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Business Management

At Your (Field) Service

Credits and debits



For Vermont Sign, maintenance preceded installations and electrical-display production. This occurred because our first field project was relamping and updating Kentucky Fried Chicken faces in northwestern Vermont. From there, the ballast and neon service followed in rapid succession.

Being a full-service sign operation proved to be a boon. When installations were slow, or handcarved sign orders fell, another aspect of our business would surge. So it was with field service (or maintenance).

The benefits of field service

Assuming you’re ready to be a full-service signshop (that is, you have state electrical licenses, a crane for installation, liability insurance and qualified installation manpower), field service becomes a nice portion of the sign trade.

The only additional equipment or supplies needed to rev up a field-service department are extra transformers, ballasts, sockets and sundry components that may be required. (Note: Another big asset has been ST‘s "Services Directory," where we’ve run a listing since the early ’70s.)

Vehicles: Field-service work allows for more targeted (smaller and more economical) trucks. Many of us have already pondered using a large crane — 50-gal. diesel tanks cost a fortune to fill.


Seldom did we need our big trucks to service displays. Generally, we could accomplish a field-service call with a small crane, aerial ladder or, in many cases, a pickup-type vehicle with ladder racks and tool compartments. The latter is all that’s usually required for most enclosed mall work.

Stock: Here are some issues we learned the hard way. Maybe our solutions will work for you.

When we had crews handling only field-service calls, we stocked our trucks to the hilt. We loaded the toolboxes and, under the seat of the cabs, we put every possible transformer and component. This wasn’t a great outlay of resources, but, on the other hand, it wasn’t cheap.

At the time, we were in northern Vermont. We filled the winter months with sign maintenance and faced short, dark days and extreme cold; we were always fumbling around cargo boxes with gloves, trying to find some particular widget. Halfway through the winter, if not sooner, we would have crushed Ross adapters, broken off HV hubs from salt-distressed boxes of brand-new trannies, and discovered many new PK receptacles looked like they had been around during the French and Indian War.

After much thought, plus input from our employees, we changed our direction. First, we reduced our onboard inventories to bare minimums. Reducing our on-board ballasts made a huge difference; we switched from conventional to combination ballasts, which can light two to four lamps. Most power-supply producers and distributors provide them.

Lamps: The same space-saving strategy worked with lamps. We realized on-board lamps were getting broken, and wrong tubes were being shoved into wrong boxes.


We traditionally carried full boxes of all common lamp sizes in both Daylight and Cool Whites. Because we had also serviced Amoco Gas stations in those days, we needed various U-lamps for the flame section. Stocking was a ridiculous situation.

Solution? First, we pulled all specialty lamps off the trucks. We only carried them when a work order specified them. Unused specialty lamps were taken off the returning truck and put back into in-house inventory.

We still carried duplicate Cool White and Daylight lamps. Working in a medium-size marketplace, we simply converted all our clients to Daylight lamps. Naturally, this cut our running-stock lamp inventory in half.

No problems occurred because our clients appreciated the trueness of the Daylight over Cool Whites. When Cool Whites were preferred (I think that happened once in 10 years), we stopped by Welsh Electric en route to the job site to pick up a case.

Current economic times require us to reduce our operating costs in an effort to increase our bottom line. Having gone through similar economic environments in ’79,’84 and ’91, we learned to minimize our inventories and turn them over as quickly as possible.

Consider this: If you buy a case of specialty lamps for a client — or obtain a case of lamps you normally don’t stock — sell them to that client. He’s the one that will need this product in the future. It will do more good in his storage area than in your in-house stock room.


Remaining running-stock inventory: What else needs to be loaded on your trucks? Over a period of time, your daily records of the materials utilized by a certain truck will tell you. Every night or two, when that truck returns to the shop, you can restock consumed items. Restocking at the shop stockroom is far more manageable.

Where did it all go?

Field service can drift out of control in many ways: inventory, travel or billable time. Well, in order to continue in this line of work we love, we have to make a profit. Billing and being paid for all of our time and material is the only way that can happen.

Keeping track of time and materials, then securing a signature on that commodity, are paramount. When we began, we turned to New England Business Forms (NEBS®) and adopted a service card, with a carbon overlay, on which to track each call. This worked fine for many years. Then, with the advent of desktop publishing, we could create and adjust our field-service sheet to fit our particular needs.

Regardless of your form, you need a place for the problem, solution, materials used, a "Store Stamp" (required within most chains) and at-site times with a signature block for the client. Hard-copy confirmation by the client, that the service has been completed successfully, is a must.

We struggled mightily with how to bill travel time. We wanted to be fair to everyone. A zone chart to which a fixed cost was applied never really served the purpose.

We billed from the time the truck left the plant until it returned, but that wasn’t fair if our crews stopped for lunch or coffee.

We tried port-to-port time principles. Again, discrepancies arose regarding diesel fill-up and the ubiquitous coffee issue.

Finally, with the arrival and common usage of the Internet, we gravitated to the printed time allotment provided by’s driving directions. This seems the most fair and indisputable method for all concerned.

Covering your back

The final issue involves culpability. In North Carolina, we’ve experienced call-in maintenance that didn’t come close to meeting code criteria.

Unfortunately, rule-of-thumb is that the last one to touch a display is ultimately the company/person liable for its safety. However, we must reconcile the dual responsibility of protecting our client and our company from any repercussions.

A service call means something is wrong at a location. Typically, something’s wrong because something wasn’t done correctly — usually in direct violation of electrical codes. If, on location, you realize a job may be a can of worms, you owe it to yourself, your client and your company to inform them of the situation. Try to make the situation safe and code compliant, or explain in writing (and visually) why this situation is dangerous and should be shut down.

To cover your back, keep checking with the associated municipality to see if an electrical permit was ever issued on this job. Also, keep a disposable camera on board each truck to expedite many issues. Our "Work Orders" displays an added statement that was introduced by an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) in Hickory, NC. This statement reads as follows.

"Note: We at "Such and Such Sign Company" are not responsible for pre-existing Electrical Code® violation(s) that might be identified by the local building inspections department. Anything identified by inspectors would be under an additional work order."

Strong point of contention: If you or your crews can’t resolve a maintenance call safely and legally, someone has to call the client. To tell him or her that you’re passing on this assignment. This is the kind of call that separates the wheat from the chaff.




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