Spotlight: Five winning mobile maintenance strategies

Whether hitting the road to conduct an emergency repair or visiting a fleet customer to perform preventive maintenance inspections, mobile service offerings of all varieties are popping up across the country. Technician and driver shortages combined with rising fuel costs are pushing more fleets to consider hiring outside service providers who are willing to make house calls.

Every mobile operation is unique: some are outcroppings of full-service repair shops while others only encompass one service technician with a truck full of parts. The level of involvement and financial commitment varies widely between operations, but although diverse, there are some common denominators to success no matter what kind of service you take to the road.

Mobile Strategy 1: Know Your Market

Mobile maintenance is not a business fit for all. It can mean long, inconvenient hours of work in inclement weather. It takes a big commitment of resources and capital to go mobile; it’s not a decision to be made overnight.

When considering adding a mobile aspect to your business, listen to what the market in your area is telling you. Make appointments to talk to potential customers about what they’re looking for in a service provider. If they express interest, it might be a good indication that mobile service offerings would sell well in your area. If they don’t want to foot the bill, then it’s better to know that before making a hefty investment in a service vehicle.

“I used to work in dealerships and then I went to work for myself. People would ask me to come take a look at their trucks or stop by their places of business. The call for me to come to them seemed to be in high demand,” says Edwin Hazzard, owner, Automotive Tech Systems, Newburgh, N.Y.

“It’s weird how it escalated. More and more people wanted me to come to their place to look at their equipment on the weekends. That’s how it started. Then pretty soon, I got to a point where I had no weekend left. At that point, I put a truck together and equipped it with the tools I needed and started my business.”

Now Hazzard only operates on the road. “We do a lot of fleet work. A big part of what we do when we go to a customer’s place of business is we take care of all their maintenance items. We do a lot of oil changes – just about everything except for alignments and actually, we’re working on a setup for that too.”

Not every mobile service operation grows organically out of a technician or shop’s previous business. In these cases, it’s especially important to talk to potential customers, or even potential competitors, to get an idea about the type of work that’s available. Don’t jump in blindly.

Mobile Strategy 2: Start Out Slowly, Then Build

The worst thing a company can do is bite off more than it can chew, and this is especially true with mobile maintenance. Most mobile operations start modestly with limited offerings. Prove that you can do the job correctly and well, and then branch out slowly. Your mobile service offerings do not need to be all things to all people. Many service operations make the bulk of the profits by concentrating on one service offering, such as roadside repairs or onsite oil changes, and not over-extending themselves.

“Our mobile service started with helping people who were put out-of-service at a weigh station. They were often minor repairs, but the driver had to have the repair completed before he moved his truck,” says Jeff Hendzel, director of service operations, Trudell Trailers, Green Bay, Wis.

“Having our mobile service operation gives us the ability to take care of some of our existing customers with some smaller needs so that they don’t have to burn fuel or tie up drivers. It complements our shop because if we encounter something on the road that we can’t take care of with the mobile service vehicle, there’s always the option to bring the vehicle into our shop,” Hendzel says.

In order to win mobile service business, you have to build a certain level of trust with your customers. Networking might get you in the door, but if you botch a simple job, or don’t have the proper tools to perform the maintenance work you said you could, then a fleet is not going to waste its money asking you back.

“Taking care of a fleet operation, depending on its size, can be overwhelming sometimes,” admits Hazzard. “Start off slow, do a good job, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Mobile Strategy 3: Be Road Ready

It goes without saying that working on the road is different from working in a shop environment, but poor weather and dangerous road conditions are large challenges facing mobile service technicians.

“Working outside is different that working inside. You have to prepare for the elements,” says Hazzard.

“The biggest challenges for us are the weather conditions. We’re based in Northeastern Wisconsin where we face deep cold. We have to guard against frostbite and things like that. Summer can be just as tough when our guys are out in the beating sun,” says Hendzel, who mentioned that he once had a service call to fix a customer’s brake shoe that had frozen to the drum.

Before you commit to mobile maintenance, consider whether or not you will be willing to work under any condition. “There’s nothing worse than telling someone that you have mobile service and then realizing that you’re an individual who is not willing to perform in the field where conditions aren’t perfect,” says Hednzel. Set your limits ahead of time, and if you’re willing to go out in the cold of winter at three o’clock in the morning, have the proper protective attire ready to go.

For customers, the allure of mobile maintenance is the flexibility and timesavings it affords them. By committing to a mobile service offering, you are also committing to work on someone else’s terms. This may mean keeping odd hours, working on the side of a highway, or in someone else’s garage as you travel from customer to customer. Think through the entire mobile experience and anticipate your needs as best you can. If you are performing oil changes, do you have approved oil storage materials on board? What if there is a spill? Do you have materials on hand to clean it up? Ask yourself these questions ahead of time. Reaching for a tool in a shop is automatic, but when you’re on the road, the patching material you need, for instance, won’t be at an arm’s length.

Mobile Strategy 4: Get the Right Person Behind the Wheel

Once you have set your terms of service and equipped your service vehicle properly, you need to get the right people on board. It takes someone special to successfully perform mobile service; you must be comfortable with letting a technician go out on the road and interact with customers face-to-face. You need someone both independent and responsible.

“It’s so much easier to keep an eye on a new technician in the shop versus in the field,” says Gabriel Sava, shop supervisor, Peninsula Truck Repair, Inc., Redwood City, Calif. Peninsula Truck Repair provides 24/7 emergency roadside service, and also has fleet maintenance units that will go to a customer’s site and perform PM and oil changes.

“We don’t usually send new hires out on service calls for onsite fleet maintenance. We will send someone who has been in the shop for a year or more so we know what they are going to do on the road.” Once a technician proves his merit, then Sava sends him into the field and replaces him in the shop.

“It takes a different individual to be a technician on a mobile service truck, says Hendzel. “You have to treat him a little more independently and give him a little more latitude to work different hours, or directly with the customer.

“You need an individual who is not afraid to talk to the customer.”

Mobile service technicians have to be able to think on their feet and make decisions on their own in order to be successful. A manager must be willing to trust his mobile service technician to do the right thing and, to the best of his ability, to make his own decisions.

“We also start our mobile technicians in the shop,” says Hendzel. “We do that in order to determine that they’re mechanically capable, number one, and also that they’re able to handle the conditions that are thrown at them.”

Mobile Strategy 5: Constant Communication

Working from the road makes good communication a priority, both with customers and between a mobile technician and home base, whether that is a full-service shop or a dispatcher.

“A cell phone is an invaluable tool,” says Hendzel. “A good share of dispatching comes through a service writer in the office, who then checks with the mobile technicians to see who is the most readily available. We stay in constant communication with them. That communication with a customer puts them at ease. They feel much better about what’s happening with the broken piece of equipment.”

Even the most well equipped mobile service truck will not be able to carry every tool and every part to various jobsites. Keeping detailed records about a fleet customer’s equipment will help a mobile service operation plan ahead and be ready to get right to work when they reach the job site.

“We keep records detailing the history of our regular customers’ vehicles,” says Sava. “If we’re going out to a location to do 10 oil changes, then we normally have either a license plate to identify that vehicle ID or a unit number. We can pull a line card and figure out exactly what filters the trucks will take and how much oil is required. If it’s a new customer, someone will go out from our company before we schedule maintenance to get all the vehicle IDs so we can properly identify what we’ll need to bring.”

It’s also vital that you keep open lines of communication with your employees and listen to what they have to say. They are the people, after all, who are out talking to and working with your customers all day, and the information they glean from these conversations can be invaluable to your business.

“We found that putting technicians on call 24/7 was not the wisest move for us,” says Hendzel. “We made an attempt at that, but we found that it was cause for a little higher turnover in personnel. Since then, we’ve moved away from providing that particular service, which has allowed us to keep better technicians.”

By listening to your staff, you might find ways to better your business, or to make it a more attractive place of employment for technicians. And with the direness of the technician shortage, this is key to your business.

“I’ve had a really dedicated team operating mobile service for a number of years,” says Hendzel. “Really dedicated guys.”

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