Wellness Strategies For Service Dispatchers

December 19, 2006
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Nancy Bandy, from Trainsitions Consulting Group LLC, said paying attention to what dispatchers do on a daily basis will give contractors “a greater appreciation for the dispatcher’s role and how that role can be better supported by management.” Her seminar, “Get Inside Your Dispatcher’s Head,” was presented at the MSCA annual meeting.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia - There is a famous quote from Sir Edmund Hilary: "You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." According to Nancy Bandy, dispatchers are ordinary people who are extraordinarily motivated.

Bandy, from Trainsitions Consulting Group LLC, Mission Viejo, Calif. (www.trainsitions.com), said that paying attention to what dispatchers do on a daily basis will give contractors "a greater appreciation for the dispatcher's role and how that role can be better supported by management." Her seminar, "Get Inside Your Dispatcher's Head," was presented at the Mechanical Service Contractors Association (MSCA) annual meeting.

She described six wellness strategies that can help improve the effectiveness of a service contracting operation by improving the health of the dispatcher's role.

"You make it work," said Bandy of the strategies. "You make it happen. Dispatchers play a significant and awesome responsibility for your profitability. We need to create health and wellness for dispatchers."

The association interviewed several high-performing HVAC service dispatchers as part of its new dispatchers program. The study concluded that, among other things, "The dispatcher's job affects internal and external customers, the service manager, and the technicians," said Bandy. "The way the job is done can affect technician retention, company efficiency, profitability, and customer loyalty. The dispatcher is the pivotal point of service."

Their chief role, said Bandy, is "to move people efficiently and productively. It's a pretty awesome responsibility."

The Six Strategies

Wellness Strategy #1: Hire correctly.
"That's easier said than done," commented Bandy.

Two-thirds of new hires will disappoint their employer within the first year, she said. Two-thirds would rather work somewhere else. "Most hiring decisions are made too quickly."

"Today's dispatcher requires a skill set that includes an exceptional combination of technical, interpersonal, and self-management skills," she said. "Dealing with a diverse customer base, handling numerous fire drills, and keeping varied personalities in the office happy requires someone who can navigate through a unique and quickly changing cultural environment."

Dispatcher turnover is particularly hard for a service company to absorb. In addition to costs associated with finding and training a replacement, there are issues of low productivity and service before the old dispatcher leaves, in addition to lower productivity and reduced customer service during a new dispatcher's learning curve. The cost of replacing a good dispatcher, Bandy said, is around $100,000.

Therefore, it's important to hire a suitable dispatcher in the first place. "Research has shown that if a multitude of resources are used in selecting candidates, the employer's chance of finding a correct match are greatly increased," she said. For the best results, use a face-to-face interview, reference checking, personality testing, abilities testing, interests testing, and a job matching consultant (who comes into the company and benchmarks a position's traits; new hires can be measured against profiles).

"Phone skills can be tested in prescreening when you call them to set up the interview," Bandy pointed out.

The best place to start looking for a new dispatcher is within the company, she said. "Your best source is going to be within your organization."

Wellness Strategy #2: Energize the environment.
"All successful business enterprises start with a leader who sets the standard for how the company will operate on a day-to-day basis," Bandy said. "The key to creating a motivating environment is making sure all the necessary elements are in place."

Dispatchers interviewed by the MSCA said they thrive in an environment where:

  • They feel like their jobs make a difference.

  • Empowerment is encouraged.

  • Bureaucracy is discouraged.

  • Initiative is recognized and rewarded.

  • Management is consistent.

  • Trust, harmony, and honesty are paramount to the operation.

  • Adjustments are made when necessary.

  • People are passionate about the organization.

  • Obstacles are eliminated.

    Bandy was asked, "Where do you draw the line on how hard the dispatcher pushes technicians during busy times?"

    "The dispatcher needs to understand techs' points of view and develop a good relationship with the service manager," she replied. "There needs to be open communication and understanding of each others' roles."

    Wellness Strategy #3: Optimize resources.
    "You need to get your resources to the right places," Bandy said. "Whenever owners hear the word resources, dollar signs immediately come to their minds. Fortunately, dispatchers don't always view resources in the same way. Many of the tools they need to do their jobs actually cost very little.

    "For example, a simple call form provides them with a job aid that will help ensure that all information is obtained during the initial service request, paving the way for an efficient transaction from service call to billing," Bandy said. It can be used by anyone answering the phone, not just the dispatcher, so it alleviates some of the constant strain placed on the dispatcher.

    Other types of resources fall into the following categories:

  • Equipment - Computer, software, laptop, desk/location, phone headset, chair/foot rest, fax machine, other.

  • Talent - Additional dispatching help, better understanding of technicians' capabilities, temp help during peak times, different technician mix, access to different people.

  • Tools - Management guidelines, measurement systems, performance feedback, process for coordinating sales and dispatch, process for coordinating project managers and dispatch, system for identifying technician capabilities.

  • Training - Technical, interpersonal communication, time management, HVACR, safety practices.

    "Ask them what's getting in their way," said Bandy. "Most dispatchers say they need correct information from salespeople."

    To help improve workplace empathy, "Have a dispatcher drive with a technician and have a technician sit with the dispatcher."

    Wellness Strategy #4: Outline opportunities.
    "Quality dispatchers are almost a breed of their own," said Bandy. "They are fast-paced, organized, decisive, seek challenges, require variety, and adopt a lifelong learning philosophy. Companies with dispatchers who possess those qualities thank their lucky stars every day for their good fortune.

    "It's always a sad day when a well-respected dispatcher leaves the company," she continued, "but it's even sadder when they leave for better opportunities - something that could have been prevented."

    Contractors can help their dispatchers grow by:

  • Creating a development plan (training, ride alongs).

  • Offering continuous learning.

  • Having them mentor dispatcher duties.

  • Seeking their input on company issues.

  • Appointing them to chair committees.

  • Having them teach classes.

  • Providing them with a career path.

    Wellness Strategy #5: Empower your dispatcher.
    The concept of empowerment has its challenges, Bandy said. "Managers are often frustrated when employees fail to make decisions and take ownership of day-to-day problems. On the other hand, employees are equally frustrated when managers don't listen to their input, don't trust them to make decisions, and don't truly empower them."

    The question to explore, she said, is whether empowerment is given by managers or taken by employees.

    Benefits of empowerment include:

  • Improved service quality and work climate.

  • Better job done by all employees.

  • Stress goes down.

    "Operations are much more effective if decisions are made at the level closest to the situation," Bandy pointed out. "The goal is to achieve an outcome that satisfies customers, retains goodwill, and ensures continued profitability for the organization."

    Successful empowerment requires three elements: direction, authority, and resources. "There is a tendency for managers to take an all-or-nothing approach," Bandy said, "especially with dispatchers who are reliable, high performers who adapt to the most challenging of situations. Because they have the ability to figure things out on their own, managers sometimes inadvertently set their dispatchers up for failure by telling them to ‘take the ball and run with it.'"

    To increase empowerment in a service organization, Bandy recommended these leadership actions:

  • Communicate - Clarify expectations, measure performance, discuss priorities, and provide interim results.

  • Delegate - Shift to a long-term focus, clarify limits of authority, coach rather than do, and share the glory.

  • Support - Use tools, resources, and training.

    Wellness Strategy #6: Support teamwork.
    Finally, Bandy recommended using teamwork for bringing all the elements of wellness together.

    "When work groups develop synergy - a cohesiveness that significantly enhances the group's power - there are many benefits," she said. "Perhaps the most important in today's fast-paced, competitive service environment are increased responsiveness and efficiency of operation.

    "Work groups that develop teamwork respond to rapidly changing scenarios because they understand each other's jobs, trust each other, and want to see the whole team succeed. Synergistic work groups are also more innovative because they have learned to tap the full potential of all employees, opening a wide range of ideas, skills, and talents."

    Of course, teamwork also engenders a more positive work climate. "Genuine caring is more common and people seem to enjoy their work," Bandy said. "A solid team makes life much easier for a manager."

    The dispatchers in the MSCA survey said teamwork is "absolutely critical" for a service operation's success. "Coincidentally, it is also the weakest link in the overall operation and could benefit the most from improvement," Bandy said. Company leaders can encourage greater teamwork throughout the organization by:

  • Rewarding teamwork - Include teamwork in performance reviews. Develop team recognition programs.

  • Providing a model of teamwork - Provide examples so teams know what teamwork behavior looks like. Participate in a peer group that can help provide teamwork guidance.

  • Encouraging the focus on the team process - "Assess where your group is now. Take action to convey the message that group process is important."

    Sidebar: What Could You Do Better?

    Which of these areas could be improved in your service department:

  • Communication between service and sales departments.

  • Accuracy or completeness of information from customer contracts.

  • Time spent resolving customer invoice disputes.

  • Time spent trying to figure out whether to issue a credit because of callbacks.

  • Absenteeism.

  • Advance coordination of labor between project managers and dispatchers.

  • Putting out fires due to lack of planning.

  • Synergy/territorialism.

  • Finger pointing.

  • Creative problem solving.

    Most, if not all, of these areas can be improved by improving the health of the dispatcher's role, according to MSCA presenter Nancy Bandy

    Sidebar: Inside The Service Dispatcher's Mind

    MSCA seminar presenter Nancy Bandy said a group of high-impact dispatchers was surveyed, revealing multiple qualities and attributes they said were important for successful on-the-job performance:

  • Accuracy

  • Assertiveness

  • Basic common sense

  • Cares about technicians

  • Communicates effectively

  • Compromises when necessary

  • Controls situations

  • Customer service oriented

  • Detailed note taker

  • Easy to get along with

  • Efficient

  • Flexible

  • Friendly

  • Generous listener

  • Good phone skills

  • Good memory

  • Good temperament

  • Handles pressure well

  • Hard worker

  • Healthy self-esteem

  • Knows HVACR language

  • Level headed

  • Multitasker

  • Organized

  • Patient

  • Persistent

  • Personable with customers

  • Reacts quickly

  • Respects everyone

  • Sense of urgency

  • Strong computer skills

  • Willingness to learn

    Publication date: 12/19/2005

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