Distributors Take The Wrench To Their Service Departments

What do distributors look for when hiring service technicians? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. Some distributors want top-notch technical skills; others prefer high quality customer skills and will train the technical. Some service technicians visit customer sites; others are nowhere near them. In their ongoing quest to build a repair shop that makes money for their businesses, distributors weigh in on the ways they put their service departments together.

Hiring Process
“The hardest position to fill is that of a service technician,” says Candice Swiger, human resources manager at Wesco Gas & Welding Supply (Prichard, AL). Wesco currently has five technicians and Swiger wants to hire several more. It’s a challenge though. “With everything so computer-based, new graduates are learning high-tech skills, but the basics have fallen by the wayside.” Recently, Swiger received hundreds of applications for a want ad that read “Electrical Technician,” but when she added “must be able to read schematics,” only two applications came in. A part of the interview process requires applicants to repair something, and they are assessed on how efficiently and effectively they troubleshoot. Swiger has noticed a difference in how older, experienced technicians troubleshoot compared to younger, less experienced applicants. “How they get to the problem varies. Less-experienced applicants go straight to the computer and to the schematics. More experienced techs go to the machine first.”

Michael Sutley, vice president & general manager of Oxarc (Spokane, WA), has never hired a technician. Instead he looks for people with great mechanical skills and then trains them for a technical position. They start out as helpers to the repairmen, breaking down a welder, cleaning it and assisting the repairmen. Mechanical skills take first priority. Sutley leaves the customer skills to the salespeople. “I’d rather technicians not talk to customers. Being technically driven, you ask them what time it is, they’ll tell you how to build a watch. We generally don’t let an upset customer get to the repairman because that doesn’t really get the job done.” Unlike Wesco’s Candice Swiger, Sutley has not hired lately, but thinks it would not be too difficult. He’d set up an internship program with a local trade school. “This would give me a sense of what someone can do before I hire them.”

As vice president, Michael Cook is responsible for hiring service technicians at New Bedford Welding Supply (New Bedford, MA). Currently the company has two technicians: one full-time and one part-time. The first thing Cook looks for is personality. “Is the individual outgoing and easy to talk with?”  Skills, says Cook, are secondary. “Nowadays, the technician has to be a people person. With so many different customer personalities, the people side has to be right in the technician.” Cook assesses these skills during a conversation with the applicant. He talks to them about their past experiences, and then he looks at their skills, particularly small engine experience. Once hired, those personable technicians are sent to manufacturer training schools to hone their technical skills.

Technical Skills vs. Customer Skills
Knowledge and the ability to service equipment are very important, but like Michael Cook, some distributors believe the ability to handle customer service details is as critical. “Customers talk with the service techs all the time, and a guy’s either got it or he doesn’t,” says Jay Dyches, chief operating officer at Cross Texas Supply (San Angelo, TX). New hires start at the bottom, sweeping floors and helping out. Next is cleaning machines, oil changes, and finally service work. “Hopefully,” adds Dyches, “within a few years, he is making money for the company.” Dyches strongly supports continuing education through manufacturers’ annual update schools at their facilities as well as online. Once certified, technicians must continue with their education.

Randy Anderson, vice president of Oxygen Service Company (Saint Paul, MN), agrees about customer service skills. “I look for someone who understands how to talk with customers, because a lot of customers want equipment fixed right on their premises.” Oxygen Service Company employs seven technicians, three-and-a-half work of them in the field. Technicians contact the customer to talk about the problem and to make sure they bring the right tools with them. “There is nothing worse than taking a customer’s equipment out of service,” Anderson says. “We try to fix it on sight.” Hence the need for excellent customer skills.

At A-OX Welding Supply Company (Sioux Falls, SD), Kelly Kleinwolterink, general manager, believes the most important skill a technician can have is willingness to learn. “Bulk installations never go by the book. Something always comes up, and the technician must  adapt, adjust and get the job done.” He points out that a technician must listen to customers, watch what’s going on, attend trade shows, read industry press and always keep learning. Kleinwolterink laughs when he thinks back to what he calls the “old school installations of years ago.” “I now shake my head and say, ‘I guess it worked.’” He adds, “When a company does 25-30 installations a year, many of them in hospitals, it’s imperative that the technician be on top of new technology, codes and product updates.”

Alliance Welding Supplies (Oakland, CA) has operated since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the company opened its own service center. Previously, equipment repairs were sent to an independent regional service center 90 miles away. “We lost a communication link with the customer by sending repairs there,” says Marv Rogers III, president. “If a customer wanted to talk to a technician, or if the equipment still didn’t work when it came back, it was difficult to involve the customer and the remote service tech.” Alliance is now the only distributor in the Bay Area to have an onsite service facility. Wanting to leverage the repair department to help them grow in the marketplace, Rogers hired an experienced and qualified service tech from the local market to get a service center up and running at Alliance’s Berkley location. “The customer has to get an account set up and start building a relationship with people in our stores.”

Norco (Boise, ID) employs eight industrial service technicians. There are additional service techs for medical equipment. When hiring technicians, Emmett Burns, service manager, emphasizes technical skills. But he also believes that technicians must possess good customer service abilities. “Before they go in front of customers, they have to show that they have a handle on how to treat customers,” he says. Burns started out as a service tech and knows what the job requires. He believes a successful technician must first have an aptitude for the job. The technician must be willing to better themselves through education, and he likes to see them take the initiative on this. Technicians can take extended education classes through local colleges and vo tech schools. Norco reimburses the cost of these classes as long as the technician earns a passing grade. Burns acknowledges that most of the newer techs take advantage of these classes. Those with more experience take only the factory training. Burns prefers manufacturers do their new technology and product training at Norco so all his technicians can attend. He explains, “I’ve always felt it’s better to bring the training here for all the techs, rather than send just one person to the factory.” He adds, though, that he has to convince the manufacturers to do this, as they typically prefer to train at their facilities.

How to Best Utilize the Labor
Outside of their skills, what is the most important need that will face successful technicians? That’s right—the toolbox. Good technicians respect their tools as much as good hunters respect their dogs. You should respect their tools, too. You must also assure the technician that your company will provide the right resources to supply specialty tools, as well as updates and replacements for his own hand tools as needed.

There has been a big shift in the type of equipment that is now being used throughout the industry. What kind of diagnostic equipment do you supply for the technician? With equipment becoming more computerized, distributors have to provide the correct diagnostic tools, including laptop computers, to ensure that technicians can quickly diagnose the fault and hopefully spend less time swapping parts in hopes of a fix.

Distributors wrangle so much with labor rates and how to grow them effectively, but we should spend more time wrangling with how to better utilize the labor that we do buy.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association