Internal Customer Service

May 18, 2016

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals.

Creating an internal customer service culture for a fleet department at times can be, well, a challenge.

“I wish I could say it’s an easy task,” says Chad Burdick, CEM, Equipment Manager for Constructors Inc., Lincoln, Neb. “However, a lot of fleet departments have conflicts with the operations side of the business. A situation like that has a negative impact on internal service for operations, the guys running the work.”

Defining the Fleet Organization's Purpose

Keeping Focused on Internal Customers

Burdick says what has to be understood by any equipment department is that operations “are our customers. We are an extension of the field. If we don’t give them the equipment they need and timely repairs, it could make a difference between a make or break job.”

Burdick sees his job as being a liaison between the shop and the field and structurally making sure the right people are in the right places. In a nutshell, he says, he is talking about education. “You build relationships through education, just talking to everybody in the field to let them know you’re there for them.”

The education process is important when it comes to bridging gaps of misunderstanding that may exist among individuals involved with internal customer service, he says. “We in the fleet department have to show people in the field that we are there to help increase production. But I have to tell you, it’s been a difficult issue getting people to understand that,” Burdick says.  

It’s all a matter of attitude, says Mike Watkins, Customer Support Manager for the corporate business division of John Deere Construction and Forestry.

“The fleet department has to understand that its objective is to recognize that the operations group is their customer,” he says. “Operations are viewed as co-workers or as another department, but they really have to be seen as the customer for what you, in the fleet department, are providing.”

The right attitude is the starting point, Watkins says. If you don’t have that, “it’s hard to get to the point where you are serving them and not yourself.”

Watkins says you should be able to measure your internal customer service through surveys or just sitting down and talking to people on the operations side. “Find out how you are doing—what you are doing well, what you are doing badly, and where you can make improvements. It’s more of a subjective approach, but it may be the best,” he says.

How often these face-to-face meetings happen, Watkins says, “at the very least should hinge on some of the activities going on.”

“There is no set rule,” he says. “If you’re fleeting up for a big project that’s coming in, you need to create a plan for large projects. You ought to meet the operations folks early and definitely you want to meet with them at the end.”

That provides the opportunity to inform operations what the fleet department is going to do at the beginning, then find out how well you did it.

“You should also meet with the operations team during the project,” says Watkins. “How often depends on the duration of the project. If there are any issues, you can spread those periodic discussions out further. Of course, if you’re having challenges you might want to have weekly meetings or discussions. It all depends.”

At Mulzer Crushed Stone, Equipment Manager Don Gengelbach, CEM, points out that upper management and leadership are among the first things that come to mind. Upper management must be on board and follow up to make sure the mission of the company flows downward.

“I think managers need to understand that today they are working with a more diverse culture, and the age separation in the workplace has created new challenges. That is something equipment managers have to overcome,” he says.

One way to do that, Gengelbach says, is through training. In Mulzer’s case, training is done through trade schools and internally by keeping a mix of skilled technicians.

“You have the young guys working alongside experienced guys,” he says. “You utilize the experienced workers by having them guide and help train the younger workers.”

Training has always been within the culture at Mulzer.

“In the last year, we have started what is internally referred to as the Ambassador Program. We pick an ambassador—young or old—as the go-to guy to advise the new hire and answer his questions, thus creating an open line of communications for new employees to ask questions.”

Implementing internal customer service and measuring its application when it comes to building good relationships with other departments often depends on the individual company.

As with other companies, Mulzer has internal services that support other departments. When one department becomes agitated with something that is going on in another department, Gengelbach says, “We evaluate what the problem is. But, at the same time, we reiterate that each department plays an important role in customer service. For example, maintenance [supports] production to service and keep equipment in good working order to meet production demands.”

Gengelbach also keeps up with equipment failures. “We determine, for instance, if a mobile piece of equipment caused the downtime or was it something in the plant. We identify where the problem is and correct it.”

Burdick uses a scorecard approach. He “outsources” the job. He asks the foremen and supervisors to rate the performance of his service crew on factors such as the time they arrive and their efficiency.

“I monitor the feedback, and actually have a sheet that my shop foreman uses to log the time they leave, what technicians are going out, what job, and what time they return,” he says.

He also asks technicians to rate the field operation.

“I use such questions as ‘How is that superintendent to work with? Was the equipment down? When you got there did he shut the equipment down? Did they park it in a non-traffic area so you can be more efficient? It cuts both ways. I think it is important that each operation has a voice. Nothing ever gets better by communicating less.”

About 10 years ago when he worked for another company, Burdick set up a feedback survey and found that, “quite honestly, it was really effective.”

“The owner of the company would take the feedback from the superintendent or foreman and use it at the time of annual reviews,” he says.

It was no secret, he says. Everyone knew about it and knew what was at stake. “It’s amazing how well it works when you put a paycheck or a dollar amount on it,” he says. “It’s amazing how issues get resolved. Things work out.”

Another tool he uses might be called the “drop by.”

 “I’m out in the field anyway, so I like to drop by and see what’s going on,” he says. “For instance, if one of my technicians had to repair a water pump, I might just swing by there and check to see if the hose clamps are tight, if they are put on correctly so they won’t rub against anything, and if the level is right. I look at the job as an extension of me. When things go bad, it’s my fault. When things go right, the team did a really good job.”

Burdick also emphasizes formal training.

“When I joined the company, it spent zero dollars on training. Now, I’ve sent people to schools run by Caterpillar. We use Freightliner trucks and our local dealership has its own internal training program called the Technical Advance Center where they cover the entire vehicle. Whatever we own, we are going to spend money on training. That goes for operators and technicians because they are two very different things.”

Although Burdick doesn’t have an internal communications program at this time, he says such seminars are helpful. Also, he says, you can learn how to communicate by just reading books on the subject.

“In fact, I’m signed up for a one-day seminar entitled, ‘How To Deal with Difficult People.’ I hope it will teach me how to communicate better in the least amount of time and meet with the least resistance.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “We need to get down to what we need to get done. If we can figure out how to get from A to B quicker and more efficiently, that’s a win-win situation.”

The fact that Constructors doesn’t have a formal how-to-communicate program doesn’t mean good communication throughout this department doesn’t take place, Burdick says. “It starts with me,” he says. “It starts with the one in the equipment arena who has to emphasize the importance of good communication.”

Constructors is one of the few companies that starts every morning with physical exercises, among them stretches that help determine the physical condition of the worker.

“You can tell if the guy was up too late the night before and not fit for work or distraught because of a personal or family issue,” Burdick says. “Luckily, that hasn’t been the case, but it does allow the one-on-one time with the group before you send them out to do a potentially dangerous task.”

That’s where the communication comes in, Burdick says. During the exercises he walks around and talks about what the job is for that day, what they are going to do, for instance, whether they will be using Highway 77 or running 30 trucks. “They like to be included,” Burdick says. “They give you more when they are included. If you don’t do that, they feel like a number or less significant.”

Communications is not a one-and-done thing, he says. Every time there is a new job, Burdick holds a planning meeting.

“I like to let the guys know about specific hazards or challenges that are present with the job, such as if night work is required. It’s not, ‘Here you go, boys. Now go build it.’”

Project management drives the superintendent plans ahead of time. He gives them the plans in preparation for the planning meeting that details, for instance, what type of paver will be used. That kind of communication saves labor and is valuable, Burdick says. “If we increase the efficiency by 1 percent, sometimes that is the difference between a $20 million job and not getting it.”

At Mulzer, when it comes to measuring work performance and work quality, Gengelbach relies on estimation and evaluation. It is up to the lead supervisor to track his work and the quality of the work. “We can do some of that with our system, but that is something that should be done hands-on,” he says.

Everyone works on internal customer service, he says. “We all work together, but we all have our own opinions. At the end of the day, whatever your opinion is, the common goal is to produce the stone or put the stone on the barge.”

There are many methods and techniques for building and improving internal customer service, but Watkins has this advice.

“What you don’t want is for operations to go out and find other sources for equipment. That’s your job.”