Getting the most from route and FEC technicians on the road is both art and science. Efficient operators make every effort to "routinize" and maximize technician schedules, but for the tech, it's often a job of putting out fires and responding to surprises -- like showing up at a location and discovering that it didn't report a game that's down, so the tech doesn't have the necessary part. Being ready for such surprises is an important part of operations management.
Obviously, the workloads are different for techs depending on whether they service routes or fun centers. I strongly advise against mixing these assignments, because the requirements for each are so different.
On street routes, techs typically service multiple locations every day, and certainly many locations during the course of the week. But as every street operator knows, even the most efficient scheduling system can't prevent problems that require emergency visits. If a high-earning jukebox goes down at 10 a.m. in a late-night bar, the operator must get out of bed and go fix it -- or risk losing the location.
For FECs, the name of the game is daily fixes for immediate problems, along with constant preventive maintenance and "tweaking" of redemption and merchandise-dispensing games to ensure maximum profitability. During slow periods, the tech stays busy by catching up with the continual job of reconditioning one game at a time. All this is a process that never ends.
How can the operator rationally assign tech labor to an FEC? My rule of thumb for FEC technical services is to allow one hour of service for every $500 a week of gross revenue (not including collection and restocking time, which is additional).
Here are 10 tactics and principles that operators can use to get the most out of their route techs:
1. Supply the location with an extra game or games. Have "back-up" equipment at locations at the far edge of a route's territory. Most operators do this. This way, if one game is down, keeping it out of service for a couple of days usually won't affect the location's gross until the next scheduled service call. For the same reason, it makes sense to have extra tokens on hand that the location can sell in case bill changers go down.
Having an extra game in a location allows the operator to schedule a tech's visit when it makes sense. Sometimes, responding immediately to a service call is not worth the tradeoff between the cost of the tech's time and travel costs versus 50% of the additional weekly revenue that would be earned by re-routing the tech to repair the game today.
2. Stock the tech's vehicle with the most common parts. The best way to prepare for unexpected contingencies is to carry the right items with you. In addition to tools (see my previous VENDING TIMES column), the tech should make sure his vehicle is stocked with a good assortment of parts (see Parts Chart).
The worst thing is to have a tech drive back from a location with a bad part to the main office shop, and then make a return trip with the replacement part. The time consumed on this unnecessary round trip throws the entire week's schedule out of kilter.
If a tech is headed out from the shop on a call, he should bring "game specific" parts that he might not normally carry, and then return them to inventory upon his return if they were not used.
STAYING IN TOUCH
Constant voice communication between the shop and the "road warriors" definitely saves time and money. This means both inbound and outbound calls. One of our rules is that a tech must call in every time he arrives at a location, and again when he leaves. He gets up-to-date information about recent calls to the service department from his current location and the ones he has recently visited, as well as new service calls that will alter his route schedule.
When he is ready to leave a location, he reports the repairs he made on known out-of-orders and those he found that weren't known in advance; any repairs he could not make; and any games that are still "hard downs" or "soft downs." A hard down is a game that is not operating at all. A soft down is one where part of the game is not functioning, but the game can still earn money. For example, perhaps Player No. 1 works but Player No. 2 is out, or one player position of a three-player game is not working. The best call-in report, of course, is: "All games are GTG" (good to go).
On some routes, techs report to the office each morning and night to drop off money and pick up parts. On large or widespread routes, techs may not visit the shop very often; the majority of parts and merchandise are drop-shipped to the location or even to the tech's home. If you don't have a system in place for locations to call you and report problems, your office should call the locations scheduled for service, to find out what's out of order before the tech arrives and estimate about how many hours will be required there.
3. Keep good records. Creative paperwork saves money. We have an ongoing "Games Down Report" that we ask our locations to fill out and fax to us as needed. These forms indicate the status of an out-of-order machine (hard down or soft down). Our dispatcher keeps a book of these faxed reports for each location and, of course, enters the out-of-orders for each location as they are called in or reported by the techs in the Dispatch Computer Log.
This gives our company a check and balance system so we can tell not only the status and history of each game at each location, but the quality of information and reporting coming from the location and the time it took to repair each out-of-order. The better the quality of reporting, the faster the techs and dispatchers can respond. Armed with this information, the tech can know in advance what to expect and be prepared when he arrives.
The record-keeping often helps during location contract extensions, as it always seems that locations are unaware of the efforts made to keep their games working. All they seem to remember in their selective memory-banks is that "the games break down a lot."
On site, the tech fills out and signs the location paperwork, so we can see what was fixed and how long the repair took. If the same problem is reported over and over, it tells us either that the tech is not really fixing the problem or that the machine itself has an unusual problem, so it needs to be rotated out of the location and brought into the shop.
4. Share responsibility. Rotating techs among locations can solve many problems and also catch unexpected problems. Some techs are particularly expert and should be sent around to locations with tougher game repair problems. Rotating techs among locations also gives you a way to check on all your technicians' work by having more than one person responsible for the same location.
5. Promote teamwork. Dispatchers need to be able to verify conditions reported by techs. To avoid having techs play cat-and-mouse games, such as reporting traffic problems or otherwise ducking tough repair challenges, so the headache will be passed along to someone else, the operator needs to make sure that dispatchers and techs work as a team. If they solve problems together, they both "win," and this is reflected in pay and bonuses. Otherwise, they will work against each other, and service and profits suffer.
6. Save your manuals. Our service department has schematics and manuals for every machine we operate; we make every effort to keep our library complete. This lets techs call the shop (or other techs) for guidance through a problem to the solution. In a perfect world, each game would have its manual and schematic inside.
7. Take pictures. Cellphone cameras are important tools, as mentioned in my earlier column on tools. Techs can use camera phones to confirm that they are ordering the right part. But techs can also send photographs of games or "problems" back to the shop and receive useful on-the-spot repair guidance. This saves time and money.
8. Avoid collection headaches. When I was servicing a large number of locations by myself back 30 or 40 years ago, I used to leave the keys to all the machines with my locations. Naturally, this meant the locations also had access to the tokens and bill changers -- it was their money in the changers, and I did not have the keys. It's a workable system, but the drawback is that when locations see that pile of money every week, they resent giving half to the operator when it's time to do the split. Keeping all the money (and keys) in the operator's hands prevents this perception problem, but it also means operators must visit locations much more often to fix token or coin jams and other common malfunctions.
Collecting can be updated with modern technology to avoid this headache. For example, this entire issue can be solved with debit card systems. They enable the operator to watch online every time a game is played and money is received by a point-of-sale terminal, bill changer or kiosk. It means the location can have the keys and all the money, but nobody can steal cash.
Some operators even "sweep" locations' bank accounts each week. It is a costly solution, but the advantages can be worth it. In our operations, it has worked out best for both parties when we split the cost of the debit card system, each owning half of it, and both parties are responsible for making sure it works properly.
9. Don't pile up cash. In the old days, our route vehicles were equipped with drop safes. When the tech returned to the shop, the box was opened and the money removed. Today, I doubt that operators want their techs to run around the streets with that much money.
One solution is scheduling regular drop-offs at the shop or the bank throughout the day as part of the route schedule, so that the tech does not accumulate vast amounts of cash as he visits several locations.
Another solution: if you run automated teller machines, give all bills to the person at the location who stocks the ATM and have them write you a check. The ultimate goal is for the technician to collect the commission split while ending up with as little cash as possible -- ideally, no cash at all.
Yet another approach is to have two bill changers in the location, and let the location keep the cash in one while the tech collects the cash in the other. Some settling-up reconciliation is still required on collection day, in most cases, but the tech is leaving the location with less cash upon each visit.
Still another approach: suppose your route has cranes with bill validators. The tech visits two or three times a week; both parties collect the bills and write down how much money has been taken. Once a week, the tech collects coins from the other games and a few bills from the bill validators. Most of this amount is given to the location as its split, so the collection is done but the route guy is not burdened with bringing back lots of cash.
The satisfaction in this business (in addition to making money) is being told by location owners and managers that it is the "little things" our route techs do that are most noticed, such as cleaning the glass coverings and cabinet fronts at each visit, and spray-painting the scuffed-up fronts of the games, and then following up to let them know that a game has been repaired in record time. The important thing is not to be known as "hit-and-run" artists, but as a company that looks at the big picture when it comes to service.
This attitude was best summed up by Dave Forlano, southern regional technician for Alpha-Omega Amusements. He said, "I would rather replace a start button that is beginning to wear than be dispatched out on an unscheduled 'emergency call' to replace something as simple as a start button that would definitely put a prime workhorse game out of order. That would be logged as an 'oops.'"
FRANK SENINSKY is president of Alpha-Omega Amusements (East Brunswick, NJ), parent company of Amusement Entertainment Management, a consulting agency; Alpha-BET Entertainment, a nationwide revenue sharing equipment provider; and Alpha-Omega Sales, a distributor of new and reconditioned games.