Massachusetts Contractors Talk About Employees, Customers, and Equipment

August 20, 2007
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GREENFIELD, Mass. - HVAC contractors have a lot of interesting things to talk about, especially when they are sitting around a dinner table in a relaxed atmosphere, renewing old acquaintances and forming new ones. The conversation got very interesting at a recent roundtable dinner discussion of New England contractors, hosted by The NEWS and taking place at Famous Bill’s restaurant in the western Massachusetts town of Greenfield.

On hand were some current contractors, former contractors, and employees of contractors. The list of attendees included Gary Wilson, Scott Kneeland, Bill Nye, Alan Mercurio, Ken Secor, and Ruthe Jubinville. Most of the discussion centered on the subjects of employees, customers, and equipment - three vital components of any HVAC contracting business. One former contractor and now an employee of a manufacturer, Chuck Shaw, livened up the conversation with his perspectives from two points of view.

EMPLOYEES AND THEIR ATTRIBUTES

A good employee can make or break a relationship with a customer. Having problem-solving skills may not be the only thing that is important when trying to fix a customer’s problem - it may be necessary to fix the customer, too.

Finding employees with good troubleshooting skills, who can communicate with the customers, and make a good impression, are very important according to the roundtable attendees. “People skills are important,” said Shaw. “You should have someone who can diffuse a problem when it arises.”

Kneeland doesn’t mind if an employee occasionally messes up or has a callback, as long as the customer is happy and understanding. He said people skills are important over mechanical skills. “I’ll keep someone even if they keep going back to fix their mistakes because the customers love the guy,” he said. But Kneeland added that he will not tolerate a person with a poor attendance record. “That is my biggest problem,” he said. “Poor attendance can be a real deal killer and employees just don’t understand the impact of poor attendance.”

Secor noted the importance of appearances and used the example of when he was interviewing a man with three large earrings in his ear. “I liked him and offered a good starting wage and benefits, but the guy would have to lose the earrings,” he said. “He balked at first, but I convinced him that he couldn’t find a better-paying job and that earrings stood in his way. The guy could wear them when he was off the clock anyway. He accepted the job.”

The conversation was lively at the most recent roundtable session sponsored by The NEWS. Attendees of the July roundtable in Massachusetts included (from front left): Gary Wilson, Scott Kneeland, Ronald McClements, Alan Mercurio, Bill Nye, Chuck Shaw, Ken Secor, and Ruthe Jubinville. (Click on the image for an enlarged view.)

But Secor also said he didn’t want that same worker, or any of his workers, accepting the responsibility of making his customers happy. He believes that job still belongs to the boss. “I built the business and I don’t want an employee taking time out of his day to clean up a problem,” he said. “It is my responsibility.”

Jubinville believes that the best techs are those who can look at a problem and use their experience and ‘second nature’ to solve the problem. “You have to stand back and look at the total picture, i.e. why something has failed,” she said. “You learn that by doing it.”

McClements quit his full-time job as a bus driver to start his own business. “I learned everything in the field and through the school of hard knocks,” he said. “What you learn in school compared to what you learn in the field is totally different. The real world is out there. I learned by doing the same thing every day.”

McClements cares about what he does, a characteristic that is often lacking in young trade workers, according to Mercurio. “The problem we have today with workers is that they don’t show a desire to make themselves better by taking the time to read more about their trade and attend seminars or training,” he said. “If I put some magazines in a break room for workers, they would probably pick up one about cars rather than an industry trade publication. They want to go home at 5:00 and collect a paycheck.”

Shaw was a little more blunt in his assessment of why people don’t care. “Some people wake up in the morning, eat a big bowl of stupid, and it lasts all day,” he said. “I’d rather work with a tech who is ignorant rather than dumb. I can show an ignorant person how something works.” He added that he could go on 500 service calls and find a problem with 400 of the installations. “I’d rather work with a service tech who can troubleshoot a problem instead of a good installer,” Shaw said.

FIXING THE CUSTOMERS

If employees can offer experience and good service, it still may not be enough for a business to succeed. The customers have to be willing to pay for quality work and trust their contractor. That is easier said than done.

Most roundtable members agreed that the worst customer is the one who doesn’t understand the cost of doing business and who assumes that contractors will give price breaks in order to keep the business.

“I went on a job with my late husband, Jerry,” Jubinville said. “The customer thought the price was too high and asked Jerry to knock off $300. Jerry agreed and the customer was happy - until Jerry started to eliminate some items from the installation list. He said he was finding the $300 he could cut out.”

Kneeland said he did a job for a customer who repaid his work with a biting criticism. “I had a school principal who called me with a heat problem,” he said. “The principal said, ‘If you had an education like mine you wouldn’t have to do this.’ I smiled and handed him my bill, saying that ‘If you had training like mine you wouldn’t need to call me.’ ”

This experience is one reason why Kneeland said he does very little work with new customers, preferring his existing customer base. “I am comfortable with these people because they pay me for my time, not like new or unknown customers who expect so much for nothing,” he said.

McClements said that he has gotten emergency calls in the early morning hours from people whose problems were often very easy to fix and required very little time. “And the customer winds up asking me if I was going to charge him for doing something so simple,” McClements added.

STANDING BEHIND EQUIPMENT AND WARRANTIES

The group turned the conversation to equipment and who should be responsible for paying the labor costs to come back to replace a failed part. Kneeland said it is an emotional topic because he was tired of doing warranty work for free.

“First of all, I will not install any equipment that is bought from someone else,” he said. “The best way to handle it is to walk away from it or have a statement in the contract such as ‘Not responsible for parts supplied by customer.’ I will warranty my labor and parts for 12 months, but if a customer has a problem after 18 months, the manufacturer will supply a new part for free and I will charge for labor and additional parts to replace it. I’ve never had a complaint.

“I just got tired of doing warranty work and not getting paid.”

Sometimes the lines get blurred as to who really owns the customer. Shaw said, “As a manufacturer I have to ask, who is my customer? Wholesaler, contractor, end user?”

According to Nye, a lot of the problems surrounding the costs of callbacks and warranty claims could be resolved if this were the ‘good old days.’ “We were paid for our time in the old days when mark-up on parts and labor made enough profits to pay for going back, but not anymore. Today, customers really don’t know what quality work is.”

And according to Secor, the contractors can be blamed. He said, “Ninety percent of contractors don’t know what they are doing.”

Jubinville added that some contractors are notoriously bad businesspeople and “should be required to take at least one business course before getting their license.”

Need to get some things off your chest and see a roundtable as a good way to do it? Contact John R. Hall at johnhall@achrnews.com. It’s possible that The NEWS will pay you a visit!

Publication date: 08/20/2007

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