches and are happier, and the dealership recovers more money."

"We maintain a 'medical record' on all repairs including model and serial number," says one more dealer. "This provides for easier reference down the road when a customer needs parts or service."

Tools of the trade

A superstar technician can only do so much without the proper tools of his trade. Many UEDA dealers point to this area as one of the most important a dealership owner must focus on.

"We try to have all of the special tools necessary to assist our technicians," says Rick Buehrer of Buehrer Power Equipment in Stryker, OH. "We have two technicians who are in their 50s. When we installed hydraulic lift tables, the ones with the cylinders in the floor, it was a huge morale booster. The techs didn't have to bend over and get down on the floor anymore. Plus, it makes them more efficient. I wish I would have installed them sooner. What held us back was simply the cost."

In addition to lift tables, jacks and overhead lifts, other commonly cited specialty tools include lawnmower blade sharpeners and balancers, chainsaw sharpeners, and in this day and age, EFI diagnostic equipment, to name just a few.

Basic hand tools are also a necessity, of course. Magie says his dealership works with its younger techs to help set them up with the appropriate tools. "We use different tool investment methods," Magie points out, "but most of the time we help pay for the tools because we want them to have an investment in their tools as well."

Timely training

UEDA dealers point to technician training as another essential dealership investment. "We find that good technicians like training opportunities," Magie says. "Plus, we know that the better they are trained and the more they know, the better they will be."

Murphy understands that a multi-pronged approach is needed today. "To keep our technicians on the cutting edge of technology and to increase their skill level, they generally attend all service schools," Murphy points out. "We also promote webinars from the manufacturers; this helps educate while minimizing their time away from the dealership."

And what about those technicians who are brand new to the business? Bishop says he has recently instituted a mentor program. "We have hired a very young tech with less experience," Bishop says. "It has been extremely difficult to find anyone with a great degree of training at all. So we'll see how this mentoring approach goes."

Magie says the younger technicians coming out of school and taking a job with Moe's Outdoor Equipment are set up with one of the dealership's lead techs so they can be mentored and coached. "This helps ensure that our new techs understand our goals and expectations," Magie explains.

Paying for performance

As stated in the very first paragraph of this story, many things go into attracting and retaining good service technicians. That said, we wouldn't be honest if we didn't point out that compensation also matters.

"We strive to keep a technician's pay scale at a rate above the average—so long as performance is being met," says Wiggam. "We, too, pay above industry average," adds Jim Herbert of Bud Herbert Motors in Cincinnati, OH. "We also offer generous benefits including health care insurance and a SIMPLE IRA with a 3% match. Our staff is well-disciplined and we want to treat them fairly." Bud Herbert Motors has a second location in Harrison, OH.

In addition to solid base pay and core benefits, many dealers are finding that it also pays to pay for performance. "We provide various incentives for productivity," Voss says. "We have put together bonus programs for the techs that specifically reward for performance," Murphy chimes in.

As you might suspect, there are countless ways to structure performance-based incentive programs. Magie shares his experience: "We're finding that most technicians coming onboard to work for us today desire a higher dollar base pay plan. All of our technicians also get paid a production bonus, a team bonus, and a percentage of parts sales. Some of our long-time technicians work on a straight production and commission plan. The production and commission plan pays the most to the best technicians once they come onboard and see how our systems work. We know that for us today, our A technicians need to make at least $50,000 a year."

One UEDA member says his dealership pays a technician an extra $2/hour for every billable hour above an 80% threshold. For example, if the tech works 80 hours over a two-week period, the goal is to bill at least 64 of those hours (80% of 80 hours). So for billed hours 65-80, the tech would earn another $2/hour.

One other dealer says he has implemented a bonus system that has helped raise technician performance levels from around 50% efficiency to over 85% in just a couple of months. "It's not just technicians working faster either," the dealer points out. "It's also about billing out for all time spent, along with being more diligent in diagnosing units that are not worth repairing. No longer will a technician spend 1.5 hours trying to repair a $150 piece of two-cycle equipment. After 30 minutes, the technician is now trained to get the service manager's approval for further work."

As a final point, Magie says his entire dealership staff gets a bonus based on the technicians’ production and performance. "We have found that our technicians and our service response time will be our success for the future as we sell more and more commodities," Magie explains. "Everyone, including our managers, knows we must appreciate and work with our technicians so they can get as much done as possible every day, and a great technician will be the best-paying position in our organization."

Those little perks

Aside from attractive base pay, performance incentives and health care benefits, what else are successful dealers doing to reward service technicians?

"Although we do not have an incentive program, we do offer year-end bonuses with Christmas hams, paid holidays and vacation time," says Ed Emery of Countryside Lawn & Power in Bath, MI. "Flexible hours also play a big part in maintaining morale, especially with the younger technicians and those with family commitments. We also offer the opportunity to work overtime during peak periods. Other perks appreciated by our technicians include our hamburger and hotdog cookouts during the summer, and how we'll occasionally buy all employees lunch and/or dinner."

Magie is also a big fan of flexible hours. "We do our best in providing flex time so employees, including technicians, can maximize family time which is extremely important for everyone," Magie says.

One UEDA dealer says he has begun paying for basic cell phone plans for his technicians and shop foreman. "In exchange, we have a schedule for on-call service information on recently purchased parts, etc.," the dealer says.

More often than not, it's simply the thought that counts. "Our techs really appreciate the verbal 'thank you' and 'good job' as much as anything," Herbert says. "It shows that we really care and that we notice their success. It’s personal to them and yet public for those around them within hearing. We also buy lunch for everyone many times a year, and we bring doughnuts for breakfast."

Keep 'em busy

In a seasonal business like lawn and garden, it's important for dealership owners to find ways to keep their technicians busy all year long. Pushing customers to have their equipment tuned-up in the off-season is an effective age-old tactic.

One UEDA dealer relates, "During the slower winter months, we mail out postcards to our customers offering free pickup and delivery, along with 10% off parts and labor to encourage normal maintenance and repairs before the spring rush. We get a great response, and it fills our service shop with work for the winter and brings in needed cash flow."

Some dealers are taking additional unique approaches to drive off-season service. "We offer free storage of equipment for winter months with the purchase of our 26-point service inspection package," one dealer tells. "This allows us more time to better inspect and service the equipment, and it generates off-season revenue. This is also the best time to sell any needed major repairs."

"We have a winter work program where our shop technicians can earn extra money by helping bring in jobs in the winter," another dealer shares. "Each technician has an opportunity in the fall as they are on service calls to note additional repairs that a customer's machine needs. In November, the shop manager calls customers to get jobs for the winter using this information to suggest specific work. If the customer brings in the machine for repair as a result of the technician's lead, we give that technician 2% of the total repair as a commission."

"We have implemented our own service maintenance program which is available to purchase within 30 days of the sale at a discounted rate," another dealer relates. "This allows us to do this service in the slower months, which allows us to keep our technicians productive and their hours up in those slower months. The last couple of years we have achieved over 100% labor production in December and January.

"The service we sell is preformed via a mobile service trailer, but could also be performed in-house," the dealer continues. "The customers who have a maintenance plan qualify for a unit-down program, qualifying them for a loaner if we cannot fix it in a mowing cycle. The customers coming to our store perceive value in our service; that's why they come to us. By making the presentation at the time of the sale, the program can be financed with equipment. We've been able to average approximately 20% of our customers buying in on the plan on our higher-end products. The lower-end products are a little harder to sell though."

Another UEDA dealer leverages warranty terms to promote service. "We send out reminder letters to all of our customers whose warranty is about to run out," the dealer says. "Roughly 30-60 days prior to the equipment's warranty expiration, customers are notified of this information and encouraged to bring in their equipment to have any issues resolved before that expiration date. It increases the available work for the technicians, and we've had many customers say they appreciate this service–even if we find something that is not covered by warranty."

Find your focus NOW

Perhaps you're already doing many of the tactics discussed in this article. Perhaps you're doing some of them, and perhaps you're doing variations or something completely different. Whatever the case, hopefully you're doing something—because if you're lucky enough to find a good technician these days, you want to hang onto him or her for dear life.

"I know this area continues to be a huge challenge for all servicing dealers, with no clear vision of resolution in the future," Magie says. "We as dealers will need to continue to improve pay to our technicians and raise our shop rates to cover training and overhead needs, as well as improve our image and work environment. Hopefully our suppliers, associations and manufacturers will help create a better image to draw young people to see this as a career opportunity."