by Frank Norton

In the minds of many consumers, the words, "customer service," have become trendy buzzwords with no real action behind them. Consumers are conditioned to expect less than satisfactory service. Yet, it really takes so little to make a customer feel appreciated and earn their long-term loyalty. The thing to remember is this: without customers, we have no business.

So it behooves all contractors to do what it takes to deliver true customer service, and from where I sit, that means developing a relationship with them. Customers are the basis of our business and establishing a solid relationship with them is key to our success.

Having come up through the ranks, and being a frontline person seeing customers everyday, I thought I knew what customers needed, how they viewed their contractors, and what it takes to become partners with them through relationship building and service.

I was right about many things, but my perspective was slightly skewed. I found that as a technician in the field, you lose sight of the value of customers because you're all about fixing problems, solving technical mysteries. It wasn't until I became a salesperson, then a manager, that I realized the true value of relationships and the need to cultivate them at many different levels.

Here’s what I learned: relationships usually begin when a customer or potential customer has a problem. He or she may be unhappy with the facility operation, or with the services they receive from their contractors, or with the cost of their service. Perhaps the customer isn't receiving the communication/attention expected from service suppliers.

As HVAC contractors, our mission is to uncover the customer's hot buttons. Once found, you must convince the customer that you'll address those issues in the way he or she wants them addressed. Then you absolutely must deliver.

In our company, once a deal is struck, the customer is turned over to an account representative (salesperson) and then we match technicians to the job. The technician is assigned based on personality, technical skill, people skills, and workload.

The keys to successful customer service include:

Relationship, Relationship, and, of course, Relationship

Service— As management expert Peter Drucker says, “Do the right thing and do things right.” To maximize your efforts and create a quality impression with a customer, you need to do both.

Performance— When you tell a customer that you will do something, then you must do it right the first time. Typically, companies spend too much time re-working improperly done jobs. This is wasteful and can endanger a relationship. Doing it right the first time will help cement strong relationships.

Attitude— Be positive, helpful, energetic, sincere, and service oriented. Remember, a positive attitude results in high job satisfaction and good customer relations and service.

Communications— Our industry has its own vocabulary of buzzwords, jargon, acronyms, and other abbreviations that can be like a foreign language to customers. If they don’t understand what you’re talking about, how can they trust you and develop a relationship with you? The key is to speak in the customer’s language.

Listening— The most important aspect of communication. Listening is truly one of the most important skills in creating and maintaining customer relationships.

Exceeding customer expectations— What more needs to be said here?

These keys help create a customer service culture and high satisfaction among your clients. This is the goal of Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA) as well.

In fact, MSCA sees customer service as being so important for technicians that we wrote it into our five-year apprenticeship training program. This accounts for 90 hours of customer service training! MSCA provides customer service training to salespeople and management.

Relationships are key to business, and service performance is the key to building relationships. You get there by delivering what you say you will, when you say you will, and training your people in the art of customer service. Organizations like MSCA can help.

Frank Norton is president of CommAir, Inc., Boston, MA. The company, a $25 million commercial service contracting firm is owned by Emcor Facility Services. Norton founded CommAir in 1976 and sold it in 2001. Today it derives much of its gross revenues from the service business and makes up the rest through Design/Build, tenant retrofit, and replacement work. He is also the new chairman of the the Mechanical Service Contractors of America Board of Managers, installed into that office during the group’s annual meeting in Amelia Island, FL this month. He can be reached at fnorton@commair.com