Although he's not employed by Stihl Inc., Jon Stumpf is one of its best-trained representatives.
Stumpf's company, Sunrise Agricultural Co-Op in Pierz, Minnesota, is one of 8,000 retail businesses in the U.S. authorized by Stihl to sell and service its line of hand-held power tools, which includes chainsaws, drills, leaf blowers and trimmers.
Stumpf also is part of a select group of 1,200 retailers awarded "gold" status—Stihl's highest level of certification for equipment repair and service of its hand-held power tools. He earned the designation in 2010 after completing a demanding dealer-training program at Stihl's U.S. headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Stihl customers are savvy and recognize the meaning behind the gold-service credential, Stumpf says. "We have a lot of competing dealerships in central Minnesota. The gold certification puts us in a different category than other shops."
To hear such endorsements delights Eddie Anderson, Stihl's technical training supervisor in charge of developing dealer-based learning programs. Stihl markets its line of 130 power tools exclusively through specially chosen retailers—you can't buy Stihl equipment at mass merchandisers—and it depends on a cadre of nonemployee technicians for its success.
"The average shop-labor rate at Stihl dealerships is $65 an hour. At that rate, it's important that we teach technicians to examine a product and know within 10 to 15 minutes if it's fixable or not," Anderson says.
Known as the Gold School, its training deals with other important topics, including understanding warranties, Anderson says. Dealers that don't understand warranty provisions could be forced to eat the repair expense and lose out on reimbursement. "If a technician believes an item is covered by warranty, he needs to be able to justify his decision to us."
Anderson was hired by Stihl 10 years ago to develop the training curriculum, which Fred Whyte, the company's president, determined could differentiate it from other power-equipment-makers. The training content had to be delivered almost from scratch.
Existing training literature hadn't kept pace with technological advances in hand-held power equipment, Anderson says. Plus, to differentiate itself, Stihl wanted customized training that enabled it to continue selling products through private dealers.
"We don't need technicians who are hammer mechanics," meaning those who are impatient and easily frustrated by new technologies. "We need technicians who are willing to embrace new technology," Anderson says.
Stihl developed its training by using an Olympic-style approach. Three levels of training are provided for dealer-technicians: bronze, silver and gold. Each level of training focuses on different aspects of Stihl's products and service standards.
The bronze certification is a requirement of all Stihl dealerships, which technicians earn by completing a series of online modules through Stihl's iCademy e-learning portal. The content provides information on warranties, product liability, parts and other basics.
Technicians next can pursue silver-level training, in which they are presented with malfunctioning equipment and challenged to correctly diagnose the cause. Silver-level courses are delivered in a face-to-face setting by service managers at Stihl's 12 regional distribution centers in the U.S.
The Gold School represents the final level of Stihl-certified training. Dealerships pay a nominal tuition (about $250 for the three days) to send their technicians through Gold School while technicians must pay their own airfare, lodging and other costs, as well as the cost of the class. The intensive course includes product troubleshooting and other hands-on diagnostic exercises. Participants also must pass a written exam. Stihl schedules about 25 Gold School sessions each year, and "classes are always full," Anderson says.
Technicians that achieve the gold service level are certified by Stihl for three years, after which they can retake the course. Anderson says the learning content changes to keep pace with technological, regulatory and other changes that affect the power-tool industry.
Dealerships that pay for their technicians to attend the Gold School may receive higher reimbursement levels. "But we have never intended for that to be the big reason that our dealers participate.
"We have worked hard to create a reputation that the Gold School provides them with the best-trained technician possible," Anderson says.
Acquiring the certificate is no easy feat. Stumpf was frustrated after failing the written exam during his first visit to Virginia Beach in 2008. But he used the setback to his advantage, acing the exam when he returned in 2010.
"It was the best money I ever spent," he says.