Looking rather exasperated, Jim Cook, an HVAC contractor, approached the sales counter at Action Supply Distributors and dumped his thermostat on the counter. When the counter salesman asked what was wrong, Jim yelled, “IT’S BROKEN!”

Speaking in a soft tone, the counter salesman told Jim how difficult it was when thermostats failed to work properly. Jim nodded with approval.

The counter salesman complimented Jim for being smart enough to bring the thermostat’s original packing slip receipt because this would help expedite a replacement unit. Jim liked being called smart. It made him feel good. Although Jim didn’t know the counter salesman very well, Jim thought he was an OK guy.

Feeling as though things were under control, the counter salesman asked Jim a qualifying question. The counter salesman knew that he needed a more detailed problem description than “IT’S BROKEN!” Otherwise, the thermostat manufacturer wouldn’t reimburse his shop. So, the counter salesman asked, “What exactly is wrong with the thermostat?” Jim thought for a moment and said: “It’s out of calibration.” As he filled out the repair tag, the counter salesman agreed to replace the defective thermostat immediately.

The counter salesman in this story used the Contain, Qualify, Correct method of problem solving (see flowchart). The counter salesman, immediately realizing things were not under control, knew the situation would need to be contained before he could qualify the problem and get an accurate problem description. Once the situation was contained and Jim was calm, the counter salesman asked a qualifying question and captured the vital details. With a specific problem description, the counter salesman was able to correct the situation immediately.

As Jim departed from the supply house, he realized that the counter salesman had successfully resolved his problem with a minimal amount of effort. Then Jim thought about how he could apply this stable problem-solving method in his own contracting business. Jim understood that Contain, Qualify, Correct enabled the counter salesmen to get things done right the first time. It increased productivity, built rapport, minimized confusion and enhanced customer satisfaction. Contain means you are getting the situation under control.

Jim continued to grasp the full impact of this methodology. The word “contain” simply means to keep the situation within fixed limits so that the problem doesn’t either intensify or become larger. By keeping the situation under control, a contractor will be able to do his job. Contractors need accurate answers to their qualifying questions. Imagine trying to get accurate answers from an emotionally upset customer. Emotionally upset customers will usually not provide accurate answers. Instead, they'll say things like “It never works”or "It's always broken." We call words such as “never,” “always,” “all” and “every” absolute extremes. The absolute extremes are not very precise, and they don’t provide the details which a contractor needs to do his job.

Then Jim remembered that the counter salesman paid him a soft compliment (saying he was smart) to defuse the tension and then he proceeded to qualify in an attempt to get more details. This constructive interaction enabled the counter salesmen to keep the situation contained. Jim thought that paying customers a soft compliment when entering their home would work similarly. Perhaps complimenting a customer on an aspect of their home or their lawn would be a great way to begin a new relationship. After all, business is all about establishing and keeping good relationships with customers.

The more Jim thought about it, the more this methodology made sense. Contractors who do not attempt to contain situations run the risk of misdiagnosing problems and exacerbating situations. Not solving problems right the first time can result in rework, waste and problem escalation – all of which cost more time and money. If this happens, customers will blame the contractor for the mishap, further complicating the situation, even though it was the customer’s behavior that caused the confusion.

Perhaps the best reason to use the Contain, Qualify and Correct method of problem solving is that it saves time. In any customer service situation, the faster a contractor can resolve a customer’s problem the better. There is a very strong correlation between response time and customer satisfaction. And that is important to every distributor.

The second reason to use the Contain, Qualify and Correct method of problem solving is that it improves customer retention. Past studies have indicated that responding immediately and effectively to a complaint yields a 95% chance of customer retention. Not responding drops the retention rate to only 37%. To keep your customers coming back, it's best to establish a stable methodology such as Contain, Qualify and Correct. Distributors love getting new customers, but they should never forget how important it is to keep the ones they already have.

Steve Coscia helps HVACR companies make more money through greater customer retention, improved upselling and reduced on-the-job stress. He is the author of numerous best-selling books, including the HVAC Customer Service Handbook and The Trade Technician’s Soft Skills Manual. To learn more about Steve Coscia go to www.HVACcustomerservice.com or contact Steve Coscia at 610-853-9836 or steve@coscia.com.