Dave Baiocchi: Hitting the reset button
I am writing this column on April 9th. It’s Tuesday, during one of the most painful and deadly weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.
For most people in our industry, life has changed. The severity of the change is more evident in some departments than in others, but let’s face it, a pandemic will change the way you operate. Forklift dealerships were on the government’s “essential” services list during the crisis. Our services are still needed so that the equipment that transports our beloved toilet paper continues to operate without incident.
Of course, many of the customers we serve are not part of the “essential supplies” marketplace. This will require us to “re-think” our customer service planning, in order to properly scale our resources to match the mitigated demand. Are we doing this? How are we doing this? What “triggers” do we have in place to “right-size” our service and parts offering, especially when the goalposts keep moving on a weekly basis?
Issuing furloughs to your employee base is not something that can be done without forethought or planning. Events like COVID-19 make furloughs necessary and prudent. Doing it correctly however is important. Let’s remember the good old days… (6 months ago), when you couldn’t FIND qualified technicians, and couldn’t get apprentices trained quickly enough to keep up with the ever-expanding demand. This is the SAME group of employees we are now planning to temporarily put on the sidelines.
So, what is the “correct” way to do this?
Years ago, when I was a sales manager, I would watch the owner of our company call customers to collect on overdue accounts. I was amazed at two things about his collection skills. First, he was abundantly patient. George was thoughtful, methodical, and not given to outbursts of anger. In fact, he rarely raised his voice to his employees, much less his customers. Secondly, he was persistent. He kept meticulous notes on all of these accounts, and was well versed on “prior promises made”. He would use this information to “compel” the customer to make progress on the overdue billing, instead of browbeating and threatening the customer with punitive measures.
I asked George one day: “why don’t you just tell that guy that we are coming to pick up those trucks”? That would be much more effective in getting the bill paid”. George responded to me with a line I’ll never forget. “Because Dave, I want to get the money, but I ALSO want to keep the customer!”
I think this lesson is applicable here. These are high-value employees that we desperately need in good times. How can we issue the needed furloughs, and still keep the employee? Here are a few ideas to increase your chances of keeping these people “in the family” after the storm has passed.
Training and Certification
When times are good, I always hear, “We don’t have the time to train!”. When things are not so good, I always hear, “We don’t have the money to train!”. I have felt that way myself, but the reality is, there is no “Goldilocks” economy. We will always be faced with a lack of either time or money.
When considering furloughs, however, it may serve both the dealership and the technician to delay a furlough in order to broaden a technician’s knowledge base. The OEM will probably not be holding formal training classes, but that’s not the training I am talking about.
- How many OEMs have online training, testing and certification resources? How many of your upper-level techs could improve their certification standards by dedicating several days to advanced training?
- How many “electric” technicians do you have? This is a constant issue for dealers that have a primary IC product offering. How many technicians “could be” electric techs if they had the training and the confidence to troubleshoot and complete repairs? Could you use this time to add or reinforce these skills?
- How many PM apprentices do you have? Are these technicians “pigeonholed” because we have no time to train them on the more involved repairs? Can we use this pause in demand to have the seasoned technicians do some “in shop – real-time” training sessions on things like transmission rebuilds, brake jobs, steering linkage, mast shimming, and cylinder repacking?
We are in unprecedented times. Government loans/grants are available that (as I understand it), do not require repayment if you use the funds to pay your staff. At least pay them to improve themselves. Make them more effective for both themselves and the dealership!
Yes, your customer may very well push off PM’s. This is normal in a frightened economy, and quite frankly, if the units are not being utilized, they will not need maintenance services. So, take this time to reassess what parts are on your service vans, and how READY are you to quote, close and complete additional repairs on the units you actually get the opportunity to service.
We continue to walk by a lot of business because the tech is not inspecting the unit completely. They don’t inspect it, because they don’t have the ability to quote what they find, or complete the repair with the parts they have on the van. Let’s change that. Let’s make the inventory on the van MIRROR the makes and models that tech is servicing. Let’s be READY. I’ve talked about this before, and it’s the most customer-centric, and profitable thing you can do. If technicians are READY to quote, close and complete repairs, they will pick up work that will keep them busy, and we will have fewer reasons to trim the staff. I have helped multiple dealers with this process. I can help you too.
Furlough with Care
Even with these measures in place, you will most likely have to furlough (if you haven’t done so already). Most dealers have onsite HR staff to do this, and they leave it to them to walk the employees through the process.
For these employees, however, I might take a more active role in ongoing communications. I think it’s smart to personally engage with these employees in the days and weeks after the furlough. Follow up and ensure that they have filed for unemployment benefits and are accessing the resources available to them. Continue to encourage them and stay in their orbit. I’d perhaps even offer a weekly update (via zoom or WebEx) to bring everyone up to speed on the customer base and what the schedule looks like for hitting the reset button.
Remember that these are the people you were looking to hire prior to this mess. Your competitors were looking to hire them too. They are now essentially free agents in the open market. If you don’t give them a reason to continue to engage with you, they may look for a reason to make their departure permanent at their first opportunity. However, if you have invested in them, whether that be in training, communication, or personal interface, you may give them a reason to hang in there, and continue to consider themselves as members of your dealership family.