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Technician Discipline

Good forklift service technicians are extremely hard to find. They are also hard to keep, as they are always being approached by our competition. We tend to put up with rogue behavior because they are so vital to our business, (i.e., not wearing full uniforms, not calling in, not taking care of company vehicles; in short, not maintaining the high standards we expect in the dealership). How can we build employee discipline, involvement and loyalty in an environment where the grass is always greener at the competition?
                                 
– Joyce Schwob, General Manager, Jamestown Industrial Trucks (Frewsburg, NY)

Dave Griffith: We don’t put up with rogue behavior. We expect performance, and that includes behavior. That’s with every employee. We focus on hiring right with testing and interviewing programs. We pay on average at the industry midpoint and manage pay as a pay-for-performance company. We have variable compensation for every employee and have very competitive programs with education, retirement (ESOP and 401(k) in our case), medical, vacation and disability. We also are very focused on being an open-door/open-book company and on open communication throughout our organization. We are in hire mode for technicians all the time, not just when we have demand. We are driven to live our philosophy of Modern Pride/Modern Performance. As a 100 percent ESOP, accountability starts with me and flows through the organization. While being an ESOP helps, you don’t need to be to get these results. We work at this every day as a management team.

Loren Swakow: We struggled with that also. I’m not sure you’ll like my answer, but we have attempted to become an employer of choice. We pay top wages. That can be a bitter pill to swallow, yet our service department is becoming more profitable with higher-quality technicians. It can be hard to look at the big picture when dealing with the minutiae of personnel. This practice also served an additional benefit. Once our pay rate went up and hiring became easier, we began to weed out our under-producers. Our whole staff improved.

We make sure the technicians understand the value of their benefits. When they are hired, we show them the 401(k), health insurance, unemployment insurance, cell phone, uniforms, gas, etc. We show them the actual dollar value of all their benefits. This helps them understand our need to produce efficiently.

Another aspect we did not expect was the increase in morale. Once the poor producers were removed, the balance of the technicians began to feel they were all being treated fairly. Nobody likes to come in on time every day when the person across the aisle seems to come in whenever convenient without repercussions. Mutual respect among the technicians is important.

We do not have mechanics, only technicians. They are professionals within their trade. You will find customers beginning to ask for “their” technician. Business cards are cheap and the technicians appreciate the aura provided.

You can justify this practice. Use a high number, say $3 per hour over your current top technician rate. This will increase your cost for one technician about $6,000 per year. How much re-work can you save? How much additional billing can you get with the best technician? How much faster can you turn your shop and fieldwork? You will find as you complete the jobs more efficiently, parts sales will improve as well. If you still find a cost increase hard to justify, you will find that increasing your customer labor rate will not be an issue when the service you perform is the best available.

Stan Sewell: That’s a great question with no easy answer. I think it requires building a long-term culture in the organization where technicians believe they are learning and growing in their jobs and are aligned with the objectives of their branch team. We continually try to create an environment where we not only deliver value to the customer, but also for the employee. Fair compensation, rewards and incentives are just pieces of the formula. Providing clear purpose and direction, performance measurement, good communication, involvement and recognition are some of the things we work on to reinforce employee commitment, loyalty and high standards. We reinforce these messages by engaging all employees, including field technicians, in weekly or monthly PIT (Performance Improvement Team) Stop meetings. Even then, it doesn’t mean every technician will achieve your standards or stay with you when your competitor offers $1 per hour more. The encouraging news is we have seen improvements taking place with former “rogue” technicians, and our voluntary technician turnover last year was 10 percent.

Chuck Frank: I believe you have to lead by example, establish high standards and take disciplinary action quickly. If you are looking for the best technicians in your market, you have to be willing to pay a fair wage. If your client perceives value from your quality technicians, I would challenge you to charge a higher rate. Zero tolerance is easy to preach yet hard to implement. One must ask oneself, “Are we better with or without this type of employee?” I was told years ago that if you think it is greener on the other side, you should consider fertilizing your side. Involve your employees whenever possible, define expectations and keep the lines of communication open. Some people will never be happy. If they are not happy, are your clients happy?

Rex Mecham: Pay cannot be the only thing we offer technicians. There always will be people who don’t understand the importance of a bill-out ratio of three to four times the average technician’s wage. There always will be someone offering more per hour to lure your people away, so don’t get caught in a pay war.

Once you’ve established a competitive wage rate, focus on the critical factors of a successful service department. Recognize that good people want to work where they can be proud of the company and themselves. Good people enjoy working where performance is measured, shared and discussed. They get excited when they can compare themselves to their peers and discuss ways to improve. Good people will choose to work in a high-quality environment over a shoddy, undisciplined environment, even if there are a few more dollars offered by the undisciplined group.

A service department needs to have quality standards in performance, appearance and behavior. If you train technicians to perform at the required levels and then have managers who will not accept lower performance, good people will want to work there. It is important not to tolerate low performance or bad behavior and appearance because good people don’t want to be around others who don’t reflect pride in their work and appearance. You need managers who are empathetic and uncompromisingly tough.

I always tell my managers that there is no such thing as a good employee with a bad attitude. It doesn’t matter how talented or skilled people are, you must get rid of them if they have bad attitudes. People with bad attitudes will do more damage than they can possibly do good. Don’t be afraid to weed people out. I know this sounds contrary to the desperate need to hire, but it sends a message to current employees and outsiders that this company is a quality organization, and good people will come to you.

Duncan Murphy: The new generation of the work force is different from the Boomer generation. From a conduct standpoint, there must be a reason for rules in the youngsters’ eyes. A written code of conduct and dress can still be appropriate, but it must be jointly created and not just imposed. Exceptions can be allowed when an individual can make his or her case, i.e., not wearing a belt because of chronic kidney problems. Some rules are non-negotiable, with penalties defined and swiftly imposed. We find that work rules have changed, but an atmosphere of discipline remains important to technicians and their teams. From a retention standpoint, this implies that occasionally the tough decision to let someone go will occur. By doing so, we feel that fewer technicians in total are at risk of leaving. Ultimately, you must make your company the most attractive place for technicians to work. Fair wages and benefits are givens. Ramp up your training and recognition, and word will get around that you are interested in improving people and recognizing them for it.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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