Missed Opportunities: When Some Callbacks Are Welcomed

March 9, 2009
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The following story is a hypothetical situation based on real-life, everyday occurrences to HVACR technicians and contractors.

Mr. Worldly, a professional engineer, was at work at the time of the service call, which was scheduled by his wife. He was temporarily out of reach. His wife was at their home, caring for her elderly father who is in poor health. He is in such poor health he is at risk for having a seizure if he got too hot. The house had only one a/c unit with nothing for backup.

Mrs. Worldly made the call to the contractor on a Saturday, which was performed by a weekend on-call technician.

This was the second time in July the a/c quit cooling. The motor’s plastic identification plate was bubbled up and a brown color from overheating. There was oil slung everywhere out of the motor bearings, almost as if the homeowner tried oiling it himself. WD-40 maybe? The motor was so hot that it would need to be cooled before it could be run and tested.

The seasoned tech of 15 years already knew the run capacitor was probably bad because there had been a run of bad caps recently, the compressor was on internal bypass, and there wasn’t any guttering over the unit to protect it from large amounts of rain hitting the fan blade. His question was: Would the motor continue to provide dependable service after undergoing such internal damage?

After considering all the evidence and possible ramifications, the tech decided to declare the motor bad and quote a price for the customer. After all, he might get in big trouble from his company if he had a callback on this one. More importantly, a person’s life might be at stake. He knew from experience there is about a 50/50 chance the motor would fail soon.

The tech was also thinking about how to go about explaining all this to Mrs. Worldly, who had already declared she didn’t know anything about a/c units. It might have been easier to get price approval and replace the motor rather than asking for a bag of ice to cool the motor and explain the motor’s unknown life span, etc.

Mrs. Worldly told the tech that she would have to call her husband for price approval. His meeting would have been over soon and she could get back to him.



HUSBAND POPS A VEIN

Later in the afternoon, the tech hears from Mrs. Worldly. She said that Mr. Worldly was mad, claiming misdiagnosis and overpricing. He thought it was misdiagnosed because he had called for a second opinion the next day and at that time the only part that wasn’t working was the fan motor’s run capacitor.

Now the tech’s boss, the company owner, had to intervene. He had to decide whether or not to stand behind his tech, send out a different tech, take a loss on the call, possibly lose a customer, etc. In reality, all the tech was doing was trying his best to make the right decision for the circumstances at hand.

This is an example of how a service call can go bad and cause ill feelings for all parties involved. Sadly, too many companies operate this way and can’t figure out why techs leave them. The problem is not always inexperience but often times it is just plain poor communication and inbred bad company policy.

The fear of a callback has fueled the fire on this service call. Callbacks should be a good thing for a company if they are billable. To create a billable callback, the tech should price in writing:

• Condenser fan motor run cap: $xx.xx

• Condenser fan motor (overheated might fail soon): $xx.xx

• Outdoor equipment coils double row and dirty from clothes dryer exhaust, causing motor to overheat. Separate and clean coils: $xx.xx

• Contact points pitted and worn: $xx.xx

• Square D Outdoor disconnect switch melted internally but working: $xx.xx

At this point the tech could have gotten approval or had approval denied before proceeding with any repairs.

Some people, like Mr. Worldly, might argue that parts in working order do not need replacement.

Examples would be worn and pitted contact points, or melted/loose connection at the outdoor disconnect, etc. These parts might not be the reason for the failure at hand but they should still be reported to the customer. This is a method of CYA (cover your ass) for the contractor but it also benefits the customer in providing a more dependable repair should they choose to accept the contractor’s recommendations. You should never suggest replacing a part in working order if there wasn’t anything wrong with it.

By taking the time to list these items that are in less-than-perfect working order, it increases communication and puts the ball back in the homeowner’s court. In this scenario, these problems were the homeowner’s problems, not the a/c contractor’s problems.

But the trouble is typified when company policy insists on a tech running an excessive number of calls per day. The tech is forced into a rush job and can miss many of these other hidden deficiencies. The company can make more money, retain more customers, retain more techs, by reinforcing fewer calls that are more detailed rather than more calls that hit and miss. When a company has more calls than the techs can handle, it might be a sign their prices are too low.

But by taking more time in the diagnostic phase, the tech creates a list of very welcome callback reasons, all of which the company can make money on without losing trust from the homeowner. In fact, the homeowner usually feels bad for not heeding the original warning in the first place. This method forces the homeowner to own his problems. A manufacturer can build an inexpensive machine and a homeowner can neglect a routine checkup, but when there is a breakdown, it shouldn’t automatically be the a/c contractor’s problem.



TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

There are always two sides to every story and, in most cases, inexperienced techs are not the cause of the problems. Poor company policy is. If a tech isn’t experienced enough to run calls on his own, it is the company management’s decision to allow him to do that. Companies can’t afford to have a seasoned tech and a student tech ride together. Why? Because our industry has fooled itself into thinking that $595 is too much to charge for a fan motor replacement.

A/c techs deserve to work with the best tools, drive the safest trucks, have the best training, paid vacations, health insurance, retirement plans, etc. Techs deserve all that but can’t have it because company owners have been squashed into charging minimal pricing by homeowners insisting on the lowest-price contractor (often unlicensed and illegal). This applies to service and replacement work.

Speaking of replacement, we would all love to upgrade inefficient systems with new equipment and duct renovations. More often than not the homeowner is moving soon or for some other reason they don’t want to invest a lot of money into the property. In some cases, replacements are not realistic because they take more time in planning and installing. This type of work should be planned for the off-season to keep working conditions (e.g., hot attics) safe, but when people are hot, they can’t wait.

Another problem with that is the replacement contractor takes on all the sins of the original installer. All of a sudden the entire home becomes your problem, equipment size, duct sizes, air balancing, refrigerant line sizes, breaker sizes, equipment access, etc.

It is not the second contractor’s fault the closet is too small, returns can’t be enlarged, the outdoor unit is located under the meter base, ducts between floors of a two-story home are the wrong size, etc. The replacement contractor shouldn’t have to be held responsible for things out of his control. So the safe way out for the contractor is to just repair what is there. Sadly, it’s not always the right thing for the homeowner.

As a trade, we can keep adding all the sales training, tests, and certifications we want, but it won’t solve the problem. Unfortunately, the HVACR industry’s problem of miscommunication and poor company policy has gone misdiagnosed.

Publication date: 03/09/2009

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