Honoring A Customer Service Legend

Many of us have come up through the industry working side by side with our dads. Our dads' influence might be one of the single greatest factors that have determined who we are.

Among other good influences, my dad, Walt, is a living customer service legend. Ownership passing from father to son is a tradition that is alive but slowly fading in this industry. When dad was 55 years old, he was the service manager of a typical Central California HVAC contracting company.

He had been the service manager for 25 years when the company became available for purchase. He announced he was going to become his own boss and buy the business.

I was outside the industry when I sat down with dad to help negotiate the purchase of the company. I asked what he wanted to accomplish by buying a contracting company at this advanced age.

He said, "When I become successful, now and then, I want to dig through the service calls and find someone I can go take care of, then forget to send them a bill."

That was over 20 years ago, and today Walt is in his late seventies. Now and then, dad fulfills his dream by stepping beyond the bounds of usual service, as he grabs a service order and heads out to solve a comfort problem and save the day.

It was a January morning in 2002. A call came in from a customer living over a 100 miles away from the shop, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The equipment was working, but several rooms weren't heating well. Somebody wasn't happy. Pop headed for the hills. There was a little rain in the Central Valley, but as the elevation increased, the temperature fell and the valley rain gave way to deepening snow and slippery roads.

The troubled home lay a few miles off the state highway. He got to the job by following a snowplow most of the way. He secured the duct, adjusted some dampers, and delivered the comfort his customers desired. Yes, this was one of those no charge calls he loves so much.

Satisfied and happy, he chose a back road route heading for lower altitude with the promise of less snow. Soon he found himself out of radio contact, firmly embedded in a snow bank. He was sure there were a few homes just over the ridge.

The impossible journey on foot began. A patch of ice landed him on his face with two gashes to the forehead. He remembers wringing the blood out of his handkerchief several times. The road narrowed and eventually ended up at an abandoned gold mine - with no houses in sight. Eventually he found his way back to the truck and made an attempt to clean himself up.

He then set off cross-country and waded through an "awfully cold creek." Two hours later, he saw the welcome sight of smoke from a chimney. It was a friend of his service customer, and the two took dad back to his truck and towed him to safety.

Dad convinced him he could make it back to the shop safely. He stopped by home, cleaned up, and made a pit stop for 14 stitches in his face before returning to the shop.

Today dad calls the event an episode ... a learning experience. He takes no credit for his valor, but he was pretty impressed he was strong enough to survive the event at his age. He chuckles as he blames his old age for forgetting to send an invoice. Yes, he's been a good example to me, and I was sure you'd enjoy his story.

I'm honored to write for you on a regular basis in this column in The News. I enjoy dedicating my early Saturday mornings to the HVAC industry as I perch myself in my old, heavy captain's chair at our squeaky antique kitchen table before my laptop. Our backyard is a mile-deep wood where I gaze as I seek inspiration to write what would be of greatest worth to my friends in our industry. I look forward to this journey with you.

Rob "Doc" Falke is a new columnist for The News. He is president of National Comfort Institute, a national training, certification, and membership organization focused on IAQ and air diagnostics. He can be reached at 800-633-7058 or robf@nationalcomfortinstitute.com.

Publication date: 04/11/2005

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