Productivity in the workplace is a fascinating subject and a never-ending topic of discussion; it has been a topic of academic research as early as the beginning of the 1800's. One of the most notable researchers of that time concluded employees were more productive when their employers rewarded rather than punished their employees. Now, at the time of this research, the minimum working age was 10 years old, and employers allowed breaks only after 10 ½ hours. Clearly, our notions of acceptable working conditions have changed while the benefits of applying productivity principles have remained.

At HVAC Comfortech 2010, I shared our philosophy, ideas, and specific examples of how to improve productivity. I differentiated our set of tips by developing a model for productivity improvement, not by simply creating a list that may or may not be relevant for a specific company or a specific set of circumstances. The primary objective was to lead the audience through exercises to help them think about how to apply productivity principles in their own firms. To make the ideas come to life, though, I offered specific examples of our own projects at Parrish, other ideas we have implemented, and innovative work at other firms.

When it comes to improving performance and increasing technician productivity, it's important to take a holistic approach across the business. Since your technician and his work are integrated with every other function at your firm, you can optimize your productivity only by assessing those functions, as well. For this reason, we developed our list of tips by establishing our goals and then linking those goals to our various functions.

Clearly Define and Prioritize Productivity
You must understand and be clear about what it is you want to produce. Some people want to be a "big" company and drive lots of revenue. However, anyone with a household budget understands that just because money is coming in, doesn't mean they have money. Our objective at Parrish is to have money, and revenue alone doesn’t pay the bills — profit does — so our primary productivity measure for technicians is gross profit per day.

Define and Manage Productivity Goals
Once you’ve identified your idea of productivity, you must set goals and manage based on those goals. From goal research, we know there are specific steps to take to optimize these results. For example, giving feedback about progress relative to the goal greatly improves performance, as does ensuring goals are sufficiently challenging. Our technicians report their gross profit with every call closed. Managers receive a detailed report every two hours, of the running total for the day.

Equip Technicians With Proper Tools
It's easy to see how the proper tool can improve productivity, but how do you know what to look for or whether you should fork over hundreds of dollars for a tool? First, identify methods for keeping up with the latest tools and technology. For example, communicate with sales reps, go to trade shows, read Contracting Business, or follow your favorite tool manufacturer on Twitter. Once you know what's available, you should make an investment decision as you would with any other large expense. Identify the cost to acquire the tool, your expected savings, and the amount of incremental profit you could expect to generate.

Equip Technicians With Organized Inventory
If you’re paying a technician to find a part, or to make a second trip to a home, it eats into your technician's time and your profitability. Even if you don't have a formal inventory system, be sure to keep track of your techs' parts usage so you can decide how to stock their vehicles in an optimal fashion. One tip we offered is that, if you haven't been keeping detailed records, go to each of your suppliers and request a list of your purchases.

At Parrish, one of the things we do in order to carry a large, but affordable, inventory is to share a truck between multiple technicians. Not only is our inventory per tech cost lower, but we're able to account for our vehicle related costs, offer longer hours to customers, and lower our overtime hours.

Train Technicians to be Technically Proficient
How many resources are wasted if you have to send someone out for a callback? You need to take the same investment strategy as you would with tools. While training sometimes seems expensive, ask yourself, "What will it cost me if I don't train?"

Train Technicians to be Trusted Advisors
Once your technician is in the home, you've already made the investment to recruit, hire, train, retain, outfit, and dispatch that employee. Likewise, you've made an investment to attract that customer. The technician serves the best interests of both the company and the customer to make all appropriate recommendations. The only way to do that, however, is to engage the customer, understand their needs and concerns, and combine that customer knowledge with technical expertise to create suitable solutions.

We use the analogy of a veterinarian to help our techs understand what we expect them to accomplish. Veterinarians are trusted advisors – we entrust to them our beloved pets. When we take our pet in for an appointment, the veterinarian asks us what's going on, and then he examines our pet from top to bottom. He gives us his professional opinion. He knows more about the subject than we do. He’s not cheap. He doesn't guess whether we can afford something, or not. Sometimes he gives us the worst possible news, when he advises us our pet needs to be put down. What we do? We listen to him, and we do it. We pay for that service, and then we come back some time later with a new pet. That's a trusted advisor.

Use Customer Service and Dispatching Functions to Your Advantage
Even if you've optimized your routing there are opportunities to effectively leverage these functions. For example, if you find your appointments are distributed to your liking, use incentives to entice customers to schedule when it's most efficient for you. When we had trouble getting our service agreement customers to schedule early in the season, we began offering free algaecide pan treatments for those customers who signed up early. It costs us only pennies and worked wonders.

Use Supporting Warehouse and Purchasing Strategies
My earlier tip about inventory focused on what technicians should carry their vehicle. This tip is about optimizing the cost of those parts and making parts available to technicians when they need non-inventory stock. Regardless of whether you allow your technicians to make their own purchases or you have a central purchasing function, make sure there’s a mechanism for you to track all purchases. Also make sure your technicians have access to parts (for example, knowing the locations, hours, and contact information for suppliers or having access to your inventory during appropriate hours).

In our warehouse, we have 24x7 radio frequency identification (RFID) badge access to a parts cage situated like a post office box; the warehouse staff can fill the individual boxes from inside the parts cage, while the technicians have their own lock on the outside of their individual parts locker.

Use Sales and Marketing Strategies to Increase Technician Productivity
Pricing methodology is one element of a marketing strategy. It makes sense to advocate flat rate billing. Otherwise, all the savings generated will go to your customers, not the company. We believe companies should reward themselves for risk-taking and innovation, so consider flat billing if you're not already doing so.

Another tactic is to flatten the demand curve. For example, why do some restaurants offer a discount for dining before 6 p.m.? More customers come early, the restaurant can serve more people, and the workload is easer during peak times. You, too, can take this approach. At Parrish, we adopted an idea presented by Larry Taylor at an HVAC Comfortech session several years ago and gave it our own name, Summer Comfort on Loan. In the summer, we offer customers a discount for delaying the installation of their new equipment until fall. In the meantime, we promise to keep their equipment running, even if we have to use a loaner. They get a discount, and we're able to reach more customers in the summer and have more work in the fall.

Use Information Technology (IT) to Increase Productivity
Last, but not least, identify IT solutions that can help you more effectively manage, and even automate, functions within your business. Regardless of the size of your business, there are appropriate solutions that range from deploying smart phones to building your own IT and telephone infrastructure with custom applications. Even with a smart phone, there are applications available for technicians to check warranty information, identify replacement parts, and accept a payment.

My advice to anyone looking for a complete IT solution? Recognize that the IT industry is much like the HVAC industry. Small companies have credentials through partner programs with manufacturers. For example, Microsoft, Intuit, SAP, IBM, HP, Dell, Avaya, and Cisco have memberships you can investigate. Leverage your own network to find referrals and interview reference accounts. Ask about lease terms, warranty support, and ongoing technical support

This article is based on "10 Tips on How to Improve Your Field Technicians' Performance," which Couch presented during HVAC Comfortech 2010 in Baltimore, MD. The 2011 edition of HVAC Comfortech and HVACR Week will be held Sept. 21-23 in Indianapolis, IN. Visit http://www.hvaccomfortech.com for additional show information.

Linda Couch is the Chief Operating Officer for Parrish Services in Manassas, VA. She has a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Johns Hopkins University and an MBA from the University of Maryland. She is also a doctoral student at Maryland studying the field of Management. Linda spent 20 years of her career in the IT industry, managing service business units as large as $50 million and developing strategy for a $5 billion, multi-national technical services organization. In addition, she consulted for smaller IT companies to help them develop sound business strategies and use IT to improve their productivity. Many of her client firms have gone on to be very successful, award winning companies themselves.