Lean Mean Servicing Machines

When profit margins are low, service demands and customer support are high priorities for these dealer brothers.

Brothers Ron and Mark Otten
Brothers Ron and Mark Otten

Business improvement and growth starts with assessing your businesses' strengths and weaknesses, and building upon and improving them. At Otten Small Engine Service, it’s a constant effort to improve.

The family-owned business has been in operation since 1972. In the years since they opened, many things have changed. The way dealers today do business is much different, and so is the way brothers Ron and Mark Otten manage their business.

They maintain a large focus on improving their service department profitability, as well as looking for new ways to provide for their customers.

Service matters

In recent years with the economy's turn for the worse, many dealers have been thankful for the business brought in by their parts and service departments. The key to many dealers having profitable years has been sales of high-margin parts, and technicians having high billable hours. 

For the Ottens, keeping the shop a comfortable place for technicians to work, along with giving them the right tools for use in the shop, has increased their job satisfaction as well as productivity.

"We have air-conditioned our service shop and invested in a Franzen Automated Chainsaw sharpening system," says Mark Otten. "It has improved working conditions in the shop, and relieves the need for frequent rest breaks in hotter months."

Otten explains that the Franzen machine was a clever and profitable investment. According to the machine's manual, it can pay for itself within six to eight months of use.

"The speed and efficiency of the Franzen is amazing," says Otten. "It allows each tech to sharpen chains and repair units at the same time."

A parts-cleaning machine purchased by the dealership also helps to increase productivity and customer satisfaction.

For the last 10 years, the shop has been manned with five technicians. They have learned to use a business management system that interfaces the parts and service departments, helping them to manage customer repairs.

"We have installed a new Ideal Computer System which has greatly enhanced the speed and efficiency in which we deliver to our parts customers and the service department," explains Otten.

The service department has continued to impress their distributor Kyle Cramer of Crader Distributing Company, who praises them saying in 2010: "They have one of the best service departments in mid-Missouri. As technologies change, the service department continues to educate itself through update schools as well as online testing and training."

Customer care and referrals

Otten Small Engine has a large base of returning customers. They value their loyal customers highly, and go out of their way to show them that by providing services that keep them coming back. Their goal is to show customers that the success of the dealership depends on them.

"We have invested more quality time in serving our customers with our available service both before and after the sale," says Otten. "We spend less time and effort servicing the less-expensive 'box store' units, and more time on the equipment we have sold directly."

The fast, honest and reliable service they have continued to provide customers has led to many referrals. To further draw customers, the dealership has purchased a truck outfitted with graphics advertising their products and services. The truck is also used to aid customers in pickup and delivery service of new equipment purchases and repair orders.

To keep the service speedy, a large parts inventory is stocked. "We have increased our parts inventory levels on selected fast-moving parts to avoid service backlog and delays," says Otten.

Commercial customers are able to stay in the field while equipment is in for repair thanks to the loaner program at Otten's. "We work with the Gravely GAP program that allows us to have loaners on hand for lending to any commercial customer if we cannot fix their mower within 24 hours," says Otten. "We also have someone here at approximately 7 a.m. each day to service commercial customers."

Otten's does not have a website, but customers are allowed to purchase items from them through stihlusa.com and gravely.com. They do, however, insist that a customer be in person at delivery time.

"The customer must pick up their order here or we must be able to deliver it to them directly," explains Otten. "We like to go over the pre-delivery check list and demonstrate proper operation of the equipment to them."

Quality-only products

In an attempt to deal with the pressures of operating near big box stores and low-balling competition, the Otten brothers have experimented with products that promise higher margins. While it's good to look for new products and avenues for profit, it did not turn out as successfully as they hoped.

"We fell victim to cheap off-brand generators when we were looking for a way to increase profit margins," says Otten. "We want to supply our customers with quality products that meet their needs and have adequate support on our end."

When the product manufacturer started to get in the way of their promise of quality parts and service, the Ottens pulled back from working with the company. They wanted to maintain their focus on quality products, and also maintain the trust of their customers.

"Unfortunately, the companies we tried had dismal tech support and even worse parts availability," shares Otten. "One company did not even have and English-speaking person to answer our questions. We had to contact our supplier, and three or four days later we might get a call back with no parts available in the U.S."

The Ottens didn’t want the poor support of the new product lines to get in the way of their long-standing relationships with customers. Since the days their parents operated the dealership, they have always promised to be fair and honest with customers.  

"Since the passing of our parents, not much has changes in our business practices," says Otten. "They instilled real good core values in our lives and we have continued to live by them. Be fair to your customers, be honest with everyone, and be friendly. Everything else will take care of itself."