Patrick Overstreet (L), director of product support and Al Shank, service technician, stand in front of one of the company’s new Kenworth T270 field service trucks
Just as there's no “one size fits all” aspect of most things, satisfying the service needs of customers also needs to be tailored to individual needs.
Ascendum's service and parts department, under the management of Patrick Overstreet, director of product support, has worked to streamline a plan, manage and hire staff and implement programs to make Ascendum more competitive in the marketplace.
“We take a position where we have multiple facets on how we can best service our customers,” explained Overstreet.
“Some customers are much better equipped to service themselves, make their own repairs and maintenance, whereas others are more transient. They are spread out with fewer internal resources and they rely more on the dealer to handle their service needs.
“Some programs are a warranty support only, if that's all the customer needs. Another tier would be preventative maintenance where we know there is planned maintenance based on the hours the machines have accrued. And then we also offer a total maintenance and repair option where we give the customer the closest that they can get to a fixed cost per hour per maintenance and repair on their equipment.”
This is achieved using Act of Care Direct, which is a pro-active management tool using care track for the Volvo telematics to monitor machines and plan for plan maintenance — preventative maintenance as well as predictive maintenance when they have codes that would indicate that there may be a possible repair needed.
All of this helps keep the lowest cost per hour of production, according to Overstreet, which can be factored a couple of ways.
“Obviously, there is the cost in repairs, there is the cost in parts, oil filters, those kinds of things, but there is also a cost in lost time. Lost time is lost production; you just can't get back time.”
Part of Ascendum's strategy is to eliminate that unplanned down time which causes that stress when companies have equipment freight costs and replacement or rental equipment coming in to do the job.
“Our plan is to keep the cost down for the repairs but also to help minimize that unplanned down time, which can be just as costly as the repair itself,” he said.
A Fleet of Service Trucks
Ascendum has 96 technicians company wide, and 90 field service trucks, supporting 14 branches over four and a half states, as far as western North Dakota and as far south as southern Georgia all the way up to the Raleigh-Durham area and out to Asheville, Overstreet said.
Six years ago the company began a plan where it entered a plan replacement strategy every year, allowing it to replace trucks proactively where they are planned, before they become problematic. It also keeps Ascendum in a constant purchase cycle, whereas it is buying trucks every year, enabling it to take advantage of new technologies that come out and also gives it the opportunity to adjust to how the fleet stands with Tier IV Final.
“The trucks range from being a $130,000 to $165,000 asset. So, our commitment in that asset and all that expense is associated with that currently we have 37 of our trucks are under 5 years old,” Overstreet said.
“Making those smaller purchases every year, keeping a newer fleet, a little bit younger fleet and equipment gives us a lot more diversity and flexibility.”
Five years ago, Ascendum began looking for options on how it could better manage its own fleet to get better life or longer life to reduce its cost per mile, which in turn means it could reduce its mileage expense that it has to charge out.
“What we looked at doing is we wanted to extend the chassis life with Tier IV Final being a big factor. Not knowing the impact of what long life was going to do with Tier IV Final, we reached out to Miller Electric and built a field test on two of their Miller Impact Units, which is a standard power unit.
“With the help of Miller we were able to incorporate two of those new trucks, compare those to two trucks that had identical specs without the impact and after a year-long study we realized we could save a little under 15 percent on our fuel costs per truck. So, following that study that is now on standard spec for us is we invest in that the initial investment to put the Miller Impact on the truck so that in that four to six or seven year life we can hopefully reduce our fuel expense,” Overstreet said.
Ascendum's trucks are all KWT270 or T370 so there is a slight premium with the chassis, Overstreet said, “but our image, what we present to the customer who is important to us and the support we get from the manufacturer is important to us and ultimately just like the Miller Impact return on our investment when we liquidate or sell those is important.
“So, it wasn't just buying the image to look bigger or better, it was also calculating that return on our investment so that we would again, minimize our expense. And with every truck is anywhere from 7,500 to 11,000 worth of tooling that goes into outfitting the truck so we get the truck as a crane and the pinnacle controls and outriggers, but in addition to that we get chains, slings, pry bars, jacks, rams, porta powers, tools and our measured instruments, our gauges… so there is a large investment outside of just the rolling stock but in the tools that we place in the truck to make sure our technicians can best support our customers.
“The computer doesn't make our technician, it is another tool just like the wrench or socket, but every one of our technicians is equipped with $3,000 dollars of software and hardware, which is nothing but computer software to help diagnose to help make repairs on the machines. So we've got the equipment there and these are people that are all but programmers to some degree in that their capability to run the laptop is significant. It's not just pull the wrenches, it is the ability to plug into a machine to communicate what is wrong with software not just pulling bolts in and out.”
Ascendum has been a top three Volvo dealer as recognized by Volvo for its technicians for many years and participates in Volvo's annual Master Guild Competition.
“Ascendum has been committed into that program competing for 10 years and 2010 we came in second globally. We were very excited; however, disappointed we didn't win, and went back out there feverishly in 2011 and our team won the global competition. In 2013, the next competition, we went back and placed second globally. In 2014, we came in first in North America and most recently this year, just this year we had a team place second in North America.”
The intent of the competition is to create a healthy environment for dealers to compete against one another, according to Overstreet.
“It's an encouragement tool for us as a dealer to put our best out there, to train our people to be the best, and also gives them exposure working with other dealers not only across one state line or across the country, but dealers in Central and South America, Europe, Spain. There are dealers from all over the world that we get exposure to with our technicians because they get to see things they may not normally see. They get experience you can only gain by sitting at the dinner table with another group from another country when you are talking about what your daily life is as a technician.
“Our commitment is to the technicians. We want to see them grow. We want to see them compete. We want to see that healthy competition where they take pride in what they are doing and we want that exposure and experience where they are talking to people outside the normal people you work with every day. Other dealers, other ways of thinking, other thought processes, how they build and inspect their trucks, how they do their training … all of those things come into play to create a much more diverse technician as a professional not just a mechanic.”
Technician Candidacy Program
Ascendum's Technician Candidacy Program allows the company to recruit, hire and then place young mechanically inclined technician candidates.
“It allows us to do a year's worth of training internally. We will be going with the basics for power training, hydraulics, electrical. We have the opportunity to move these candidates from one branch to the other to work at different shops, to work with different technicians. And, our plan is we get a 36-month plan set up for these candidacy programs,” said Overstreet.
“There are technicians that may not normally go off to Diesel colleges because of lack of opportunity, so we are recruiting internally, locally to bring these folks in, train them internally for a year. There are certain benchmarks that they are expected to meet that we work with their service manager that they report to in order to help them obtain the benchmarks and goals they need to.
“Year two we begin the training with Volvo and by year three we have them in Step One and Step Two Volvo's training classes with the intent being we will grow our own technicians in the Candidacy Program. So, that is one piece of our training plan. Another piece of our training plan is working in unison with Volvo. We have benchmarks that Volvo expects us to meet. For example, not to use terms as journeyman or master guild or master technician, internally grade those out in steps one, two and three.”
Two weeks of resident training every year is the expectation for all of Ascendum's technicians. Resident training meaning that they are typically going off to Pennsylvania or to another Volvo training center and being trained for an entire week. Usually they are one week at a time, according to Overstreet.
“In addition to that, we have a 20 to 40 hour CET, or Computer Expectations of the Technician, so we are looking anywhere from one to three weeks of training per year and our goal is five percent of our time for technicians annually, which is committed to training. So, they have the formal training, which is out of Volvo or others, where they are going off to those manufacturers to train. We have computer based on all online-based training, then we also have local training where we use some of our safety and orientation training at branch level,” said Overstreet.
“We want to be the first provider a customer thinks of when it's time to purchase equipment. There is a saying that stays true firm with any manufacturer is that the sales department or salesman sells the first piece of equipment, and parts and service sell every other one. So, if you can get a chance, you can sell one piece of equipment but if the equipment is not supportive efficiently, economically and timely, then there won't be a second, third or another purchase of equipment later. You want to be that one to be thought of as a committed provider, you want to minimize the cost of ownership, and we want to … as important as all of those, we want to help prevent unplanned down time. Unplanned down time can be costly, if not more costly than the repair itself. The logistics it takes to support or make other arrangements or plans, transportation, moving equipment, shuffling equipment around is huge, it is a big deal,” Overstreet said.
“In today's time and our market that we've been in for years since the recession several years ago, our contractors, our customers, our clients, our purchasers, need equipment that is going to be reliable, they need a service department that is going to take care of them and they need to know that when they call, they've got to trust that they are going to get as timely a response as they can.
“All those are the things that factor in the drive and decisions we make. And, at the same time, our commitment is not just for today or tomorrow or for next month or next quarter or next year, our commitment is that the investors in our business have a profitable business that is managed and treated fairly.
“Maintaining a profitable business for our owners gives us the longevity we need to support customers all the time, not just for this year or next year but rather 10 years from now to talk to the same people, deal with the same management and the only way that would happen is with a company that manages their business. Our parts and service department are not a necessary evil, we are not just a support function to sell equipment. We are an enterprise.”—CEG