Anyone looking for a fuller appreciation of how a service manager at a growing dealership successfully juggles responsibilities should spend a few hours with Aaron Keeler - that is, if he has time.

On a daily basis, the service manager at CVE's store in St. Albans, Vt., is bombarded with dozens of calls from customers and questions from service technicians.

"Between my cell phone and the phone at my desk, there aren't many times during the day that I don't have one up to my ear," Keeler says. "We process 3,500-4,000 work orders a year through the shop, so it's a pretty heavy workload, and constant contact is the biggest part of making sure jobs are done right.

"Every single person on those work orders has been talked to in person or on the phone."

Within an hour after we sat down, Keeler received a half-dozen phone calls, two customer visits and four service updates from in-store technicians working on various equipment repairs.

After 6 years as the store's service manager, he's adept at handling the high volume from a diverse customer base. Mechanics are trained to service a variety of equipment, from repairs on New Holland high horsepower tractors to winterizations of Polaris watercraft.

Aaron Keeler,
Service Manager 

Years with Organization: After several years working in the automotive industry as a service manager and service writer, Aaron Keeler brought his managerial skill set to CVE's St. Albans store in 2007. He spent 6 months as the location's service writer, before taking over as service manager. He is currently the longest-tenured service manager among the dealership's original stores.

Role: "I oversee our 6 mechanics and 1 road technician in the service department. We process 3,500-4,000 work orders a year through the shop, so it's a pretty heavy workload, and constant contact is the biggest part of making sure jobs are done right."

Keeler admits it's a demanding job and CVE's recent acquisitions, along with mechanic turnover at the St. Albans location, are providing both managerial challenges and new business opportunities.

"We definitely have a wide range of customers and numerous vendors that we sell for, which is very good from a parts and service perspective," he says. "We also try to put some programs together to hit on what we think will get equipment in the shop, because that's the biggest thing.

"Keeping customers happy, keeping the bills paid, the shop busy and the parts coming off the shelf is my main goal."

Busy Year Round

Despite the high volume of work orders that already flow across his desk, Keeler prides himself on proactively keeping his current team of 6 mechanics busy year-round. What he doesn't want is for them to be "painting walls in winter" because there's not enough shop work to fill the day.

"The way the business is run today, it's not as much the sales of the new equipment that keeps us afloat," he says. "It's the parts and service that keeps the cashflow coming in at all times of the year."

The St. Albans store does $3 million per year in parts sales and another $1 million in labor, according to Keeler, which accounts for nearly 40% of the dealership's annual revenue totals.

"It's a significant part of our yearly sales," he says. "Laying people off in the wintertime isn't something I've had to do here and going forward, I'm not planning on it."

Four years ago Keeler implemented an off-season inspection program for tractors, which evolved to include cleaning and detailing. He's since added fuel injection cleaning to the inspection, which costs $299. The main objective with the service plans is to get customers in the door and then leverage the inspections to generate consistent income, especially in slower times.

"We work a lot with dairy farmers and milk prices fluctuate here in Vermont. That causes a lot of fluctuation in sales and, in some cases, equipment repairs," Keeler says. "Some people are definitely counting their pennies certain times of the year and when milk prices are low and feed grain is high, it definitely makes it tough for them to spend.

"Adding these service programs has definitely changed the shop's workload throughout the year for the better."

Keeler estimates that about 75% of the 150-point tractor inspections translate to service work for the dealership. If the customer declines the maintenance or repair recommendations, Keeler maintains a record so that his technicians can prioritize service calls during busy seasons.

If a farmer calls screaming on April 1 when he pulls his tractor out and the 3-point hitch doesn't work, Keeler has documentation that the dealership diagnosed the problem in winter, but the customer didn't want to fix it.

"It's all documented mainly for our own knowledge that we're not going to jump through hoops if it's something a customer declined to fix when we first brought it to his attention," Keeler says. "But once we get them in the door, there's a pretty good chance we're getting the repair job."

Measuring Success

Keeler admits that he demands a lot from his mechanics and holds them accountable for their performance. Efficiency and customer satisfaction are more intangible metrics he uses to evaluate employees because numbers alone don't always tell the whole story.

"There's obviously the paper trail as far as measuring a mechanic, but I don't believe that's the real way to look at a mechanic's work," Keeler says. "It's a hard thing to really push the numbers because there's usually a story to each part of it. The bottom line is customer satisfaction and keeping the shop busy. That's the best way to monitor how everything is going."

A wall sized dry-erase board in Keeler's office tracks the whereabouts of service technicians each day and there are mounted containers labeled "plows" and "assemblies" where mechanics rotate new jobs with completed ones that end up in a wire basket on Keeler's desk.

Although he holds annual reviews for each mechanic, Keeler will solicit feedback throughout the year and also track their performance, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis.

"I've actually timed a mechanic with a stopwatch on how many times he's on the job turning a wrench in a day and we definitely had to make some adjustments after that," Keeler says. "But it was a good learning tool for me and for them to know what we billed out dollar wise in a day and what we really got.

"Obviously, those situations need to be corrected so the customer is getting a fair price and a good job done on their equipment."

Billing between $65 and $85 an hour for in-store service, and $95 an hour for road service, Keeler understands how valuable a mechanic's time is. It's important to make the most of it each day, even if it's saving a few footsteps back and forth to the parts department.

Improving Operations

The dealership recently added vending machines to the shop floor, but not the kind stocked with Snickers or Oreos. These machines feature items like spray paint, duct tape and Crazy glue.

"These really help with some of the back and forth from the parts department to the shop just for your normal shop supplies," Keeler says. "It saves quite few steps and, at the end of the day, it's time that can be more efficiently billed to the customer, rather than just wasted tracking down supplies."

Sometimes though, changes need to be made. The dealership recently parted ways with two senior technicians, which Keeler says was difficult, but necessary to maintain productivity.

With a younger core of mechanics, the goal is to be more progressive and potentially add service for precision farming products. Up until now, CVE has only dabbled in sales and support of technology, in part because the dealerships haven't been able to spare the staff.

"GPS is a product that we need to push and one area with our younger techs that we can get into, because they are more tech savvy," Keeler says. "Precision is definitely a market that we've left on the counter."

Sharing Resources

CVE's recent acquisition of the 2 stores in Berlin and Derby increased the dealership group to 4 locations, including the original dealership in Middlebury, Vt.

It's also expanded Keeler's network of service support.

"A perfect example is assemblies of new equipment. We have equipment that's been here quite a while, but we have a lot of customer repairs to do, so the internal stuff gets pushed to the back burner," he says. "The other stores are slow right now and they need the work, so we send it up there."

"I hate to let it go too, because in a couple weeks, maybe one of our guys has 4 or 5 hours to get that tractor put together. But you can't sell it when it's in a crate out back. You've got to get it put together when you can and work as a team."

Another benefit of the acquisitions is that each brought a skilled set of mechanics into the fold to expand expertise, specifically on the Kubota and New Holland brands. The St. Albans store had primarily been a Case IH dealership prior to the acquisitions. Keeler recently borrowed a mechanic from the Derby store for the day to lend a hand on an engine repair on newer New Holland tractor.

The customer was enrolled in New Holland's Top Service program, which meant that ordered parts arrived at the dealership within 24 hours.

"Once the part is here, obviously New Holland is expecting us to get the job done," Keeler says. "It was a big job because we had to take a motor out and change a front bolster and that takes time. Having two hands in there just made everything that much easier."

While he appreciates the extra help, Keeler admits he's still a bit territorial when it comes to business. Setting boundaries and dividing the service workload to maximize efficiency at all 4 locations is still a work in progress.

"We get some customers who are in between stores and there's been discussions about who is going to take care of them," he says. "I get greedy in some of those situations and try to keep the work coming to our store, but it is what it is."

Keeler received a recent service call from a loyal customer who purchased a tractor from the St. Albans store. But the customer lived a half-hour away from the dealership in Derby and Keeler sent him there for the repair work.

"Yes, we always worked on equipment for them, but it didn't make sense for me to send a mechanic on the road an hour and a half," he says. "It's not fair to the customer, but we also try to do what makes the most sense profitability-wise for the dealership.

"Even if it's one of our customers, we try to be up front with them on the phone and explain what it's going to cost to come to us, or go to one of our other locations that may be closer, because that time adds up quick."

Coaching the New Guys

As the longest tenured service manager with the original CVE stores, Keeler tries to lead by example and transition the newer managers into their roles with the company.

Getting everyone on the same page in terms of customer support, billing or new business opportunities is important, which is why Keeler maintains an open dialogue with his colleagues.

"A couple of them have that lull that I had when I started out, and it's just a matter of opening their eyes to the other businesses, not just in Berlin, or just Kubota repairs," he says. "Branching out and trying new things can keep everyone busy year round, which is what we want."

Staying busy isn't a problem for Keeler. He politely excuses himself from the interview to visit with a customer who is having tracks installed on a Polaris four-wheeler to access the taps on his maple trees.

Keeler checks with a service tech on the status of the job and he and the customer share a few laughs, then a handshake.

"He's a good man to have," the customer says of Keeler. "I always appreciate the time he makes for me, even when he doesn't have any."