Building A Successful Service Business

July 2, 2004
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Most of us believe that technical expertise is the most important factor in building a successful maintenance organization. However, we all know excellent technicians who fail in the service business. Why do they fail, or why do they fail to grow? Several factors, in addition to technical expertise, must be considered.

Physical appearance of technicians and cleanup after service have an impact on how customers’ perceptions of your company are formed. (Photo courtesy of Coleman.)

Perception Of Maintenance

Perception is like a virus. Customers will judge your company, and that perception, regarding the quality of your work and its professionalism, will spread through the community.

Once an image or reputation is formed, then it is very resistant to change. It sometimes takes years to change the perception.

Everything your staff does or says has an effect on the perception of maintenance. Telephone courtesy, physical appearance of technicians, and cleanup after service are just a few examples of how perception is formed and how it can be changed.

Training your people in these areas is just as important as technical training. "Situational" discussions with your staff involving normal problem solving procedures with suggestions regarding acceptable, professional behavior can be a very effective training tool.

Organization

Organization is very important in service and maintenance work because it saves time, reduces confusion, increases morale, and generates confidence within the company and with your customers. The bottom line is, organization creates the foundation for professionalism.

Organization is a very broad concept that touches everything we do. Whether we realize it or not we are either organized or disorganized when we file records, assign work orders, purchase replacement parts, handle phone calls, or schedule our day.

It is the manager's job to know which members of their staff are naturally organized and which ones aren't. Some of the "organizationally challenged" may be very valuable members of the staff, so don't overwhelm them with details and red tape. However, you may be able to alter their behavior patterns somewhat by training them in the most essential and fundamental organizational skills required.

Most people enjoy the benefits of organization, but very few enjoy the discipline that it requires. Some people are organized in one particular area and disorganized in other areas.

A highly valued trait of a good leader is to be able to use the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of his staff. If you have someone who is a good organizer, delegate that function to him or her.

Then reinforce compliance with the established procedures with real, tangible rewards such as pay raises. This is one of those areas that should be addressed during annual personnel evaluations.

Everyone in your company will look to the leader as the standard. If a new organization policy is put into place, then everyone must follow those procedures, including the leader. If compliance is not across-the-board, then the effort is destined for failure and morale will suffer.

Communication

Like it or not, ready or not, we are now submerged in the information age. Data is available for almost every task we attempt. Our success or failure depends upon our ability to find, read, evaluate, and act on that data. If you are going to develop and maintain an effective maintenance organization, then you must embrace computer technology. The days of relying on someone else to operate a computer for you is no longer an option.

Not being connected to your customers via e-mail is a mistake. E-mail is an excellent tool when used properly. The Internet is also an excellent way to find equipment and locate hard-to-find parts. When you use the Internet instead of the telephone book, you will find vendors who are willing to work for you. When you have technical questions, use the Internet to find the person with the answers.

In most cases, a Web site will have a toll-free number for technical service. The Internet is often more cost effective than a telephone search.

Train your staff to use all

forms of communication effectively. Establish guidelines as to when to use the telephone, e-mail, Internet, written memos, letters, or face-to-face communication.

Face-to-face meetings involve several different forms of communication including: speaking, listening, body language, and tone of voice. Which of these has been proven to be the most important? Listening.

Listening is hard work, but a really good communicator is always a good listener. It takes practice to learn to listen, but when you are finally able to incorporate it into your communication skills, you are well on your way to becoming an effective communicator.

When you are truly listening to someone, you are not thinking about something else. Have you ever wondered if the guy you are talking to is really listening? It's a very frustrating experience. A good communicator pushes aside all distractions when involved in conversation. Often, he will confirm what the other person said by repeating back to them what he just heard. If you try this, you will be amazed at how many times they correct a word or change a phrase after hearing what you think they have spoken. This practice of being a better listener will not only help you at work, but will reap huge dividends with your spouse and children.

Most of your customers will interact with you or your staff on an infrequent basis. When this communication takes place, it probably will be about a problem and there may be a lot of pre-existing stress built into the situation. Can you see why listening is so important?

The entire perception of all the "behind the scenes work" your staff does all year is riding on that one conversation. Your customer will either feel valuable or discredited by the way he or she is treated.

Another important point involves follow-up. Always train service people to follow up. When a service call is performed, a follow-up call to check the results a few days later always appears professional.

Attitude And Culture

The attitude and prevailing culture in an organization are major factors that determine its success or failure.

Attitude is more important than expertise. If the attitudes are right, then the potential for success is greatly improved.

If you have a bad apple, you must take action. Turn that person around or help them find another place to work. Communicate clearly both verbally and in writing what the attitude appears to be and how it must change.

Culture is also important. Culture is defined as "the way things work here."

Some negative examples of culture statements would include:

1. "We have always filled out the paperwork this way. Why are we changing it?"

2. "There's never any money in the budget for what I want to do, but if it's the boss's pet project, now that's a different story."

3. "Why start a new project on Friday? Let's head back and kill the rest of the day."

4. "I know it would be safer if I made another trip for a 10-foot ladder, but I'm late and I've got an 8-foot ladder that will work."

Some positive examples of culture statements would include:

1. "It's break time, but if we work on through we can be finished by noon."

2. "I think I forgot to leave the system in automatic so it will not run all weekend. I guess I better go back and check."

3. "I don't like the way that piping looks, let's redo it. I want to be comfortable stating that is the quality of work we do."

4. "There is an installation and operations manual in the shop. If we go and get it, we can set this equipment up right the first time."

The culture of a workplace is created over time. It evolves from all of the personalities of the people employed.

A culture problem is a very hard thing to change. Most of the time one person in a large organization cannot change anything except in small increments. However, if a grass-roots level change is made, then usually it will remain.

The first step for a culture change is to educate the leaders that a culture problem exists. This is a case where role playing or a training video works quite well.

The second step is to develop a policy statement. This policy should be produced in written form, as well as being verbally repeated on frequent intervals. The third step is the most important of all. This step involves trust.

Most negative cultures have a sound reason for the existence of the culture. Leaders must show their willingness to lead and be the first to change before the others will follow. Trust is developed when this change is genuine, consistent, and permanent.

Expertise

Also take a good look at the technical ability of your maintenance staff. Where are you strong? Where are you weak? After determining your company's strengths and weaknesses, ask yourself these key questions:

  • Do you have money in the budget for training? There is really nothing more important to your mission than developing your staff and making them as effective as they can be. Training builds morale because training communicates to your staff they are valuable. Training also helps with employee retention and is less costly than employee turnover.

    What about using older, seasoned technicians to train the younger ones? Set up a classroom and cultivate cross-training. Do not allow a situation where the department falls apart when one person is on vacation. Don't allow kingdoms to be built. During reviews, make it a goal for the specialist to train a backup. Include some incentive such as the size of his/her pay raise into the equation.

  • Do you have regularly scheduled safety meetings? Safety meetings and safety equipment do not cost money, they save money. One avoided minor injury will pay for safety glasses and leather gloves for the entire department. Safety training films are great if you don't have the in-house expertise to train proper safety techniques.

    R.J. Morris, P.E., is a consulting engineer in the Austin, Texas, area. He can be reached at rmorris.esa@sbcglobal.net.

    Publication date: 07/05/2004

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