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Forklift Service Departments Exposed

MHEDA members pull back the curtain and share their secrets to serving their customers.

At the very first MHEDA Convention in 1955, keynote speaker G.W. Van Keppel, a longtime material handling equipment distributor, said, “When I started in this business, I had to learn a hundred how-to’s, including how to run a forklift service department.” MHEDA has come a long way since then—and the forklift service department remains as critical as ever. There are all kinds of philosophies on what makes a good service technician, how to fairly compensate service employees, how to keep track of people in the field, and so much more. On the following pages, 15 MHEDA members discuss some of these forklift service issues, along with the challenges of hiring, training and retaining technicians and the processes they have in place to make their forklift service departments run smoothly.

The Interview
Finding and hiring “qualified” technicians is a challenge for many MHEDA members. Companies are lookingfor individuals to train and grow into the required skill set and are approaching the hunt in a variety of ways, including scouring related fields like automotive, construction equipment and aircraft repair. Some are using traditional newspaper ads and word-of-mouth hiring programs. Others are forming partnerships with local trade schools or military placement agencies. Still others are turning to online sites like www.craigslist.org, a popular classified. But what are the skills necessary for a technician to be considered “qualified”?

Equipment Inc.'s Training Room

Equipment Inc.'s technician training classroom

There is no right answer, but Bill Riley, CEO of Modern Lift (Tucson, AZ), thinks the personal side is the most critical. “A lot of factors go into being a field technician, and personality is a big one. Dealing with the customer has a lot more to do with it and the actual technical skills come secondary.” Riley typically has six technicians on staff but currently is down to four.

For Steve Dorr, general manager at Universal Forklift Supply (Houston, TX), hiring has come fairly easy as the new company is growing. Eleven techs, all in the shop, are presently on staff with more likely to come in the next few months. “I’ve been in this market for a long time and I know most of the people who apply,” Dorr says. “I’m sure it won’t always be this way, but we’ve been lucky so far.”

“The biggest criteria for me are that they have a willingness and commitment to learning,” says James Picarillo, president of Maintainco (South Hackensack, NJ), whose current staff of 25 technicians is slightly below his optimal number of 28. Picarillo looks for someone with initiative to read the manuals and to do the manufacturer online training on their own. “Every technician, particularly a newer one, will run into problems at some point,” he says. “The key is to not be afraid to admit a mistake and ask for help.”

Bill Riley

“We put a priority on service calls. We'll even back a tech out of a PM if necessary to provide quick service to an emergency.” - Bill Riley, CEO, Modern Lift (Tuscon, AZ)

Personality is also a big indicator for Scott Dolan, service manager at Adobe Equipment (Commerce City, CO). “I don’t like being part of a losing team,” he says, “so either they like to be part of a winning team or I don’t need them.” Dolan currently has 15 road techs and five more in the shop, and says he can usually tell during an interview whether the person is a fit with his organization. “They must be willing to learn new things. If somebody sits there and claims to know it all, I usually don’t want them.”

Of course, technical skills are important too. Robert Siano, president of National Lift Truck Service (Fort Lauderdale, FL) looks for people who’ve had a steady job history and mechanical experience on other types of equipment, such as snowmobiles or bulldozers. “We traditionally don’t bring in anybody without some kind of mechanical knowledge, and we’ve been fortunate to find and recruit qualified people.” The company offers a sign-on bonus of $1,000 and has 48 technicians.

With a staff of nine road technicians and eight shop technicians, Larry McDowell Jr., vice president of Empire Forklift (Bloomingburg, NY), is looking for one more “backyard mechanic,” though he acknowledges those are getting tougher and tougher to find. “Kids aren’t growing up working on their cars as much anymore because of the new technology in cars. That’s probably the biggest difficulty for our industry going forward,” he says.

You’re Still Here?
MHEDA members often mention the challenge they face retaining quality technicians. To combat the loss of good people, the simple answer is: “Make sure to treat them right.” Easier said than done. What exactly does that mean?

At Greene Enterprises Material Handling (Tucson, AZ), it means treating his 19 techs fairly, letting them make decisions and not being a watchdog, according to Rob Stress, manager. “We want them to want to come in and work when their feet hit the floor in the morning, and then go home and forget about us until the next morning,” he says.

At Master Lift Truck Service (Oakville, ON, Canada), President Gary Wilson preaches culture first. “We try to recognize effort formally and get to know our staff and their families personally,” he says. On top of that, the company has established its MasterTech program, which offers hourly incentives to technicians for each new technician he brings to the company—and every tech that tech brings in. “The MasterTech program creates an atmosphere of cohesion and motivation for talking highly of the company and bringing friends to the company.” Wilson says it has proven successful, as the company currently has 29 techs and is looking for more.

Mike Holzbauer

“We give techs more control of their jobs and empower them to make decisions and teach each other to do the right things.” - Mike Holzbauer, Service Manager, Stoffel Equipment Company (Milwaukee, WI)

“We do a lot for our techs that a lot of other companies don’t do,” says Modern Lift’s Bill Riley. For instance, other staffers handle all customer calls, parts ordering and route setup. “It may seem more restrictive, but they eventually find that it frees them up to have more billable hours and make more money,” he adds. Other tricks upon hire include taking technicians out to lunch a few times and going around with salespeople to meet the customers. “We let them do their jobs without scrutiny, unless they bring it on themselves.”

The most critical element to technician retention, says Universal Forklift Supply’s Steve Dorr, is treating them with respect. “It’s all about how they feel they’re being treated; it’s not always about money,” he says. Often, insurance and other benefits are bigger factors in deciding whether a technician stays or goes. “One thing I’ve seen happen over the years is that a manager will talk down to a technician, and that person loses confidence to the point that he’s not doing good work. I strive to avoid that and show respect for all my guys and what they do for the company,” Dorr says. “When a company becomes too big, it becomes harder to do that, but it remains important.”

Timothy Balint, president of Advantage Materials Handling (South Bend, IN), agrees. “In a lot of dealerships, the owner of the company doesn’t know his technicians’ names. I think there’s something wrong with that.” Therefore, Balint focuses on building a family atmosphere for his 13 technicians, ten of whom are on the road, so they feel like more than just a number. The company still pays employee health insurance in full and 50 percent of dependent coverage. “We involve them in day-to-day decision making as much as we can and try not to give them a reason to look down the street.”

Tom Showalter

“We offer a wellness plan whereby technicians are paid for not using up their sick days.” - Tom Showalter, President, Herc-U-Lift (Maple Plain, MN)

Fairness and upfront disclosure are the keys for Larry McDowell Jr. at Empire Forklift. “I tell people when I hire them that their salary will be based on what they do for the company. If that means a technician who’s been here five years makes more than a guy who’s been here ten years, so be it. You have to reward quality,” he says. Along those same lines, McDowell says technicians who do their job properly won’t get hassled. “We’re pressure-oriented in the sense that the jobs need to get done properly, but there’s no pressure for people to do things they’re not prepared for.” That means helping people when they need help and giving breaks for family issues. “We really try to work with people,” he explains. “Sometimes, you have to act as a psychologist as much as a business owner.”

Learning the Job
For many companies, training is done on the job. The new hire is paired with a more experienced technician for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year.

Such is the case at B&H Industrial Equipment (Springfield, MO), where seven road and two shop technicians have all been out on the job with an in-house trainer, who helps new technicians diagnose and solve problems. Rather than a set length of time, the trainer rides with the newemployee until that person “feels comfortable with the equipment and knows how to deal with the customers,” says President Wayne Bates. Once that comfort zone is reached, the trainer no longer rides with the technician.

GPS Takes Front Seat
Forty percent of the companies interviewed for this story have GPS installed on their service trucks. There are several reasons why: efficient dispatch, increased security, better billing and the most-often-mentioned benefit—drivers won’t use their trucks to go grocery shopping or to The Home Depot to pick up drywall for a home project. Considering the cost of a vehicle and its inventory, GPS’s value comes from a lot more than getting a handle on billing disputes and overtime pay. (See The MHEDA Journal Online for a 2007 story, “Position Yourself For Success.”)

A similar methodology is used at Maintainco, where President James Picarillo advocates having new hires ride along for three to six months with senior technicians. “It is costly, but they do learn a lot,” Picarillo says. “The key is to put them with the right person, because they will learn bad habits if you send them out with the wrong person.” Picarillo utilizes e-learning, factory training schools and an in-house classroom at the company’s on-site training center.

Equipment Inc. (Jackson, MS) also has an in-house training center, specifically built for training its staff of 28 technicians. Complete with audiovisual equipment and access to the shop floor, the training room has paid off handsomely over the years. “Some of our manufacturers have held their factory schools at our facility, and we also invite our fellow dealers in adjacent territories,” Joe Schmelzer, president, says. “We would much rather provide the facility than dedicate the time to pulling our people out of the field and sending them to out-of-town training for multiple days.”

Joe Schmelzer

“Equipment today is more sophisticated than ever. Technicians must be computer-literate and have different skills than in the past.” Joe Schmelzer, President, Equipment Inc. (Jackson, MS)

Training is an issue for Spencer Whitt, president of A.M. Davis Co. (Richmond, VA). “Being a smaller company, new technicians almost need to hit the ground running,” he says, adding, “But I train as much as I can, anywhere I can.” To train his ten road techs and one shop tech, Whitt relies on the training offered by his manufacturer, independent trainers and even some larger out-of-town distributors. “It’s hard on us to take 50 percent of our people off the road for two days, but we can definitely see the payoff. Especially now when our work is a little slower, we’re taking advantage of some free time to do even more training.”

The approach taken by Mike Holzbauer, service manager at Stoffel Equipment Company (Milwaukee, WI), makes his 37 technicians see beyond the obvious benefits. Holzbauer explains to a class of two to four technicians how proper maintenance impacts their wages. “We talk about how prevention saves us money at particular accounts, which means we can afford to pay them more,” he says. “It helps identify us as a company that’s willing to do whatever we can to improve the techs’ standing as individuals. We call it Scheduled Maintenance Training, but it’s really much more than that.”

Response Time: The companies interviewed for this story average a response time of 2.4 hours to service calls. All are under four hours.

At Ohio Materials Handling (Macedonia, OH), management meets with road technicians at least four times per year. “We always talk to them about safety, and we also talk about ideas and suggestions to improve working conditions and efficiency,” says President Jim Orenga. The company also has an in-house trainer that technicians can call for help troubleshooting, and the trainer evaluates each of the company’s 60 technicians and decides what type of additional training, if any, is required.

Service, Sales or Both?
If a technician is doing work at a customer site, is he or she trained to look for other ways your company can be of service? Or are they merely fixing the equipment and moving on? MHEDA members have mixed emotions on this topic. Some believe a technician is more familiar with the equipment and therefore can better explain any problems. Others are hesitant to promote up-selling because their technicians aren’t as willing to make a sales pitch.

National Lift Truck Service President Robert Siano is a big proponent of up-selling. “It’s a must. They have to up-sell the job,” he says. Techs are trained to take notes on what can be done and give them to an aftermarket salesperson, who will call on the customer. Monthly incentives are then given to technicians whose reports result in any sales.

33% of members interviewed currently use hiring incentives to recruit technicians. 20% say they have tried them before but do not anymore. 47% do not offer hiring incentives.

Bill Riley at Modern Lift says, “It starts by doing a good job. If a customer knows you’re really inspecting their lift and has confidence in what you do, then it’s much easier to do an up-sell.” Riley tells his technicians to just go ahead and make the repair if it will take less than an hour. “If a customer complains, then I’ll give them that hour for free. No one has.” Anything beyond that hour is brought back to the sales department for follow-up.

At one time, Equipment Inc.’s Joe Schmelzer had actual cards printed for everyone’s desk that said, “Everyone is a salesman.” Though he no longer uses the cards, he instills in every employee the philosophy that nothing happens until something is sold. In addition to selling a new seat or tires for a specific truck, Equipment Inc. technicians are trained to ask about any future expansion plans, fleet upgrades and company happenings that may impact sales. “A technician can get information like that from the people operating the equipment, who may not be as willing to talk to a salesperson about that kind of thing,” says Schmelzer, who even takes the step to have technicians recommend buying a new truck if the repairs get to be too costly. “It’s amazing the interactions we see between the sales and service departments when both sides understand that their livelihood depends on what the other is doing. We train them all to sit on the same side of the table.”

Gary Wilson

“The most important skills for a tech are people skills, attention to detail and a high sense of urgency to serve the customer.” - Gary Wilson, President, Master Lift Truck Service (Oakville, ON, Canada)

A slightly different viewpoint comes from Maintainco’s James Picarillo. “We’re not up-selling anything,” he states. “We do teach them to advise the customer of anything obviously wrong that wasn’t part of the initial call, but we’re not out there to add parts or items that aren’t necessary. In today’s environment, customers don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

Spencer Whitt at A.M. Davis Co. agrees that it’s a fine line to walk. “There’s a line between providing the customer with good information and having the technicians think we’re trying to take advantage of customers,” Whitt says. “When we bring it up in meetings, some techs look at it like we’re trying to sell the customer something they don’t need, and we try to convey it as selling them something they do need. The techs need to let the customers know so they can make a decision before it creates a breakdown or a hazard for them.”

At Herc-U-Lift (Maple Plain, MN), the company’s 80 technicians (about two-thirds of which are on the road) are rewarded for up-selling, with a caveat. “We’re very specific that the technician’s job is to explain to the customer what’s going on with his piece of equipment, and it’s the customer’s job to decide if he wants it done or not,” says Tom Showalter. “We’re not there to make things up.”

For Timothy Balint, president of Advantage Materials Handling, up-selling is an important skill to master. “We preach to our technicians to always bring any issues to the customer’s attention,” he says. “The decision still lies with the customer whether he wants to authorize it or not, but at least we’re bringing it up and making sure he’s aware of the cost savings that may result by us doing it while we’re on site instead of making a separate trip later.” Balint says the message doesn’t always get through, so it’s imperative to keep reminding the technicians to look for opportunites. “It seems like when we remind them, we see good results for a month or two, and then it drifts off. It’s always something we have to stay on them about. They’re not the sales department.”

Universal Forklift Supply’s Steve Dorr is constantly training his technicians to look for sales opportunities. “Some mechanics are good salespeople, but not all of them,” he says. “It’s something they have to get confident in, and it’s not an easy lesson to teach.”

Streamlining the Process
There is a tried-and-true way of doing things, but sometimes that’s not enough. From PM checklists to dispatching software, MHEDA members are developing their own methods for service department efficiency.

Read More Online
In 2007, MHEDA and Caliper collaborated to conduct a study defining the core competencies of field service techs and sales engineers.

One thing B&H Industrial Service’s Wayne Bates likes about the software his company uses is its ability to automatically calculate a cost analysis. “If a customer calls in and asks how much they’ve spent on their truck fleet in the last three years, or a repair history, we can print that out for them in about five minutes. That’s a nice feature.”

“When technicians are on site to perform preventive maintenance, they’re not just there to change the oil,” says Larry McDowell Jr. “Their job is to inspect the unit.” At Empire Forklift, that includes following a 28-point checklist. If the technician sees anything problematic while completing the checklist, they should make the customer aware of it.

GPS ChartHerc-U-Lift has a similar procedure in place, according to President Tom Showalter. Each PM requires the technician to follow a very exact 30-item checklist. “We’ve expounded it to the point where it specifically states what the company is responsible for and what it is not. It’s almost like a training manual for the technician,” Showalter says. The checklist was implemented to make service consistent across the board. “We take great effort to get our people to do the same thing every time on the same type of truck so the customers have a good idea what’s going on with their machines.”

Showalter also points to the company’s computerized dispatching system as a differentiator. When a customer calls in, their phone number is used to pull up their account along with their last few service calls. The program tells when their next PM is due, who their last technician was and any open orders on the account. “The dispatcher knows as soon as the call is answered what’s been done on that account. It also puts them geographically out so we can centrally dispatch our people to the closest location. It keeps us from making multiple visits to the same site in a short period of time and saves time in billing. It’s a great time-saver,” Showalter says.

About two years ago, Ohio Materials Handling instituted a time-saver of its own. President Jim Orenga hired three part-time employees to deliver parts to technicians at customer sites on the outskirts of the territory. “Traditionally, a mechanic would go to a customer site to fix the truck and drive back to the shop if he needed a part,” Orenga explains. “That’s very time-consuming and expensive, and the customer would have to pay for that. Now, we pay these delivery people to deliver parts, uniforms, oil, you name it, to wherever the mechanic is.” Each of the three employees works about five hours a day, and the remote technician conceivably never has to return to the office. “The road mechanic is much more efficient for us and we’re accounting for his hours more,” Orenga says.

Wayne Bates

“Last year, we implemented a per-mile surcharge. As gas prices continue to rise, we are weighing another charge.” - Wayne Bates, President, B&H Industrial Service (Springfield, MO)

At Equipment Inc., Joe Schmelzer is looking into billing the customer on site. “There’s a lot of opportunity for mistakes during the time between the technician performing the work, turning in the paperwork, and having someone prepare a bill and sending it,” Schmelzer explains. “Creating an invoice on site eliminates those opportunities and also makes the customer more responsible for payment.” Schmelzer has his eye on current technologies and is looking to implement such a system once it gets perfected a little further.

In a similar situation is Rob Stress of Greene Enterprises Material Handling, who is researching paperless technologies for his service department. “We’re looking at the kind where you have a scanner to scan inventory in and then the tech would scan it out when it’s used in the field,” Stress explains. “There are several programs to use and we’re trying to decide which one is best for our situation.”

What about the Copier Guy?
As the industry has evolved over the years, the per-hour service charge has not kept up with the required training and skill set needed to do the work. So why is it that the copier repairman can come into your office in a shirt and tie, do a couple of twists and turns on your equipment, then charge you an astronomical rate and have the audacity to include a mileage charge? This, it seems, is the million-dollar question. Or should we say, the 95 dollar-per-hour question.

Herc-U-Lift’s Tom Showalter believes that part of the disparity results from the fact that a copier service person probably does not have the volume that a lift truck technician does. “A forklift being used 40 or 80 hours per week needs quarterly or even monthly maintenance. How often do you see your copier guy?”

Fully Staffed: Sixty percent of these companies are fully staffed with an appropriate number of technicians.
Those not fully staffed are looking to hire an average of two additional techs.

According to Larry McDowell Jr. at Empire Forklift, lift truck service departments are at a disadvantage because customer owners are not typically the ones operating the equipment. “It doesn’t feel as vital, and therefore not as cost-justifiable, because he or she is not the one down there using what we’re fixing every day. It is a problem for our industry.”

A unique perspective comes from Mike Holzbauer, service manager at Stoffel Equipment Company, who actually spent about 15 years as a service manager in the copier industry. “It’s a hard dilemma to crack because we’re about $40 to $60 dollars cheaper, even though the services we render are no different,” he says. “The only difference is we’re going in the back door and they’re coming in the front door.” Holzbauer does indicate that the copier repair people have more advanced training and demand higher wages, two things that affect the labor rate.

Communication: MHEDA members most commonly (60 percent) use cellular phones to communicate with their field technicians. Forty percent use two-way radios. One interviewee who uses cell phones pointed out that cell phones often don’t work in the middle of a big warehouse, so he encourages his people to call in on a land line.

Master Lift Truck Service’s Gary Wilson believes that a mindset of fear has taken over the forklift industry. “We’re afraid to charge more for fear of losing a client,” he says. “But the fact is, many times we’d be better off losing that client and finding one who recognizes the value of our service. I’d rather have lower volume at higher margins if necessary.”

Adobe Equipment Service Manager Scott Dolan agrees. “We’re our own worst enemy. For whatever reason, the industry as a whole has decided to be Monty Hall and play Let’s Make A Deal. Customer service is one thing, and we want to do all that we can, but when it comes to our costs, we’re entitled to make a little bit of a profit.”

Like seemingly everything else in the material handling industry, the forklift service department is evolving. But what won’t change is MHEDA members’ commitment to providing their customers with top-notch forklift maintenance. Service is the name of the game.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association


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