By Diane M. Calabrese / Published February 2021
Trouble? Right here in the repair center? Could be…
Technical problems. Repeaters. Outsize expectations. Unwillingness to take advice. Boom in customers. Languishing machines. Errors. That spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e, which when put to song (like in The Music Man) does take some of the edge off and restores a can-do attitude.
We can see trouble coming, up to a point. But let’s back up because the most unforgettable challenges defy prediction.
Take the need to help a long-time customer recover from a once-in-a-lifetime event. “After Hurricane Katrina, a customer brought his hot water, oil-fired unit in for repair after it had spent six days submerged in the flooding in New Orleans East,” says Roy Pennington, owner of Hi Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Houma, LA.
The only thought was getting the job done. “We disassembled it, dried everything out, and put it back together—and it worked with minimal additional charges to this customer, who was ‘already hurting enough’ from the effects of the storm and flooding,” says Pennington.
And 15 years after Katrina? “He is a loyal customer today, even as he approaches 80 years of age,” says Pennington.
Another service center call Pennington remembers well seemed straightforward enough before work began, he says. “It entailed working on a cold water, direct-drive unit that required a packing change.”
What could go wrong? “Sounds very simple, until I got into the repair process and found that the engineer who had designed this unit had placed it on the cart in a manner that allowed for a one-half inch clearance between the pump head and the upright support for the handle,” explains Pennington. (Pennington emphasizes “engineer” in the recounting of the story.)
“So, the pump had to be removed from the unit to get access to the head of the pump,” says Pennington. The story put him in mind of some “theories” passed—lightheartedly—among those who work in service centers.
“This is proof positive of one of the reputed service tech axioms,” says Pennington. “Engineers should be required to work for a year in the field to discover the error of their ways.”
Some stories are not only memorable but also common. The key, says Pennington, is to learn the first time.
It looked like the “easiest pump swap out ever,” says Pennington. “Not! A weekend warrior brought in his big-box pressure washer for repairs.” The pump was dead and needed be swapped out.
“A simple undo four bolts, bolt on the new pump at no additional charge” is the way it looked, says Pennington. “‘Just pay for the new pump’ was the commitment to the customer.”
The problem came with the missing instructions. “OEM on this unit failed to put 25 cents worth of ‘never seize on the shaft when assembling the unit’ instructions,” says Pennington. “The pump was ‘galled up’ to the shaft.”
Time began to be eaten. “Eight hours later, after cutting the old pump off with a cut-off wheel piece by piece, I finally was able to cut off the old crankshaft and bolt on the new pump,” says Pennington. “Lesson learned. Now we tell the customer, if the old pump comes right off, we can swap it with no charge for labor.” Emphasis is on “if.”
For every way in which the service center is tested, the center itself remains a significant asset. “Our service capabilities are a great revenue generator in our new equipment sales,” says Pennington. “Because everyone wants our unmatched service, we are able to sell virtually all equipment at full retail with no discount needed.”
Excellent service begins when a customer understands what a relationship with a distributor and its service center means. Pennington promotes that understanding with candor.
Some prospective customers tell Pennington they can buy at a discount elsewhere—as much as 20 percent lower—or buy a less expensive machine online. He tells them they must also be prepared to accept the level of service provided by the discounter or send the machine back to an online catalogue company because his service center will not work on it.
Quality in equipment and in service builds the reputation of a distributor. When starting a business, contractors benefit from having the best (and most job-appropriate) equipment they can afford, as well as a good partner in a distributor who is there to provide service when the contractor has an urgent need for equipment repair.
The reciprocity is not a conversation that any distributor should be reticent about having with a contractor. Communication bolsters the industry.
Pennington hypothesizes that not all may agree with his tough-love approach to telling prospective buyers the way that machine purchases and excellent service are linked. “But, they have worked for my company for 30 years.”
A service center may be open to equipment from any dealer. Such a model works well for many distributors. The configuration a distributor chooses aligns with the business plan in which he or she has invested.
Whether a center takes all comers or only those who have purchased from the distributorship, some problems can only be handled, not avoided. We highlighted trouble spots at the beginning of this piece. Here we amplify some particularly thorny points.
Service centers experience technical problems—internet service is lost, power goes out, and parts are not delivered on time—just as every other part of a business. Being able to compensate for them (if they do not go on too long) can keep the center and the customers working. Portable generators are a good idea in some parts of the country. Holding an inventory of most frequently needed parts is a good idea everywhere.
Repeat customers who have outsize expectations about what can be repaired and at what cost can devour hours. A service center cannot indulge them forever without diminishing the bottom line. For instance, if the customer is unwilling to take advice about the need for a new machine, it may be necessary to set a cutoff for future trips about the same issue (say, one more).
Natural disasters can put many hands to work and cut down on the number of service centers available. When there is a boom in customers, a service center may need to prioritize work. Routine maintenance, for example, may have to wait in deference to getting contractors back on sites where they are needed for cleanup.
Why would anyone leave a machine for a repair and then never pick it up? Any number of reasons—a contractor might simply fold and decide to abandon the equipment. No service center can have repaired machines accumulating—and all the worse if no payment has been made. Set a time limit for which machines will be held and have the customer sign it with the estimate. And collect some fee in advance, if state and local laws permit.
Excellent service center representatives are unlikely to make errors in repairs. They engage in ongoing training that encompasses all the new models, diagnostics, and regulations. The toughest dimension of their work, though, can be making certain customers realize some repairs can only be made if machines are simultaneously brought up to new standards.
In the past, there were machines with no GFCI [ground-fault circuit interrupters]. Should such a vintage machine get into a repair shop, it is not going to leave without a GFCI installed.
Again, agreement made when the customer hands over the equipment is crucial. A customer must understand that updates required by current regulations will be made in addition to repairs.
The do-it-yourself owners of pressure washers and ancillaries sometimes take a try at a repair before they bring equipment to a service center. Technicians who suspect a DIY effort or efforts should get all information possible from the DIYer.
Documentation prevents a great deal of trouble of every kind. In addition to agreements about estimates, hold times, and prioritization, the documentation is the best tool a service center has for streamlining maintenance on machines it services on a routine basis. If a problem arises with the machine, the record of service can be checked quickly.
Not all customers will maintain their machines as they should. In some cases, it’s because they are following a run-to-ground strategy. Just use the machine until it can no longer function and then replace it. Such owners conclude they will get enough hours of use from the machine before they must replace it.
Run-to-ground may seem economical, but the machine may become unsafe to use. An injury to an operator is the opposite of economical.
Service center representatives must convey how important maintenance is to the longevity and safety of equipment. They keep customers focused and realistic. A machine with a short life span does not convert to one with a long span because of maintenance.
And on the days when things get trying, recalling a play/film like The Music Man where everything ends well (against all odds) fortifies the spirit.
Trouble? No, just problems waiting to be solved.