Tractors and Backhoes and Mowers, Oh My!

Date Published: 
March, 2004
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March-April 2004

Deciding what equipment to buy for your cemetery or memorial park is a crucial grounds maintenance decision. There's nothing worse than buying an expensive piece of equipment that ends up sitting in the corner of your garage because it can't handle the job.

WHAT: When selecting grounds maintenance equipment at Spring Grove, we don't buy anything until the people who will be using it have tried it out.

WHY: The wrong decisions can cost you money in repair and replacement costs and increase the cost of completing a task. If equipment problems mean the grounds don't look their best and jobs aren't being handled quickly, customer satisfaction and sales will be affected. And having machinery that's cumbersome, prone to breakdown or unsafe in some way will hurt employee morale—if not the employees themselves.

HOW: Reading a press release or checking a company's Web site can give you the basic specs, but you can't buy this type of “hands on,” hard-working equipment based on that type of research alone.

• Deal with high-quality vendors, people who listen to you, the customer. Some of the progressive companies in this business are so customer-oriented they invite customers such as Spring Grove to take part in sort of a focus group where we suggest areas for improvement and indicate what our greatest challenges are.

These aren't manufacturers saying, ''We've got the best engineers in the world, we know how to do everything." Instead, they're asking the people who actually use the equipment under all kinds of different conditions what their challenges are. They're asking customers, ''What can we do better? How can we improve this product? Where are the breaks occurring in this piece of equipment? Where do you see that the metal may be fatiguing? Where can we beef this thing up? How can we improve the safety? Are you able to use this easily on 15 degree grades?"

We rotate selection of the employees who get to take part in these groups, since it's a "feel good" reward for our people.

Even if your cemetery can't participate in this type of research, you can get an idea of the quality of the company by asking them whether they do this type of thing and by noticing how their salespeople respond if you make suggestions. Ask the company what kind of input they get from cemeteries. It's just part of doing business in America 2004: How can you improve whatever you're doing to meet—and exceed—the customers' needs and expectations?

• Be open-minded. We're willing to try anything new that comes down the pike. Some cemeteries try to look for a way to beat up on anything new, whether it's a new piece of equipment or a new way to memorialize. But we love to share information at meetings about new things.

• Listen to the sales pitch and ask questions. When you decide to have the sales rep bring in a demonstration model, make sure you spend time with him or her—don't just let them drop off the machine and leave. We make sure they train us in using it, tell us what's new, what's unusual about the piece of equipment, why the rep feels it would be a valuable addition to our fleet.

• Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Make sure there's plenty of time to try out the equipment. Don't let the sales rep say, "You can have it this afternoon, but I need to pick it up in the morning and take it to the next place." What we want to do is really put the piece of equipment into use for several weeks—certainly not for a couple of days or a couple of hours.

We want several different people to try it out, we want to use it under different conditions—different temperatures, different growth applications (spring grass vs. summer grass). Then get all the people who have tried out the equipment together and talk about the pros and cons.

We don't buy anything unless we've had a good chance to try it out. Our other cemetery, Oak Hill, is experimenting with a smaller backhoe. We have an old one that needs to be replaced and we're trying to decide if we need one the same size or should we buy a smaller one that can do other things besides dig graves.

If a company won't let you keep a piece of equipment for a long time or if you don't have the time and personnel to test out equipment, there are a couple of things you can do. This is where networking comes in handy. You can call someone at one of the larger operations in your area and ask if they have any experience with that piece of equipment.

You can also ask the sales rep where the equipment is available as a rental. A lot of times, even if they haven't thought to make those rental arrangements, you can work something out. Simply explain that you don't feel comfortable buying the equipment based on trying it out for a couple of hours and would like to work out an agreement for, say, a one-month rental. We handled a stump grinder evaluation that way one time.

The evaluation process, including renting a piece of equipment, also can help you if you're trying to decide whether a particular process is something you want to handle internally or is something you'd rather outsource.

• Try more than one product. We once bought a tamper that we thought was going to do the job fine. We had tried it out, but later, after we tried some other ones, we realized we could get one with the same amount of compaction capability that weighs about 30 pounds less. We bought the lighter one, too, and now when it's down for repairs it's like pulling teeth to get someone to use that heavier one.

• Make sure the people who will actually be operating the equipment on a daily business try it out. If you've done your job as a manager, the people actually doing the work with the machinery know what the cemetery's expectations are, they know what they have to get done in a given amount of time. Handling things this way also improves morale and cuts down on complaints from employees. You don't want to hear, "They got that for me. I didn't want it. They made me use it." You want to get rid of the "they" complaints and get everyone on the "we" team.