What qualities make an outstanding service manager? Just a few: technical ability, people skills, leadership skills, empathy, a positive attitude, a willingness to serve, multi-tasking and organizational skills, ability to delegate, vision, and the ability to see the big picture. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to bring in donuts once in a while.

“To me, an ideal service manager has the characteristics of a servant-leader,” says Mike Campbell, president, Campbell & Company, Pasco, WA, Contracting Business.com’s 2012 Residential Contractor of the Year. “Service can be demanding, given the hours worked in all kinds of conditions. It’s difficult to be a service employee, and the good ones are a bit independent. They need someone who’s on their side.”

Campbell adds that customer service skills are often just as important as technical skills. “Our service managers deal with the problems that are created when things don’t go well or aren’t communicated well with customers,” he says. “They need to listen and be empathetic, but not give away the farm.”

Matt Dorsett, Campbell & Company’s residential service manager, cites a “willingness to climb into the trenches” with technicians as a quality that goes a long way in building a positive team environment. And he agrees with Campbell about the need for good people skills. “I find that I work more on broken relationships than on broken HVAC systems,” he says.

Jack Morris, Campbell & Company’s commercial service manager, adds leadership and goals to the mix.

“You need to lead your technicians, not manage them,” Morris says. “You also need to know what your department’s daily goals are, such as number of calls, leads, and dollars, and communicate those with everyone. If you wait to see how you did at the end of the month, it’s too late.”

Tommy Estes, president, Estes Services, Atlanta, GA, Contracting Business.com’s 2010 Residential Contractor of the Year, says technical skills are not the most important consideration for his company’s service manager. “People skills are much more important,” Estes says. “We have a full-time trainer and an excellent field supervisor who handle most of the technical questions.”

Joel Heller, Estes Services’ service manager, says a willingness to serve, diplomacy, and a positive attitude are what help him succeed in the role.
“You are constantly challenged to serve both sides: the customers and your service technicians and employees,” he says. “There are generally two sides to every story and you’d better learn to be patient and hear both sides before you pass judgment. You must also have a solid balance between the items that are non-negotiable and the items you need to be more flexible with in your critical assessment. You don’t always have to know the most, but you’d better know when to push and when to lay off just a little.”

Heller adds that the position of service manager is often stressful and frustrating. “It’s easy to become discouraged, so you have to learn to deal with negative issues and try to find the positive in every situation. If you look hard enough there will always be positive somewhere.”

Craig Berman, CEO of Geauga Mechanical Co., Chardon, OH, says at his company the ability to multi-task is a key characteristic of a successful service manager.

“A service manager has to deal with a lot of things coming at him all at one time, Berman says. “He might be on the phone with a customer one minute, then consulting with a technician in the field the next, then helping someone out with an internal issue here in the office. He must be able to juggle all those varying responsibilities while remaining organized, because while we might have 20 construction projects going at one time, on the service side there are dozens of projects and hundreds of maintenance agreements.”

Doing all that while remaining personable is also important, Berman adds. “Sometimes service managers are dealing with customers who aren’t happy, and sometimes technicians can be difficult or frustrated,” he says. “Having the mentality to keep calm and talk to people and keep things in a positive light is an essential quality for a service manager.”

Dan Slattery has been Geauga Mechanical’s service manager for 12 years, and he adds keeping an eye on the big picture and motivating the team to the list of essential qualities.

“The biggest thing that helps me be productive as a service manager is being big-picture oriented,” Slattery says. “There are always tons of details when dealing with customers, technicians, and vendors, and you have to be able to keep all those details in context and keep your ‘eyes on the prize,’” he says. “You have to prioritize what’s most important, what’s least important, and keep everything moving forward.”

Slattery also sees the service manager as a motivator. “You must drive yourself to keep going and keep getting better, and keep pushing everyone around you to get better, too.”

At EMCOR Services Mesa Energy Systems in Irvine, CA, Vice President and Branch Manager Ron Hickey says that although the need for a strong technical background is a given, he is more concerned with what type of person a service manger is.

“We look for good people and the culture they bring to our company,” Hickey says. “I’ve been in this business for 33 years, so I can look at a resume and figure out pretty quickly what a person is capable of technically. But what’s more important is that the person fits our culture as far as treating customers well, and being fair with both the customers and the employees.”

Hickey adds that office skills are important too, as it can be a difficult transition from the field to the office. “There are a lot of service guys out there who are good people and great technicians, but when you try to bring them in from the field and put them in the office, it doesn’t work. A good service manager has the ability to work in a professional business environment.”

The service manager at EMCOR Services Mesa Energy Systems, David Geith, cites delegation of authority and having a vision as among the most important attributes of a service manager.

“Giving control and authority to anyone can be difficult. However, I believe that in order for a service manager to be successful and grow his business, he must be willing to share authority and trust those around him” Geith says. “I also believe that a service manager must have a vision, and be able to adapt that vision to the overall goals of the company. When my leaders explain the company goals and objectives to me, my job is to foresee a plan that will keep our service department in alignment with those goals. A service manager cannot run the department from the ‘now,’ he must keep his sights on the goal.”

Geith comes full circle to what Mike Campbell said about a good service manager having the qualities of a servant-leader. “I try to live my life to be a servant to others around me,” Geith says. “When you’re in a position of authority and responsible for overseeing a large part of the business, it’s easy to think that others exist to serve your needs and goals. I must remember that the people that I oversee don’t exist for my purposes, I exist for theirs.”

And as Morris, from Campbell & Company, concludes, that attitude can’t be turned on and off. “Do what’s right for the customer and the customer will take care of you,” Morris says. “A service manager can’t shut his door and turn the phone off at the end of the day. Customers have to know you and your team are there for them 24/7.”