Don Zajac, Service Manager, Buttonwillow (above right)
Years with Operation: 40-plus years
Role: Manages the service department at Kern Machinery’s Buttonwillow, Calif., store.
James Boel, Service Manager, Delano (above left)
Years with Operation: 5 years
Role: Manages the service department and field service program at Kern Machinery’s Delano, Calif., store.
Exclusive videos with Don Zajac & James Boel
While Don Zajac, service manager for Kern Machinery’s Buttonwillow, Calif., store, and James Boel, service manager at Kern Machinery’s Delano, Calif., store, have different levels of experience with the dealership and slightly different responsibilities, they both run their service departments with the same principle. No 2 days are the same for the pair and even under the best-laid plans, circumstances and schedules change. They face the day one challenge at a time and embrace teamwork within the service departments to manage the wide variety of equipment that comes through the shop.
When customers’ machines stop working, Boel says the service managers are often the first ones to hear from the disgruntled customer. “When their tractor breaks down, they’re not happy and as the service managers, we catch the brunt of that unhappiness,” he says. “We sometimes have to ask them to just take a breath and hold tight. We’ll get everything taken care of. That’s our typical day. It’s the nature of the beast with this business.
“This is what we do 365 days a year,” he adds. “For our customers, time is money. When they have equipment that goes go down, they can be paying 30 people to stand around and wait for that one piece of equipment and progress on the farm grinds to a halt. It’s our responsibility to get them up and going again.”
Servicing Specialty Equipment
While Kern Machinery is a John Deere dealer, the dealership also sells and services numerous, very specialized complimentary specialty lines to accommodate the wide variety of crops — from fruits to nuts — cultivated in California’s Central Valley. These lines, complement the John Deere tractors’ capabilities and depend on the dealership’s unique hydraulic capacities and duty cycles. Others are powered by John Deere engines. This means the service departments need to be able to service a wide array of equipment that comes through their door.
Don Zajac and James Boel, service managers for Kern Machinery in the San Joaquin Valley (California), explain the range of challenges they face as service managers to get equipment fixed on an appropriate timeline, whether it's John Deere equipment or one of their shortlines. This video is part of the Dealership Minds Video Series, brought to you by Charter Software.
“We need to understand and be able to service, troubleshoot and fix any equipment that’s brought to us, whether it’s a John Deere or not,” Zajac says.
“If we sell it, we have to be able to repair it,” Boel adds. “Sometimes we get technicians who leave school and want to be a John Deere tractor technician. They get here and I give them a nut sweeper with hydraulic problems and they may look at me like a deer in the headlights. We are constantly learning about new equipment and how to repair it in our service department. Knowing how to work on all those different types of equipment is still a challenge, though.”
“The expectation of our customers is that we’re their John Deere dealer, no matter what the product is. We’re held to the standard of service of being a John Deere dealer no matter what brand of equipment we’re working on,” Zajac says.
Numerous specialized harvesting machines are needed for each high value crop grown in the area. For almond harvest alone, Boel says a grower would need at least 6 different pieces of equipment, including a tractor, tree shaker, berm sweeper, harvester, nut cart and self-propelled nut shuttle to transport the nuts to the elevator and hauling trailers.
“We sell several types of these machines each with unique designs and technologies for various growers,” Boel explains. In order to service the wide variety of equipment Kern Machinery’s customers purchase and operate, Zajac says the service departments have to work together and lean on each other when working on machines they’re less familiar with and constantly be learning about new equipment on the job.
“Working on this equipment takes a team effort. The technicians have to support each other and learn from each other. Some technicians know more about certain equipment than others and our technicians are willing to learn and do what it takes to be good at what they do,” he says.
For the John Deere line of equipment, Boel says the dealership does frequent training through John Deere University, but training isn’t quite as simple for the specialty equipment.
“For specialty equipment, we train as often as we can, but many of the manufacturers only offer classes when they have a new model and the specialty equipment doesn’t change very often,” he says. “However, I look at it this way. All equipment is made up of nuts and bolts. It all has electrical and hydraulic problems and if you’re able to repair one, you can work on them all. Whether you’re looking at a hydraulic issue on a tractor or a specialty piece of equipment, it’s still a matter of going from point A to point B. If you understand the systems on a tractor, you can understand them on the specialty equipment.
“One of the biggest challenges on the hydraulic side when working on specialty equipment is knowing how much flow and pressure you need on the different equipment,” Boel continues. “For John Deere equipment, we know where to find all of that information, but for the specialty equipment we usually have to dig a little deeper to find those numbers. Typically, we can contact the manufacturers with specific questions or trouble shooting and they’re good about getting back to us quickly.”
For technicians with less experience working on specialty equipment, Boel has them spend time job shadowing and working with a veteran technician who understands the equipment.
“On-the-job training is one of our best options,” he says. “With on-the-job training, the new technicians are in the middle of the work and get hands-on experience with how to handle different situations. Usually after one year of on-the-job training the new technicians are ready to take the jobs on by themselves.”
This mentoring mentality holds through for experienced technicians as well and Zajac says all technicians are encouraged to collaborate.
“I work on leadership and team building a lot with my technicians,” he says. “I want them to be able to bounce ideas off each other. Each of the technicians should know who’s an expert in what. One guy knows a lot about electrical systems and another is an expert on hydraulics, for example. All of our knowledge should be able to come together to serve the customer.”
Cultivating teamwork in the service department requires a culture of communication. “It’s a daily best practice in the service departments,” Zajac says. “We emphasize to employees that they need to be aware of and utilize each technician’s individual skills, experience and knowledge. We call it having an ‘open team dialog.’ We encourage everyone to ask questions and start discussions with each other about diagnostics, inputs, quotes and even repair recommendations.”
Prioritizing Customers’ Urgency
Plans and schedules in the service departments of Kern Machinery change almost as soon as they are made in order to meet or exceed customers’ needs for fast service.
“Every day is different,” Boel explains. “There is no set plan or routine because it just can’t happen.”
Most of Kern Machinery's customers have come to rely on at least one service technician within the organization to get the job done. Don Zajac and James Boel share how the service techs communicate with farmers to prescribe the appropriate equipment solutions. This video is part of the Dealership Minds Video Series, brought to you by Charter Software.
Don Zajac and James Boel talk about the process of consulting with the customer on high-use equipment. When a piece comes in for repair with 18,000-20,000 hours of operation on it requiring significant repairs, the service department will bring in a salesman when necessary to price out a replacement to give the customer options. This video is part of the Dealership Minds Video Series, brought to you by Charter Software.
“All year long, farmers are deciding, ‘Do I need to buy this or fix that,’ or ‘I’ve got some money and I need to spend it here or there,’” Zajac says. “With all of those dynamics coming together, managing the service department is like a game of chess.”
The service departments need to be ready at the drop of a hat if a farmer has an emergency.
“You may ask, ‘What is considered an emergency?’ I used to have this conversation with our sales manager and he would say, ‘Everything is an emergency.’ For example, when a dairy tractor goes down and the farmer wants it back right away,” Zajac says. “They typically work those machines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For me, emergencies are situations that involve life and death, which of course includes feeding animals. Everything else comes after that.”
Boel agrees and says managing the service department is all about prioritization. “You’re not going to please everyone and sometimes you need to prioritize when and where you’re going to send your assets to take care of a problem,” he says. “If we’re in the middle of harvest and someone has a harvester go down and you also have a customer call whose tractor that is out discing goes down, you may have to decide which one will be serviced first. They’re both important, but you can’t always do it all at once.”
Almond and pistachios are two of the big harvesting seasons in the area, says Boel, and both crops have very short windows for harvesting. Pistachio harvest lasts about 6 weeks and almond harvest is just a little longer at between 8-10 weeks. Servicing equipment for growers during this time period is an urgent matter.
“When we’re in the middle of harvest and I start getting calls when I already have all of my technicians out in the field, what do I do?” Boel asks. “All I can do is explain the situation to the customer that I have everyone tied up but we will be there as soon as we can. The biggest thing you can do in those situations is keep the customer in the loop. Most of the time, they understand, but it’s still a juggling act.”
To keep track of where field service technicians are and how they’re progressing on jobs, Boel says they stay in constant communication via phone, text, e-mail and use GPS mapping software.
Handling High-Hour Equipment
Zajac and Boel say in their markets, it’s common to see high-hour equipment and many customers run their equipment until it falls apart. “It’s nothing to see a tractor come in with 18,000 hours and the customer’s still running it,” Boel says.
“They go past the 2 year warranty and 2,000 hours and they’re cycling back to where things on the tractor are coming apart and the motor’s tiring out,” Zajac says. “Farmers here utilize their tractors more now than they did when I first started in this industry. As farmers have diversified, they’re using one tractor for more applications. They used to have a tractor for everything. They had a spray tractor, a disc tractor, a ripping tractor and a tillage tractor. Now they have two tractors that do all the work.”
When servicing high-hour equipment, Zajac and Boel say they take on the role of a consultant and work with the customer to decide when it’s worth putting more money into fixing an old piece of equipment and when it’s a better investment to purchase an updated machine.
“We’re trying to be of value to them,” Zajac says. “I could sell $10,000 worth of service work to a customer with an old machine, but is that the right thing to do? I want to give the customer the best options and the best value.”
“Hopefully the customer will recognize that we’re giving him options and he appreciates it,” Boel adds. “I’m not just looking at fixing your tractor today but down the road. I want the customer to be happy with the decisions they make and the way we worked with them to make those decisions so the next time they need a tractor serviced they’ll remember that we treated them right. We want to be their partner and show them that we are of value and can help them.”
Boel says that when service technicians recognize that a machine they are working on is not worth as much as the money it will cost to make repairs, he notifies the sales department to be ready in case the customer decides to discuss purchasing a new machine rather than fix the old one.
“I notify the sales department and say, ‘Hey, a customer has a tractor in the shop that isn’t worth putting the money into. I’m going to approach him about buying a new tractor and then he may be coming to you, so be ready for him.’
“In these discussions, I always tell the customers I am more than happy to spend their money. That does not disturb me in the least,” Boel says. “But I hate seeing customers throwing good money into bad equipment. We completed a job such as this recently and I told the customer, ‘You are going to be married to this tractor. You and this tractor will be inseparable until it burns to the ground because you have put so much money into it. Two weeks from now when something else breaks, you’re going to have to fix it because you already have that investment in it and you won’t be able to back out of it.’”
For the farmers to be able to get such longevity out of their equipment, Zajac says a lot of them take advantage of Kern Machinery’s preventative maintenance programs. While the dealership offers these programs year-round, it emphasizes them at certain times of the year, such as before major harvests, so farmers can get their equipment ready.
Preventative maintenance programs have helped Kern Machinery identify potential worn parts on equipment that may need attention. Don Zajac and James Boel explain how these programs are built and the value the customers see in them. This video is part of the Dealership Minds Video Series, brought to you by Charter Software.
In Kern Machinery’s preventative maintenance programs, equipment is inspected on a range of general maintenance checkpoints. The engine is inspected, as well as the fuel system, high and low pressure hoses, the exhaust system, the cooling system, the electrical system, the power train, the steering and brakes, the hydraulic system and the operator station. “We offer preventative maintenance on any equipment Kern Machinery sells or services,” Zajac says. “We create inspection checklists by working with our various manufacturers.”
During post seasonal promotions, Kern can offer as much as a 10% discount on parts and labor for all quoted and approved repairs completed as a result of inspections if customers bring their equipment in to be inspected by a specified date. The work can then be completed over time during the off season.
To keep customers interested in preventative maintenance, Boel says the service department has to explain its value. “You need to show them the value of preventative maintenance. Show them how spending a small amount of money on an oil sampling kit relates to possibly saving $12,000 on an engine overhaul,” he says.
“Grease is cheap,” Zajac adds, “Clean oil and clean filters are cheap insurance compared with the money they could spend fixing a major problem. I tell my customers you can buy a whole lot of filters and oil to keep the equipment running for a long time for the price it takes to overhaul the engine if you neglect it.”
Exclusive Videos with Don Zajac & James Boel
Specialty Equipment Poses Unique Challenges for the Service Department
High-Use Tractors and Implements: Consulting on Service Needs
How to Encourage Preventative Maintenance
Interacting with a Farmer to Prescribe Equipment Solutions
What Keeps a Service Manager Up at Night?