Ritchie Implement, Cobb, Wis.

  • 12 technicians
  • Upgraded shop in 2012 to include overhead cranes
  • 80% of customers are in dairy, primarily in the 1,000-cow range
  • Operates trucking for all locations

In Cobb., Wis., Anne Blotz, service manager, walks through the service department at Ritchie Implement, a 4-store Case IH and Claas dealer in southwest Wisconsin and Farm Equipment’s 2015 Dealership of the Year. She checks in with technicians about what they need and how she can help. Throughout the day, she emphasizes how increased communication creates synergy, not just within the service department but the entire store as well.

Blotz has been with Ritchie Implement since July 2006 (beginning as a service writer) and has been a service manager since May 2008. The Cobb location has 12 technicians and 2 truck drivers, with all Ritchie Implement’s trucking being done out of the Cobb location.

Optimizing Each Day

During their busy season, Blotz says she’s usually getting service calls right as she walks into the office in the morning. “I usually need to see if one of our techs needs to get on the road right away or if it’s something that needs to get finished up from yesterday,” she says. “It’s usually a matter of making sure everyone’s schedules are set up as much as possible the day before, but a phone call can change everything.”

More than anything, Blotz focuses on efficiency and tries to get as much work through the shop as possible each day.

“Skid loaders, for example, are used on a daily basis, where even one hour of downtime is critical” she says. “So we try to jump on the orders that need to be addressed and get them out as soon as possible.” Blotz estimates that around 80% of the customers she deals with on a daily basis are dairy farmers, with skid steer and tractor calls making up the majority of their work in the spring. 

Dealer Takeaways

  • Keep communication between departments open.
  • Plan ahead for technician retirement.
  • Help techs form good habits that optimize their productivity.
  • Perfecting paperwork and small processes can make a big impact on productivity.

A big part of how she gets a handle on each day is conducting a shop walkthrough with Tony Ritchie and Kevin Depies, two managers of the Cobb, Wis., location and members of the sales team.

“We walk through the shop every day, and the three of us just try to put our eyes on everything,” she says. “And after that, we have a conversation each morning to touch base and make sure everything that needs to be done is getting done. 

“That daily communication is key,” she adds, “because they might see something that we in the department don’t, or we might have questions for the sales team.”

Some of the subjects Blotz touches on with Ritchie and Depies each morning are the parts availability for service repairs in the shop and meeting customer expectations for the day.

“We have our stock orders that come in every 2 days and our daily parts orders, it’s just a matter of making sure you know when all the parts are coming in,” she says. “We’re also making sure all the equipment that’s sold is getting set up to the expectations of the customers. You try to make sure everyone has a job lined up in the front of them, not just what’s in the shop right now.”

“We’re always planning ahead 2-3 years for when a technician might be retiring…”

Blotz tries to walk through the shop a few times a day by herself as well in order to stay connected to what the technicians need. She says communicating with them about their workloads lets the department gauge how much additional service they should aim to bring into the shop. Part of bringing in that work is about getting technicians to have “open eyes” when they’re in the field, says Blotz, and talking with customers about preventative maintenance that can be done. 

Success with Winter Service 

Blotz highlights the efficiency of their winter service program, which she says is most successful with their customers’ Claas choppers but extends to combines, planters, sprayers and tractors as well. The department sends out fliers to customers beginning in September, which advertise discounts on trucking, labor and parts.

“If we can spot a major failure that looks like it will happen in the coming season, we can tell the customer that we found a red flag item and that we should take care of it now, otherwise they’re going to be down a day and a half,” she says.

She says the program has grown substantially in recent years. “A few years ago, I can remember having around 10-20 machines to work on,” she says. “And now with choppers, we have well over 60 machines.

Using Google Sheets to Keep the Service Department on Track

One key to Anne Blotz’s daily success, which Ritchie Implement began in late 2019 while she was on maternity leave, is keeping all the technicians’ work schedules open on an editable google sheet. They broadcast this schedule on a TV for the service and parts departments to keep everyone up to speed on who is working on what.

“The daily schedule is open to me and our other service writer, Zach Cummings,” she says. “Our communication with each other is very important. I might get a follow up call from someone he originally talked to, so the schedule lets me add whatever details I get to the initial info he took down. When I first started, we just had paper, and we would handwrite jobs for our techs.”

She says Cummings, who has been with Ritchie Implement for a year and a half, takes the majority of the calls so she can focus on warranty claims and work orders, though they both man the phones when it’s busy.

Service Manager Anne Blotz points out one technician’s color-coded schedule that indicates when he’ll be in the shop and what equipment he’ll be working on.

Click to enlarge

“Over time, our customers have realized the importance of this service,” she says. “We have a lot of customers who just automatically call in for it now. You do have some customers who will pull back when it comes to preventative maintenance, but they usually just have to do it one time to realize how it eliminates downtime.”

Blotz and her team find the winter special satisfying as it cuts down on failures that come into the shop.

Planning for Tech Retirement

Ritchie Implement has felt the same struggles with labor as the rest of the industry, and Blotz says planning ahead to avoid being caught off-guard can be key to keeping the service department running smoothly.

“We have senior technicians who aren’t too far away from retiring,” she says. “You think about all the years of experience you’re going to lose, because experience is the key. You can go to a lot of training sessions, but self-diagnosing is where you learn the most. 

“You need to keep ahead of the game. We’re always planning ahead 2-3 years for when a technician might be retiring.” She recommends dealers use social media to place online ads for available technician positions.

Blotz highlights Ritchie Implement’s strong relationships with local colleges like Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, UW-Platteville and Madison Area Technical College, where they pull college students for internships.

“We try to get summer interns into the shop and get their foot in the door to get them interested,” she says. “We also have some highschoolers who work for us as well. We try to help them figure out if this industry is for them. You just try to have a lot of strong relationships with local schools and ag programs.

“We’ll allow the classes to come in whenever they need to, even just to walk around the equipment. We’ll have a couple of our chopper technicians, for example, walk them around the Claas choppers so they can see what equipment is out there.”

She believes it takes 3-5 years for a technician to get truly comfortable with the dealership and gain the crucial respect of the dealership’s customers. To help make that process easier, Blotz tries to always pair up a new hire with a more experienced technician to learn the ropes.

Store Managers and Salesmen Tony Ritchie (left) and Kevin Depies (right) are focused on getting the service department to a flat rate system, optimizing their techs’ habits and getting back to the basics with their processes.

Click to enlarge

“It’s just a matter of getting a new technician adapted to who they’re going to be working with,” she says. “That way they can learn the daily routines and have someone close they can ask questions. They’re going to learn a lot more from experienced technicians than formal training, and they’ll gain a lot more experience in a shorter time.”

Measuring, Improving Service

For measuring productivity in the service department, Depies, co-store manager and ag salesperson, finds that it comes down to warranty and recovery rates.

“A lot of it spins off warranty and recovery rates, because that’s as close as we can get to a flat rate set up,” he says. “So if we have a technician who’s recovering almost 100% of the warranty side of things, and they’re hitting Standard Repair Times (SRT), they’re ‘flat rate.’ If another technician is short on every warranty claim, then we know their efficiency isn’t up to snuff. But we also know some of these SRTs aren’t correct, and we know certain jobs are always going to be short.

“We track every technician when they do a warranty job: what we billed for labor, and then what we got paid back from the OEM for labor. That’s a big benchmark on whether or not our technicians are efficient.”

A big part of improving productivity comes down to forming the right habits according to Depies, like how often a technician comes to the window for parts.

“The technician who comes to the parts window 5 times in the morning isn’t your 100% efficiency guy,” he says. “The technician who came up maybe once right at the beginning of the morning to get his parts was forward thinking and has the good habits needed to stay on course.

“For our younger team members who are trying to improve, we’re really trying to partner those guys next to more experienced technicians. That way they can ask questions instead of struggling alone.” Depies says with the ongoing pandemic making only minimal training possible, they’ve leaned heavily on the mentorship program in the last year.

Depies focuses on increasing parts margins and labor rates when working on the dealership’s absorption rate and says their current goal is getting into a flat rate system. He says their absorption for 2020 was a little under 90%.

“There’s only so far you can go on absorption with pricing structures,” he says. “We’re trying to buy everything right and have the most margin possible when we sell on the parts side. We’re making sure our labor rate makes sense for our expenses and what we can actually get in the marketplace.

“The technician who comes to the parts window 5 times in the morning isn’t your 100% efficiency guy…”

“Once those two things are maxed out, you’re at the mercy of figuring out how to beat a flat rate. For example, looking at pre-delivery inspections, we’re figuring out how to have a consistent process with the same labor for all our techs. Part of that is just being more consistent with internal repairs and pre-deliveries and setting goals.”

Accountability & the Basics

Ritchie, co-store manager, talks about the future of their incentive program, which he says is getting an overhaul because the goals weren’t challenging enough.

“Our old structure just didn’t work,” he says. “Because we were not challenging the technicians, and we weren’t holding anyone accountable.”

“We’re going back to the basics,” adds Depies. “We’re going to focus on paperwork and processes, everything that you’re not turning a wrench on. If we can get our service processes in place, the labor side will come together.”

Depies adds that putting expectations down on paper is key, something Ritchie’s hadn’t done before. 

“It’s going to be front-to-back, getting the service team, technicians and the parts department everything they need so we can get all three communicating,” he says. “Right now, for example, we’re probably not the smoothest with incoming parts, so there’s a bottleneck where staff are standing around waiting for parts that someone just needs to bring to them.”

Marrying Technology to Technicians

In addition to their mentorship mindset with younger technicians, Ritchie Implement also looks to put technology-minded staff with technicians who are more “nuts and bolts” oriented, in order to cut down on lost time.

“Technology is a huge time consumer in the service department,” says Depies. “Especially if staff aren’t familiar with it. We have employees who really tip-toe around it, who take a bit longer and maybe don’t have it the way it should be when it leaves the door. 

“So we always partner up our ‘nuts and bolts’ technicians with our technology specialists, and they’ll work together to get it done. It’s about spreading our people to where they’re their best and not being afraid to throw two different people on a project. This teamwork is definitely where we see things trending, because the work only gets more and more complicated, and you can’t have 25 technicians trained on one product.”    

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