Confessions of a Service Manager

By Bill Pyles

I’ve been working in Product Support most of my life. Most of those 30 years have been primarily focused on service department product support. I spent time as a shop mechanic, field mechanic, shop foreman, and service manager. I learned a lot during those years. I learned:

  • How to move labor and material around on a work order to make the times look good.
  • How to avoid any lost time by charging time to sales, rentals, and used equipment.
  • How to handle warranties by sending a less-than-qualified mechanic because “it’s warranty” and it would be “good” training. And, and what the heck, the manufacturer is paying for it.
  • That, if the boss’s hot button was “reduce training” or “reduce expenses,” you simply moved that time to building maintenance or repair of shop tools. If expenses were high, you shifted them to cost of sales.
  • The importance of taking care of my customers first by letting the sales and rental departments wait and wait and wait.
  • That a two-week backlog was good: hey, three weeks was better. Keeping this backlog ensured I would make my numbers for the month. The customer would wait.
  • That you never sent work to another branch or even asked if another shop was slow.
  • That if I had a big job, I never called another store for help to take care of other jobs. Remember the “backlog.”
  • There was never enough time in the day, so when vendors delivered oxygen and acetylene bottles, bolts, nuts, and shop supplies there was no need to check the delivery before signing the delivery ticket. Nothing ever “falls off the back of the truck.”
  • That sales, rental, or used equipment never received any warranty on shop or field repairs. Remember the “budget.”
  • How to sandbag monthly sales. If we meet the budget this month, hold off any more billing until next month. I have a budget to make then, too.
  • Never call a customer for additional work a machine needed, while the machine was down. He’d yell at me if I suggested additional work needed to be done. It was always easier to say nothing and if the machine failed after it left the shop, he’d call me.
  • If a machine was coming in for a final drive repair, I’d order every nut, bolt, and gear and air freight them in. I might need them and if I don’t, the parts department will just put them back on the shelf. No big deal.

During those times, life was good. My numbers looked good. I had a backlog, and the boss was off my back.

Then I became a General Service Manager

Then I became a General Service Manager and was included in management meetings I never knew existed. I discovered there were other departments challenged to be efficient and profitable – just like me – and unless all departments worked together, it would not happen.

  • It took a little while, but I began to realize why the sales manager was not always so willing to let me have a loaner for a service job I screwed up. Those labor hours I was writing off to sales, rental, and used equipment were actually showing up on his P&L!
  • Those new, used and rental machines were expensive assets that I kept pushing to the back of the schedule so I could take care of my customers. I didn’t know the company was missing opportunities and thousands of dollars because we had no machines to rent or sell.
  • I learned warranty training was expensive. Those dollars actually came back in the form of warranty expense. Do you mean the manufacturer didn’t pay for 10 hours of labor to replace a fuel filter?
  • I discovered the time I invested swapping labor and material around did nothing for the actual bottom line. What? I spent hours doing that!
  • I learned a backlog was good but a satisfied customer was better. I’d visit customers and ask why they sent a machine to another company. Usually, the answer was “Bill, you guys do good work and I don’t mind even paying a little more for good work, but I can’t wait three or four weeks every time my machine goes into the shop.”
  • So I learned to work overtime when required. I learned to ask other shops for help and sometimes I even suggested the customer send the machine to another branch that could get him in and out the quickest. Sometimes I even offered to pay the additional hauling to get him there!
  • I learned things do “fall off the back of a truck.” Have you ever been offered a deal too good to be true? Hey, it fell off the back of a truck. I went through an audit after the company decided to change oxygen and acetylene vendors. The vendor came in and did an audit on all the bottles we rented over the years. We could not come up with $6,500 worth of rented bottles. They must be lying all over America’s highways.
  • I learned if I didn’t contact a customer for needed additional work, the machine would leave the shop (“Hey, I did what he asked!”) and would fail soon after – on the job. The first thing I’d hear would be, “It just left your %#@*&% SHOP!” – and I should have called him and fixed it then.
  • learned that the boatload of parts I ordered for the final drive repair and returned to parts created a lot of expense. No one told me there were shipping and emergency charges, and we didn’t stock the part because there was no demand. I learned those expenses were showing up on the parts manager’s P&L.
  • I found out someone had to take the time to do the parts entry, place the order, receive it into inventory, carry it to the shop, pick it up after I returned it and create another return ticket. They would create a location in the warehouse (remember, we did not stock it), and let it sit until the next authorized parts return when the company might get 50 cents on the dollar! Wow, no wonder when I asked for help on a disputed service invoice, I’d get a cold stare from the parts manager.
The Old and the New

My point (yes, there is a point to all of this) is, that there are two types of service management – the old and the new. The old type will not survive in today’s distributorship. Managers who think like that are being replaced with managers who are concerned with the entire company’s health, not just the service department.

The new service managers are discovering that working together – sales, parts, and service – makes a much more enjoyable job. Time spent hiding expenses rather than addressing the issue is a complete waste of time. The real cause of the expense is never removed or identified and swapping time becomes routine and a drain on your time.

Direct and constructive communication with other department managers is key to making our company successful, profitable, and raising customer satisfaction. Believe it or not, it starts with the service department!

After being discharged from the Marine Corps in 1974, Bill began a lifelong product support career as a technician with a multi-state Caterpillar dealer. Bill came up through the ranks to become the dealer’s General Service Manager.

Bill also served as General Product Support Manager for a large multi-state Komatsu dealer and Vice President of Service for a multi-state John Deere construction & forestry dealer.

“Confessions” was written many years ago drawing on some good and not so good practices he encountered with dealer’s service management.

After 47 years, Bill has recently retired to enjoy the sunny Florida life along with his wife Diana, two sons, and five grandchildren.

Contact Bill at or