Mike Cottle sets a high standard of business at Cole Services in Garden Grove, Calif. His dedication to the trades began right after high school, when he entered trade school to be a plumber. Over the course of the next 13 years, Cottle spent his time honing his skills, learning HVAC, and working for local service-and-repair companies. In 1996, he purchased Cole Services. Just as he transformed his career through training and expertise, Cottle converted the company, which started with five employees and $200,000 in revenue into a one-stop home-comfort resource. The investment continued to grow, as Cottle boosted the business’ revenue five-fold, earning $1 million in his first year.

And, more than 15 years later, the contractor hasn’t looked back, boasting a staff of 55 employees across two California branches. For his dedication to business and the trades, Cottle has been named The NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work for in the West region.

Setting Priorities

Cole Services’ main focus remains centered on customer satisfaction. Employees are trained and encouraged to go above and beyond for their customers in all instances.

“Taking ownership and ensuring customer satisfaction is our job,” said Judy Bell, customer service supervisor. “Our core values and resources allow us to give the best possible service to our customers.”

To help ensure customer satisfaction, Bell’s work routine includes daily coaching of the customer service representatives she manages. For new hires, there is a five-day training process that consists of listening to calls, role playing, objection and rebuttal training, one-on-one coaching, and many other tasks.

Customers aren’t the only priority at Cole Services. According to Bell, the staff works as a team in a family environment.

“We really do take care of each other,” she explained. “You aren’t just an employee in the midst of many. You are Judy, Nicole, Jackie, or Matt.

“One of the things I really enjoy is that Mike, the owner, works side by side with each of his departments. He doesn’t sit in his office and demand performance; Mike works hard to facilitate great employee performance.”

Technology and Communication

In the dispatch department, teamwork and communication are keys to a customer’s experience with Cole Services and its employees. To help facilitate the fast-paced environment, Cole Services has invested in technology and training for its dispatchers and technicians. Staff in both departments are utilizing iPhones, GPS, and iPads to stay connected, and thus are providing more efficient service.

“We aren’t just keeping track of our technicians,” said Nicole August, dispatch supervisor. “We know who is where and what they are doing. It gives us the ability to send the closest and most quickly available technician we have at our disposal. This helps us improve our customer service and efficiency.”

While iPhones are very popular within the company, leadership is still testing the adaptation and usefulness of iPads, which are currently utilized by only a few technicians.

According to August, technicians are able to keep in contact, keep track of schedules, and snap pictures of equipment, contracts, and other items in the field for further reference using the devices.

Choosing Technicians and Management

Treating customers like kings and queens, and staff like family, requires a lot of commitment from Cottle and his employees. And while the company has placed a strong emphasis on training; staff must first make it through the hiring process before implementing a training regime. For technicians, this process begins with an open house that is held every Thursday. There, Cottle and his operations manager Marco Martinez primarily look for one specific thing — a good attitude.

“We look for some experience, but experience is something we can teach; attitude is not,” said Martinez. “We want to know if they are looking for a job or if they are looking for a career. If they are looking for a career, that is something we can work with.”

Once invited back after the open house, a prospective technician is then interviewed by Cottle and Martinez individually. After that, the employee is subjected to drug testing, a background check, and a personality test. If hired, the technician is looking at approximately six weeks of training. This training covers the basics of customer service the “Cole way.”

The first two weeks of training are conducted in-house as technicians learn how to approach and interact with customers. They also learn the ins and outs of what behavior and procedures are expected when it comes to paperwork, installs, and repairs. After the first two weeks, technicians enter the ride-along stage of training. There, they can practice what they have learned about the Cole way, combined with their technical skills. Once through the process, and having proven they understand and can consistently implement the Cole way, new technicians are then sent into the field.

Technicians are ranked on four different levels. Level one is zero-to-two-years experience. Level two is two-to-four-years experience. Level three is four-to-six-years experience. Level four is anyone with five-or-more years. “These levels are gained over time, but with too many mistakes or customer complaints, the technician can move down a level,” explained Martinez. “The tech will receive a warning first and if the behavior doesn’t change then they can be demoted a level despite years of experience.”

If demoted, techs can continue to work their way back to the top level if they improve. Department managers and Cole Services leaders are usually chosen from the upper levels of each department.

“We don’t hire managers,” said Martinez. “We promote from within.”

As for technician retention, Cottle said that the key is to offer room for growth. This is something he feels has been provided with the technician levels as well as the management opportunities. Along with hiring and technician retention, Cottle understands that continuing to encourage technicians into the field is important. His company invests in advertising, local trade schools, and mentor-programming implementation to discover new techs.

Benefits and Rewards

According to the employees at Cole Services, there are many benefits and rewards to working for Cottle. He is considered a hard worker; someone who is involved in the success of the company and its employees. As for Cottle’s approach to his employees, “I want to make sure they are happy with the job, benefits, and work environment that I have provided,” he said.

Cole Services offers a full benefits package along with special bonuses and spiff opportunities. These opportunities are implemented companywide, and each department is able to participate and be rewarded on some level.

Beyond benefits and bonuses, Cottle holds a monthly meeting where the top employee from each department for the month is publicly acknowledged. There are breakfasts, picnics, barbecues, and many other extras that help motivate and unite the Cole Services team.

Taking his generosity outside the company, Cottle also donates $1,000 per month to a local charity.

“We do it because we want to give back to those we serve in the community,” he said.

Secrets of Success

Over the years, Cottle’s company has experienced many changes and he and his team have adjusted to overcome the obstacles. Despite the recent economic downturn, Cottle reported that his business is up 67 percent from 2011. “I guess we aren’t really feeling the effects of the economy too much at all,” he said.

Among his many duties, Cottle doesn’t have time to write an advice column, but if he did, he would tell veteran and new contractors alike to be open to change.

“It’s important to have goals and make plans,” he said. “It is just as important to be open minded and open to change. Have a vision, be consistent, and stay focused.” 

To learn more about the company, visit www.cole-services.com.

Just The Facts: Cole Services

BCTWF Cole HeadshotContractor: Cole Services

Owner & President: Mike Cottle

Location: Garden Grove, Calif.

Years in Business: 43 years

Bulk of Market: Residential

Total Sales for 2011: $9.9 million

Total Employees: 55

Total Service Technicians and Installers: 25

Average Hours Employees Spend In Training: 41 or more hours per month

Benefits Beyond Medical/Dental Insurance: 401(k) package as well as spiffs, bonuses, special meals, and team activities.

Industry Association & Contractor Group Members:Nexstar Network and Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC)

The NEWS Selected This Contractor Because: His dedication to business and the trades.

Publication date: 1/28/2013