We have a lot of moving parts at play in the appliance repair industry today. Over the past couple of decades, appliance technology has become much more complicated, yet technician troubleshooting skills have eroded. This creates some uncertainty about the direction our industry is going.
Are we going to be a profession, filled with well-paid, highly-skilled technicians at the top of their game, or a semi-skilled trade, filled with low-paid parts changers who are essentially just the eyes and hands carrying out the directions of tech-line personnel? Will both of these types of techs coexist, or will one go extinct?
We’ve worked with thousands of techs and scores of business owners online over the years, most of whom take training and their profession seriously. We meet lots of folks like that at events such as ASTI. It makes us feel that the transition from trade to profession is here, and here to stay.
A big wake-up call for the Samurai
Recently, however, I had an abrupt reminder that there are still many who are not on board with that vision and are also influencing the direction of our industry.
I was doing ride-alongs with techs at a large service company to assess the effectiveness of our online training at The Master Samurai Tech Academy. I was surprised and dismayed to see that the techs weren’t using many of the techniques that we emphasize in our training, such as coming to a job prepared with tech documents, doing a simple load analysis using the schematic, and performing electrical measurements from easy-access locations to definitively identify the component failure. In fact, they seemed to have forgotten even how to do many of these things.
What the heck? Where did I go wrong?
It all became clear to me when I had a chance to go over the day’s calls with a service manager for the company. When I described the troubleshooting methods we used on a dryer call, he declared that we had gone "full retard" (a phrase from the movie Tropic Thunder) for actually looking at the schematic, doing a few amp readings and one simple Ohm’s Law calculation.
I was speechless. This is the guy who is supervising the techs who were paid to go through Master Samurai Tech training. However, it explained what I had seen that day. Although one of the senior managers at this company saw the value of using the MST Academy training for their techs, the other managers were not on board. Many of the skills taught at the Academy were not just ignored or discouraged, they were outright ridiculed. So of course the techs basically became parts-changers who simply carried out instructions from their manager or tech line.
At that point, another movie came to mind, Idiocracy, which imagines the dismal result of several hundred years of cultural anti-intellectualism.
I’m used to encountering techs who are a bit defensive about their lack of troubleshooting skills, but when even service managers mistake pattern recognition, parts changing, and a collection of factoids for real troubleshooting or, worse yet, have become hostile to it, then idiocracy is gaining a foothold in the appliance repair trade.
Attitudes: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Over the past decades, the technical skill level among many appliance techs has degenerated to such a low level that they don't even know what cause-and-effect troubleshooting is anymore. Since service managers are now being promoted from this group of techs, this attitude has become firmly entrenched in some organizations.
In all my dealings with techs over the past 20 years, I have come to realize how phenomenally important attitude is. And I’ve seen it all. Some techs love to keep learning and sharpening their skills, no matter how many years they’ve been doing it, and enjoy the pride of accomplishment and the profits that come along with it. Then there are others who have worked long enough to have some know-how based purely on pattern recognition (“if this problem on that model change this part”) and resist the notion that their job performance and income would benefit even further if they learned real troubleshooting skills. The causes of this attitude include ignorance, arrogance, and laziness. Ignorance is curable through outreach and training. Arrogance and laziness are difficult and dangerous qualities in a tech, but even worse in someone who is in a leadership role.
What's the risk to the industry if too many techs go down the road of idiocracy? Doesn’t that just give an opening for more success by those companies that behave like professionals?
Not necessarily. The expression "a rising tide lifts all boats" works in the opposite direction as well. The experiences our customers have with “parts changers” can negatively impact their future interactions with other service companies. They will often be more suspicious and price sensitive.
Furthermore, appliance manufacturers are seeing this problem in the appliance repair industry today, too. They realize there is uneven, often inadequate technical expertise in the trade. As a result, they are adapting to this general dumbing down in troubleshooting skills by dumbing down their training programs to essentially spoonfeeding what's already in the service manuals, knowing that most techs don't RTFM. They're also developing new technologies to decrease reliance on field techs to troubleshoot and solve problems.
Here's what the future could hold:
- Wifi-enabled appliances will report errors and diagnostics directly to the manufacturer's central technical staff who are specialists in that product.
- Corporate techs can then run diagnostics and do most troubleshooting remotely.
- The service company is then dispatched to simply replace a part- no troubleshooting required.
If this comes to fruition, the end result will be a decrease in skill level expectation from technicians. And since higher pay accompanies and incentivizes the acquisition of specialized skills, there will be a concomitant reduction in "technician" pay and skill level. Service managers will be be reduced to route makers and time card checkers with a corresponding reduction in their skill level expectation and pay.
All is not lost on this front. I speak with enough manufacturers to know that they would still like a better trained corps of appliance techs out there who can keep our mutual customers more satisfied. They haven’t given up on us yet!
Take a look at yourself! Have you looked at yourself?
I’m sure most of you reading this don’t come anywhere near being the kind of person who would call technical troubleshooting going "full retard." But, we would all benefit by stepping back and taking an honest look at our attitudes and expectations to see what part we are playing in raising our trade to a profession, and identify (and remedy) any weak links in our organizations.
After all, if you’ve invested in training the techs in your company, it’s a waste of money if you aren’t implementing and nurturing the skills and practices that the techs learned in that training.
Here’s what I still see too often when I go on ride-alongs with techs. Do you recognize any of these traits in your own service calls?
1. The tech arrives at the service call with no technical literature (service manual, tech sheet, bulletins) pre-loaded on his tablet or notebook computer. A manager may have pre-screened the calls and had probable parts pre-loaded on the service tech's vehicle, but the tech himself/herself is walking into the call completely cold.
2. If the call is anything other than a simple mechanical problem or parts replacement, the tech calls either his service manager or the manufacturer tech line.
3. Either way, the tech is spoon fed information to complete the diagnosis or repair; he is merely following detailed instructions but not doing the troubleshooting himself. From the tech's standpoint, this is only adding to his internal database of pattern recognition and factoids.
4. Neither the service manager nor the tech line guy has the time, patience, or skill to use this experience as a teaching moment and coach the tech through a troubleshooting thought process by asking leading questions. Examples:
- what is your load of interest on the schematic?
- what other components have you identified in the circuit for that load?
- where does the schematic indicate that you would test the power supply for that load?
5. The appliance may get repaired as a result of the spoon feeding but the tech never grows in his ability to perform independent troubleshooting analysis-- he has simply added another pattern to his repertoire for recall on another job with the same problem. Reliance on outside counsel such as service manager and manufacturer tech line, which should be a rare event for a skilled tech, is perpetuated. Job security for the service manager and tech line guy is assured, but no skill growth for the service tech takes place.
The foregoing is a typical pattern of degraded tech performance that is accepted as the "new normal" by far too many service companies. The problem is compounded when the service company middle management-- the service managers-- not only accept this degraded performance, but defend it.
Pattern recognition and a head full of factoids do have their place in appliance repair. In fact, these form the basis of experience in older technicians, allowing for quick diagnosis and repair of commonly-occurring problems with known solutions. But these experiential skills should not be mistaken as classical troubleshooting and are insufficient for service calls with problems that don't fit the pattern or are "off the flow chart."
The rewards of professionalism
Techs who take the time to hone their craft with training, continuing education, and pre-diagnostic work are true professionals. Being prepared and able to competently troubleshoot any type of appliance and failure scenario is where the big payoffs happen in terms of reputation and profit. First Call Completes are maximized, callbacks are minimized, and cheerleader customers are forged. That’s what a professional business looks like.
Is it too late to turn back the tide of idiocracy in the appliance repair trade? We at Master Samurai Tech firmly believe it is not too late and we have developed affordable, time-flexible training solutions to aid our brethren in the Craft. These skills are eminently learnable by anyone who desires to do so, and we’ve seen countless examples of techs and owners who have reaped the rewards of rising to the challenge.
Join us, and help avert the future portrayed here:
In a recent webinar, I offered a mental framework for executing classical troubleshooting strategies during service calls. Professional Appliantologist members and Master Samurai Tech Academy students may watch the 1-hour webinar recording here: