In Praise of Technicians

Technicians are among the complex rehab technology (CRT) industry’s unsung heroes, toiling in relative anonymity to keep wheelchairs and seating systems working optimally for clients who depend on them.

Count Bill Mixon, CEO of National Seating & Mobility (NSM) among those who appreciate those vital contributions.

“Technicians are critical and integral to our business,” Mixon told Mobility Management. “They have a unique blend of technical skills and caregiver skills, and they are central to the positive relationship we have with our clients. They have a deep understanding of our industry and what our clients’ needs are. They are the right arm of our ATPs, and they’re the people who make sure that we get the best utilization of the product and technology solutions we offer for our clients.”

NSM has worked hard on the service component of its business — for example, launching a remote service program (see sidebar) that enables technicians to get information up front, before even leaving for a service call.

And NSM’s latest innovative program is designed in part to demonstrate its serious commitment to its technicians, to help them to grow, and to best leverage the expertise of technicians who have accrued priceless knowledge of the industry.

A Clear Career Path Forward

“Historically,” said NSM’s VP of Technical Services, Ryan Zarb, “there hasn’t really been a defined progression or career growth for a technician. So the development of the program is two-fold. It will offer a clear career ladder where we have four different technician roles: Associate Technician, Technician, Senior Tech and Master Tech. But just as importantly, we're defining a certification program that clearly identifies how you can progress through that career ladder.”

The certification process, Zarb added, has three components: Experience, or the time the tech has spent in that role so far; education, including the earning of technician-specific continuing education units (CEUs); and a skills assessment.

“Each level has defined requirements that allow a technician to progress through the career path,” Zarb said. “Our entry-level position is Associate Technician. After receiving 120 hours of experience within six months on the job, 10 continuing education units, and a minimum requirement skills assessment score, [the Associate Technician] will then be certified as a Technician.”

In explaining why the program, to launch in full this fall, is being created, Mixon said, “People want to understand: Here’s where I stand today; today, I’m a technician. But where am I going to be in five years or 10 years? In today’s world, our technicians want and deserve a sequential career path that they can aspire to. We want them to feel good about where they are, we want them to feel good about where they can go, and we want to retain them and give them a vision for the future. There’s the technical proficiency and putting in place a better process, which Ryan, in coordination with the HR team, has done a great job of. But it also gives people a vision of the future, of their future with NSM and their future as a tech.”

Mixon also acknowledged the great value of Master Technicians, with their years or decades of service.

“When you become a Master Technician, that’s a big deal,” he said. “It will be an internal credential that those individuals will have earned and will feel proud of.”

Sharing Experiences Across the Organization

Ann Mahaffey, VP of Human Resources, said of the program, “The career path is competency shaped, so you have to be able to exhibit certain competencies and skills in order to elevate to the next level. As [technicians] have more time with us, they can do more complex assemblies and modifications, more complex repairs. They’ll be recognized with a higher level of competency within the role, which the title then recognizes.”

As technicians move forward along the career path, their horizons broaden to include not just the immediate team in their branch office, but colleagues in other locations, as well.

“Certainly the expectation if you’re a Senior Tech or a Master Tech is you’re highly proficient at the various skills that we’re asking technicians to do,” Zarb said. “And you can train others on those skills.

“There’s definitely a teaching component, to offer mentorship to more junior classifications of technicians, and there’s also a broadened scope of responsibility. So you can picture an Associate Tech or a Technician working within their branch, but as you progress to a Senior Tech and a Master Tech, your blinders are coming off to think about your sub region or your region or even national-level programs that you can assist in developing and implementing.”

Many ATPs began their CRT careers as technicians, and Mahaffey confirmed that the ATP career path is still an option for techs who want to become ATPs.

But with this program, technicians have the opportunity to excel at service and to teach others what they’ve learned. NSM recently launched the Technician Task Force, a cross-section of NSM technicians at different skills levels from throughout the country.

“It’s another growth opportunity,” Zarb said. “These members were selected, hand-picked as up-and-comers in the organization. It’s a privilege to be on the Task Force, so it’s yet another opportunity for technicians to be involved with and get a little more exposure. There’s at least one representative from each sub region.”

Recently, when a task force member escalated a service-related problem to NSM management, he was authorized to connect directly with the equipment manufacturer to work out a solution, Zarb said: “And now that technician is going to be responsible for presenting the solution to the task force next month. It’s going to give him an elevated experience, and it’s empowering that technician to problem solve on his own. If the tech aspires to become a leader in the organization, they can progress to supervisor, senior manager or even my role.”

SIDEBAR: NSM’s Remote Service Strategy

A new career path for technicians isn’t the only new service-related initiative from National Seating & Mobility (NSM). The company also recently debuted a remote service function to make service calls more efficient from the start.

Heading that program is VP of Technical Services Ryan Zarb, who said, “Historically, we’ve had a two-stop model whereby the client would call us with their repair concerns, and we would dispatch a technician to their home. At that evaluation appointment, we would reconfirm what was wrong with the client’s chair. We would return to the branch, do the necessary paperwork and funding, order the parts and then later go out and fix the client’s chair.”

Ryan Zarb

Ryan Zarb

Calling that process inefficient, Zarb said, “With the availability of new technology, we implemented remote evaluation. The technician is now calling the client in advance and attempting to execute that evaluation remotely using three different strategies. The first is as simple as a phone call: Technicians are experienced enough to have a conversation with the client, to ask probing questions that will give them information up front to know what is going wrong with the chair and perhaps even offer a solution. The second strategy is under the umbrella of ‘connected chair’ technology. Power wheelchairs that are being developed today have the capability to connect to cloud-based technology where we can remotely view the wheelchair’s performance and anything that’s going wrong with it, so we can further diagnose the wheelchair from there. Our third strategy is utilizing an application called Rescue Lens, a third-party app to allow the technician to connect to the client’s mobile device and through the mobile device’s camera, view in real time what is going wrong with the chair. They can actually show us a live video feed.”

NSM’s CEO, Bill Mixon, said the data on the remote service program indicates NSM will eliminate the “first visit” to clients some 40,000 times next year, and that clients now get that first virtual diagnostic visit in an average of two hours versus the nine days it took for a tech to make an initial in-person visit in the past.

Eliminating those first visits will also enable NSM to serve more clients, more quickly.

“We’re freeing up tech time to do other things,” Mixon said. “We’re freeing up tech time to do more complicated repairs, to do other things like deliveries that are either equally or perhaps more valuable. We also are, from a green perspective, not out there driving around, consuming gas and clogging the highways. This verbal diagnostics and video diagnostics capability is the future of technical repair in our industry.”

Zarb describes himself as responsible “for policies, procedures, everything to do with the CRT technicians in the business, roughly 385 folks that are servicing our clients day in and day out.” He recently joined NSM from a business management consulting firm, Carpedia, that was providing NSM with strategic guidance on technical service issues.

“Ryan was one of the lead consultants on that engagement with Carpedia,” Mixon said. “He fell in love with our culture. It’s a bit unique to have a consultant decide that he wants to leave the consulting firm and come join our company.”

NSM recently began operating branch offices in Canada, and Mixon said of the timing of Zarb’s hire, “It’s nice that the executive that’s responsible for our technical services is indeed a Canadian.”

“I really took a liking to the culture here and the noble profession because of what we do for our clients,” Zarb said. “Businesses struggle and spend a ton of money creating culture, and NSM has that. It’s just inherent here.”

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