Above: Hartville Hardware (Hartville, Ohio), the largest John Deere dealer in northeast Ohio, provides its service technicians, including Al Floom (pictured), with an excellent working environment with a clean, well-lighted service department equipped with a variety of lifts.
By Jeff Sheets
If there is one group that is most misunderstood by outdoor power equipment dealership owners, it is service technicians. They can be a hard group to corral, and sometimes that leaves owners frustrated and confused. I have seen many dealerships where there is a great divide between the front of the store and the back of the store. Everything is rosy on the sales floor, while there is disorganization and chaos in the service department. There are many reasons for this, but I am going to give you five tips on how to do a better job in the back of the store and with your service technicians.
#1 Understand the technicians’ learning style
I had the great opportunity many years ago to go through the training on the “Seven Intelligences of the Learner” by Howard Gardner, and it has reshaped the way I deal with people in all aspects of training/teaching. People learn in different ways. Two of the more common styles are visual and linguistic. Visual means you learn by watching someone writing on a chalkboard or by watching a video. Linguistic learners prefer to listen to someone speak.
There is one learning style that gets very little attention in traditional education, and that is kinesthetic learning. Those people learn best by doing and by having something in their hands that they can touch and feel. I am pretty sure most service technicians fall in this category. And doesn’t that make sense? Technicians get hired because they are good with their hands and have an almost instinctive desire to figure out how things work. I have worked with frustrated owners who think their technicians aren’t listening to them or aren’t applying what they’ve learned in a video training session, and they will continue to be frustrated until they adapt their training to a hands-on approach. We tend to assume that all people learn like us. The best owners that I’ve seen working with technicians are the ones who were technicians themselves. They know what needs to be done to get their technicians trained right because they probably have the same learning style. Patience is the key. Trying to learn how to teach using a different learning style takes time and effort. Whenever you are training a large group, you want to hit as many of these intelligences as possible to have a better impact. You might want to search for Gardner’s book online and buy it to study it further.
#2 Technicians need a good work environment
When I go to a dealership and look at the service department, I usually ask myself one question: Would I want to work in this environment? If the answer is no, I will ask owners what they think of their shop and what improvements could be made. Many times, they tell me some small things, but they overlook many of the big things.
I know I drone on about lighting all the time, but if your technicians can’t see what they’re doing, they’re missing things and not doing the job correctly, and that is because of the environment they work in, not their lack of desire or ability.
You allow technicians to be successful by creating a work flow that funnels work to them. Technicians need everything at their fingertips. If they’re always running up to the front of the store to get parts or to a storage area in an out-of-the-way spot to get equipment, then you’re creating a system that causes them to lose time, and that means money. Are you creating an efficient space for them by staging them close to the grinding area, the tire changer and high-use equipment?
#3 Base pay + compensation for performance
There is a common misperception that you can offer a low hourly wage and hire a good technician. The key to a strong service area is developing a compensation strategy that provides a livable wage and also rewards technicians for high efficiency. If you have a labor rate of $60 an hour, you can afford to compensate an efficient technician up to $20 an hour. If they are 100-percent-plus efficient, then your compensation needs to reflect that as in the previous example. Attracting a better technician becomes easier because rather than posting an hourly wage, you can advertise that the position is based on efficiencies and incentives, allowing earnings up to $40,000 a year. The real question is, “Are you ready to change your processes to accommodate this kind of scenario?” If your technicians have the talent to produce more billable hours but don’t, then maybe there is not enough incentive to do it. If they produce three hours of billable time but could produce eight, why wouldn’t you try to find a way to incentivize them to do it?
#4 Don’t forget they are in the building
Yes, the front of the store gets busy and there are lots of things going on every day, but the technicians need your attention too. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way toward communicating your appreciation for the roles they play in the success of your dealership. Some owners have told me that they dread going back to the service department because of the problems or personalities. You own the dealership and everything that happens in it. Avoiding it will not help it run better. As the owner, you can provide a more positive atmosphere, and the pats on the back you give are important. A lot of technicians do 95-99 percent of their job correctly, but only hear about it when they make a mistake. Reinforce the good that they do, and they will accept the criticism better. Making regular appearances in the shop is a must. All of your employees need to know that they’re not just being supervised — they’re being recognized and appreciated. You may think that’s your service manager’s responsibility, but never underestimate your influence on the showroom floor and in the service department to boost morale and hold standards high.
#5 Don’t listen to your service technicians
You were following me up to this point, right? And now you’re thinking, “How is he going to get out of this one?” Here’s how. I see a lot of bravado back in the service department. Technicians say, “I don’t need lifts, I love laying on the floor.” Others say, “Cleaning? That is a waste of my time.” Sometimes, owners use those lines as excuses to not provide lifts or really hold the technician accountable for cleaning the area after every repair job. Both of these contribute to the downfall of the department. Technicians’ backs, knees, arms and hips are wearing out every time they lay on the concrete. That exposes your dealership to a higher chance of a workplace injury and workers’ compensation. A cluttered and unkempt work environment can be hazardous because of tripping hazards or chemicals that could ignite if exposed to an open flame. Cleaning and resetting the work space needs to be done, and the clock for billing should continue until the work area is cleaned and ready for the next job. Stop listening to things we know aren’t right, and make sure we do what is in the best interests of the employees and the dealership.
I’ll leave you with one last thought, and it comes from Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin Airlines: “A company’s employees are its greatest asset, and your people are your product. When a company fails to grasp this simple business tenet, the result is invariably an oppositional ‘us and them’ divide between management and front-line staff.” Our goal should be to avoid this from happening in all aspects of the business, but especially in the service department because it is an essential cornerstone of the dealership.
Jeff Sheets is the founder and owner of OPE Consulting Services. For the past eight years, Sheets has worked extensively with hundreds of outdoor power equipment dealers to address all of their needs from marketing and inventory management to designing layouts of new facilities and helping rescue businesses that are in trouble, and more. He has a vast amount of experience of bringing “best practices” to OPE dealerships. For more information, he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (816) 260-5430. You can also follow him on Twitter @opeconsult and connect with him on LinkedIn.