Is a technician’s value based on technical skills only? The answer will depend on your experience and the pivotal events that helped to shape your career. Our industry places much emphasis on diagnostic and troubleshooting capability, whereas a customer’s perception of value may be something else altogether.

A focus on soft skills has recently become paramount among college and trade school advisory boards. The emphasis on workforce development is a critical component towards educating HVAC students on a customer’s perception of value. What are soft skills? They include behaviors such as proper etiquette, positive facial expressions, wearing professional attire, and other interpersonal abilities that can make or break a technician’s career. Soft skills are the key component of a good experience and are what customers are most likely to remember. These skills create better customer service which could lead to more opportunities for technicians.

During a recent trip to Indianapolis to conduct a customer service seminar, I had the pleasure to meet with an HVAC industry veteran. His name is Aaron York, and during our conversation he conveyed a story from 1961 that helped to shape his career. York admits that while he didn’t perceive himself to be an expert technician back in the 1960s, the customers certainly thought otherwise based on the value they received. “My boss sent me to a customer’s home to clean and service their oil furnace and after loosening the metal canister that housed the filter, some oil spilled on the concrete floor,” said York. “After wiping up the oil with a rag, I looked around and noticed a laundry sink and detergent. So, I mixed a little laundry detergent and water and then scrubbed the oil spill with a stiff brush.”

“When I returned to the shop, my boss told me that the customer had just called and I braced myself, thinking the call was a complaint. ‘What did you do at the customer’s home?’ he asked. I told him that I vacuumed out the heat exchanger, replaced the nozzle and filter, and scrubbed the floor. Then my boss made my day by saying that this customer demanded that only I be sent to their home from now on. Why? This customer had become accustomed to a pervasive oil odor which lasted about a month whenever their furnace was serviced. But on that day, the customer was thrilled due to the absence of the odor.”

This event taught York an important lesson in a customer’s value perception and customer retention. The absent oil odor validated his technical expertise in the customer’s mind, regardless of York’s assessment of his own technical skills. In the world of customer service, the customer is always right. And if the customer believes that you’re an expert, so be it.

There are countless soft skill behaviors that involve little or no technical knowledge. A smile, common courtesy, wearing shoe covers, and cleaning up afterwards are just a few. Service events involving odors hold a special place among service events because of how people react to what they smell. Odors run deep into a customer’s emotional perception compared to other sensory information such as what is seen, heard, or touched. Why? The brain handles the sense of smell separately from our other senses.

Our brain’s thalamus — Latin for inner chamber, referring to its position in the brain — manages input from all the senses except for the sense of smell. What we hear, see, taste, and touch is handled in the thalamus and the sense of smell is handled in the prefrontal cortex. But why is this so important? The prefrontal cortex is also where our brain stores memories, along with our emotional response to what we sniff.

There is a link between smells and our memories and our emotions — a rather explosive combination of entities. Perhaps that is why odor evokes such an emotional response from people. It’s also why events that involve odors are often difficult to forget, because our memory associates odors with specific events and people. For example, an adult who opens a can of Play-Doh® and takes a sniff is often filled with a rush of childhood memories and emotions immediately. The triple threat of smell, emotion, and memory can elicit an extreme response from customers. By the same token, customers will never forget a technician with coffee breath or body odor.

York’s customer had learned to associate a lingering oil odor with furnace maintenance. Historically, the customer had established a value threshold. The absence of the odor surpassed the old value threshold and resulted in a customer for life. As a 20-something technician, this event added to his reservoir of positive experiences that helped enable him to become a leader in his region.

Technicians need not do anything too complex to be perceived as a technical expert and a terrific service professional.

Publication date: 10/1/2012