What does it takes to be a successful service contractor in the 21st century? To find out, Contracting Business talked to five of its Contractors of the Year to uncover we found is a passion for internal and external customer satisfaction, an interest in cutting edge technology and procedures, a commitment to technician certification, and how for their companies, there's no such thing as "the death of service."

Vision

Contracting Business: How do you communicate your vision of first and follow-up impression to your employees?

Conrad Philipp, service manager, Murphy Co.: We tell our service techs that they are the key to our success and their success. The impression they make, the relationships they develop, and the service they provide are crucial. We reinforce this message with a formal journeyman-apprentice mentor program.

Larry Taylor, president, AirRite: Communication of your vision starts with you walking the walk and talking the talk. If I don't "stay in character" (per Walt Disney) all the time, how can I expect my team to do what I say and not what I do. If we are to impress the customer, we must be prepared all the time. At AirRite, we often discuss the impressions we leave with the public —not only related to personal appearance, but also to how our trucks, and uniforms look.

Barbara Keil, president, KEIL Heating & Air Conditioning: We’re just as committed to providing great service to our internal customers as we are to our external ones. Therefore, we work hard to foster a sense of open communication and teamwork by meeting frequently to discuss important company issues, set goals, brainstorm, and, most importantly, celebrate victories

CB: While residential technicians can make a good impression by (for example) arriving in a clean truck, wearing a clean uniform, and putting on booties before entering a home, how do you handle this on the commercial side?

Philipp: Communication is the key on the commercial side. A clean uniform and professional presentation are always important. It’s even more important to properly diagnose a problem, communicate what is wrong, describe what it will take to fix the problem, give a reliable timetable for when it will be fixed, and explain why it happened and how it might be prevented in the future.

Tom Winstel, CEO, Engineering Excellence Inc.: We review our appearance on an ongoing basis. Neat uniforms and trucks with signature paint and our lettering provide a professional appearance. In addition, we provide coaching for meeting the customer, presenting work tickets for signing, and presenting quotes for authorization. Coaching includes role modeling.

Taylor: We don't see any difference between commercial and residential customers. Even if the person we deal with isn’t the building owner, why should they be viewed differently? They also could be potential customers

Training

CB: Let’s talk about your training programs. Is there continuous training for all levels of employees, including yourself? What about soft skills training with technicians?

Philipp: We conduct internal cross-training by teaming up a more experienced service tech with a less experienced service tech in a formal mentoring program, which has been in place for about a year. Mentoring happens on safety, customer relations, and technical skills. We also tap into the excellent training offered by the manufacturers to keep our service techs up to speed on the latest technology and attend classes offered by local vendors.

Milton Baum, vice president, KEIL Heating & Air Conditioning: Training doesn’t start and end with our technical people, as training is provided for sales and customer service representatives, as well. Our training programs include both technical training and communications or customer service training. In addition, all field personnel are cross-trained as much as possible so that labor can swing evenly with demand.

Saunders: One of our ongoing core objectives is for each Partner to complete 40 hours of training per year. In addition, our technicians receive training on soft skills such as customer serving training in regular service meetings, and from consultants who come into the office.

Taylor: At AirRite, we do a significant amount of cross training and believe each team member should be learning all the time. In fact, we spend more time on soft skills than we do technical skills. We send our people to trade association seminars (ACCA), to business (Better Business Bureau) seminars, and manufacturer-sponsored training. We also hire consultants to come into our facility for in-house training.

Winstel: We have a backup individual for each position in operations. This has occurred through promotion as well as cross-training. Therefore, managerial and sales positions can be filled on a temporary basis in the event of an emergency. Soft skill training for technicians includes sales training, the ACCA Quality College, financial awareness, safety, communication, ethics in the work place, and an interactive annual review of the EEI “culture.”

Service

CB: Everyone has heard of the “Death of Service.” What are the most important steps you have taken at your company to ensure every customer has a positive service experience?

Philipp: We are absolutely zealous about training and reinforcing attention on our customer experience every time they encounter a Murphy service tech. We constantly challenge ourselves on shortening the time from when a customer calls us, until we solve the problem and complete the business transaction. Our 95% repeat customer pattern shows we’re focused on the right issues, but we’re striving for 100%.

Saunders: Our phone is answered 97% of the time or greater by a cheerful, helpful customer service representative, rather than a machine. We also mail out customer satisfaction surveys after every billable service call. Results are captured systematically and then shared with our technicians.

Taylor: “Death of Service” is only in the mind of the owner or manager. If they loose sight of providing good, fair, honest service, then they’re responsible for killing their company. We conduct constant customer feedback loops to try and stay on top of what happens in the field. We use manufacturer survey programs as well.

Winstel: Ensuring that the customer has a positive experience is a company-wide mission, as we try to visualize every step of the progression of a service experience through the eyes of a customer.

This commences with the greeting, as the customer calls into our office and speaks with a live person, not a voice mail system. Each person the customer talks to is empowered to take ownership for handling the customer’s wishes.

Dispatchers are trained to repeat what they hear to ensure clarity. We consider our individual assigned to collections to be the cheeriest sales person in the company.

Baum: We take every measure practical to protect the customer’s home and property. This includes drug testing, criminal history checks, credit checks, motor vehicle checks, and personality profiling to ensure that we only sent the very best quality technicians into our customer homes. Finally, everything we do in a customer’s home is 100% guaranteed for quality and workmanship for one full year.

CB: From a technician’s standpoint, what recent technological advances are having the biggest impact on your ability to provide high quality service?

Baum: Wireless communication from the technician to the dispatcher to the operations manager.

Philipp: The continued development of energy management systems that page us with news of a pending problem, so we know of prospective problems well before the owner or tenants realize it’s brewing.

Saunders: Knowledge of building science, digital diagnostic tools that speed up and provide accuracy of measurement, more reliable vehicles, and cell phones.

Taylor: Four years ago, we installed Mobile Manager truck computers from Shafers Full Service Systems, to help the technicians. These help speed information to and from technicians in the field. This system also enables us to dispatch the day’s calls wirelessly to eliminate wasted time and provide better real-time data to customers as to our schedules and actual arrival times.

CB: How important is commissioning/testing and balancing to your business?

Philipp: Testing and balancing are very important to our business. By successfully finishing and “tying the bow” during the final stages of a project, we earn repeat calls for service and new projects, happy customers, and new customer referrals. We also generate profitable jobs and reduce stress on the job and in the office.

Saunders: Commissioning is crucial. If the system isn’t properly charged and started, it’s likely to be a problem — sooner or later.

Taylor: If a company isn’t doing performance testing at the completion of a job, then they aren’t doing the customer justice. Not only is performance testing important, but the whole house as a system is the other side of the equation. We have three fully certified HERS (Home Energy Rating Services) raters on our staff to evaluate houses and provide all level of testing services, in addition to our standard HVAC work.

Winstel: Commissioning is very important. We are NEBB certified solely to provide our customers with the assurance this service is professional and to hold this internal business group to a standard. We also use the metrics collected during start up/commissioning to be a means of testing the internal quality controls to confirm the quality of our installations.

CB: How do you follow up on service-related problems?

Philipp: If we’re experiencing a continuous problem that we can’t solve after two calls, we look to eight experienced service techs to lead the investigation and solve the problem.

Taylor: Follow up on service-related problems must be quick. The longer you wait, the worse the problem gets. Service related problems are normally sent directly to our service manager or general manager as soon as we are aware of them.

Winstel: Service-related problems receive a time stamp and are followed up within 48 hours of receipt of the knowledge that a problem exists.

Keil: We call homeowners within a week of their installation to see how the system is performing and make sure they’re happy with the work we did. If something is wrong, we want to fix it. You want people to complain, instead of keeping quiet and going elsewhere. One of the worst things you can do in business is to just sweep problems under the carpet.

CB: How do you find NEW service business?

Conrad: We constantly look for new service business through cold calling, disciplined follow-up on referrals from happy customers and, most importantly, retaining our customers that are growing and expanding their business with us.

Winstel: New service business finds us through customer referral and contact by our professional customer service representatives.

Baum: Typically through marketing to new customers and follow-up to existing ones.

Commercial Issues

CB: How many chiller change-outs do you do per year and why?

Philipp: We do about one chiller change-out each year. By doing a great job on chiller maintenance, we minimize the number of change-outs required by our regular customers.

Winstel: Chiller change-outs occur mostly because of plant physical condition rather than financial consideration. We probably average about five to 10 a year. Of these, probably only one or two result from a financial analysis of energy usage/reduction.

CB: Do you expect the proposed depreciation rules to affect this?

Philipp: No. If we’re doing a solid and consistent job of chiller maintenance, the chillers will be operating properly. Leaks can develop, but we advise owners to manage the leak and trade the relatively low cost of more refrigerant for the much higher cost of changing out their chillers.

Technology

CB: What technology could you use to perform even better service?

Philipp: We’re searching for wireless communication that will deliver recent building and equipment history to our service tech’s fingertips. We would also like a Web-based solution to let customers follow the progress of their service calls.

Saunders: We have been looking at the cost/benefit of digital charging and digital charge analysis. In addition, a “tricorder” to assess system health would be hugely beneficial in difficult cases.

Baum: Of course, having a RoboTech 2100 would be extremely useful. In the meantime, enabling customers to scheduling service directly through our website, without customer service interaction, would also help.

Taylor: Using more multimeters would help decrease the amount of instruments our technicians are required to carry. With the growth of wireless (Blue Tooth) technology, I feel an interface for faster connectivity will also help.

Winstel: We use the latest of technology in every facet of our service departments, both in the field and in the office. This includes hand-held computers that enhance field data collection and automate “just in time” field work status.

CB: How do you optimize your dispatcher’s performance?

Philipp: We are in the process of updating our dispatching, maintenance, and billing system. The system delivers helpful information to the dispatcher’s desktop, including building history and equipment details, to eliminate pulling a job file. It also allows paging of service techs from the dispatch screen, provides information on back-ordered parts, minimizes paper, and tracks the backlog of calls for each technician.

Saunders: Mostly we want our dispatchers to want to do the best for themselves, the technicians, and our customer base. Desire will outperform technology any day of the week.

Winstel: Optimization of dispatcher’s performance is an ongoing study. I think it starts with having the right person for the job. We couple this person with a team of support to reduce stress and ensure results. Our software also simplifies and automates many of the processes that were manual in prior years.

CB: What trends do you see in the service marketplace today?

Philipp: We see two primary trends: growth in national accounts for chain stores with locations throughout the country, as well the growth in the sophistication of customers who have the skills to manage their costs effectively and want a mechanical service company they can trust as their partner.

Winstel: On our end, we’re seeing a rapid increase in Internet bidding for services, and in the attempt of manufacturers to penetrate the service business. Warranties are for much longer periods of time, and small manufacturers are disappearing from the landscape

CB: What do you see coming in the future, and how are you preparing for it?

Keil: I believe we’ll see an increased use of computer-based diagnostics and recording of work performed. Therefore, we’re preparing a step-by-step program to provide our technicians with a logical diagnostic analysis procedure for each service call.

In addition, this year we purchased more than a dozen new computers, upgraded our three primary software systems, and are looking into how best to utilize hand-held devices. We also plan to transform our sales presentations from manual book presentations to digital/video computer presentations.

Philipp: We believe customers will continue to become more sophisticated and expect their service providers to streamline processes in order to provide better service at a reduced cost. That’s right in step with our ongoing initiatives aimed at being the best among our competitors. We can’t let up for a moment.

Saunders: Legislation is beginning to creep more into our everyday work life, and codes are going to be even tougher. Also, energy independence and air pollution are going to continue to be drivers in our industry. Building science knowledge (house as a system) will continue to grow in importance. Therefore, customer satisfaction, proper pricing, and technical and administrative development are all crucial.

Taylor: Customers are now demanding “What, Where, When, and How.” They want it and are willing to pay for it. Convincing people to make the buy decision is still a big issue with dual income families who want to maintain a certain lifestyle. As contractors, we must be more flexible, versatile, and willing to accommodate customer needs and desires.

Winstel: Engineering Excellence Inc. is preparing for the future by advancing our technical training, improving our software and hardware to expedite and confirm communication, and using our accumulation of metrics for evaluating future maintenance/
service risks.

Certification

CB: Are your technicians are certified by NATE or some other third party, or do you have an in-house certification program?

Philipp: Our estimating, fabrication, installation, and service are certified to meet the highest quality standards, supporting efforts to provide “best of class” products and services in all we do. There are some very important certifications, including refrigerant handing (CFC), back flow prevention, medical gas, welding etc, and ISO 9001. In addition, our local government agency requires the service technician to take a minimum of 12 hours of continuing education classes each year.

Keil: All of our technical training programs provide for a detailed ranking or certification for each participant. We offer a complete syllabus for each area of study, installation, service and maintenance. Once a course is taken, certificates are provided, along with the areas of study for the next level of achievement. In terms of the NATE program, we currently have one technician who is NATE certified, with others on route to take the exam.

Saunders: Certification is important at Tempo. We have a many NATE-certified techs, several that are certified totally or partially certified by manufacturers, as well as some that have internal certifications.

Taylor: Certification is a must — we should make it mandatory for every technician and company in the HVAC business. At AirRite, more than 80 % of our technicians are NATE certified, and the balance have some of the modules completed. We don't consider you NATE certified if you don't have the Core, Heating, Air Conditioning modules.

Winstel: Our technicians receive certifications for classes they attend in house.

CB: How do you market your technicians’ or your company’s certifications, and does it really differentiate you from competitors?

Saunders: We have so many things that we think help differentiate and, hopefully, set us apart in real or perceived ways. Certification is one that is probably underplayed on our part at this time.

Taylor: We promote the NATE logo in our marketing pieces and discuss it in our TV ads.

Baum: Currently, our customers haven’t indicated that having a NATE-certified technician in their home is important. They do have strong feelings about our technicians being 100% drug-free and find value in that.

Winstel: We market our certifications and awards by training our sales force to use them as a differentiation in the customer’s decision-making process.

Philipp: We market our service technicians based on years of experience, continuous training, certifications ,and their success in solving customers’ problems. However, certifications are just one important piece of what creates the total value proposition for customers.