Thanks to modern communication technologies, such as cell phones, voicemail, voice recognition, email, and instant messaging, to name a few, switchboard operators including telephone answering services are going the way of the dinosaur — extinct. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, answering services are projected to have one of the largest job declines, falling 13.2 percent between 2012 and 2022.

However, answering service companies can still provide invaluable opportunities for HVAC contractors. In fact, using an answering service helped Mike Agugliaro, owner, Gold Medal Service, East Brunswick, New Jersey, generate an additional $5.4 million in revenue.

Agugliaro partnered with Stericycle Communication Solutions about three years ago to not only handle his after-hours and emergency calls, but to also answer overflow calls during business hours. If the phone rings at Gold Medal Service more than three times, the call is transferred to Stericycle’s call center, where a customer service expert will take down information.

“Nobody’s calling a plumber, HVAC company, or an electrician solely to chat about their weekend,” Agugliaro said. “Something bad is really happening. When you’re in the middle of something really bad, the worst thing is to call and get an answering machine. When my wife calls me and gets my answering machine, she’s not happy because there’s no consoling and there’s no being able to help the situation. We recognize when people are in a time of need, they need a human being to talk it through, calm them down, and help them through the situation.”

In addition to providing excellent customer service through the ability to talk to a live person, Stericycle became Gold Medal’s safety net when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey in October 2012. The business’s 200 phone lines were down for weeks when the storm took out the local AT&T towers. But, thanks to Stericycle, Gold Medal was still operating during the aftermath.

“If we didn’t have this backup system in place, we would have lost millions of dollars,” Agugliaro said. “But since we did, when our phone system dropped out, the call center was picking up, and we were able to survive. We went and bought four or five Verizon phones, and we had them transferring calls to these phones. We would have lost hundreds and hundreds of calls. And I know we made millions of extra dollars as a result of the storm. It was a sense of insurance.”

Filling a Need

“We offer 24/7 service, which is a traditional need for contractors, as customer emergencies occur at all hours,” said Chris Marshall, director of commercial sales, Stericycle Communication Solutions, Lake Forest, Illinois. “Heat never seems to stop working at an opportunistic time. We’re here to have an educated, warm, empathetic voice on the phone when someone calls in the middle of the night and their heat’s not working or because there’s a giant flood coming from their bathroom or hot water heater.”

Stericycle captures a client’s information and then follows instructions from its contractor partners to ensure information is processed correctly and the proper next steps are taken. “You’re making sure your new prospects are being handled immediately and existing clients are happy,” Marshall said. “We’re essentially an extension of Mike’s [Agugliaro’s] internal call center. When a call comes in, we are working through every bit of information — we’re quoting service fees, and we’re booking jobs. We’re a true driver for him.”

According to Marshall, Stericycle answers 2,000-5,000 calls per month for Gold Medal Service, depending on the season.

Finding the Perfect Match

Marshall said contractors should be looking for answering services that are available 24/7, among other things.

“You should be looking for someone who understands the unique nature of the business so that when someone calls in at midnight, very upset, and says, ‘My heat’s not working,’ which is a very common scenario, the first line is ‘I’m so sorry to hear about that, we can help you.’ It may sound trivial, but that’s just not something that’s commonplace in this industry. Merely having a sympathetic voice on the phone goes a long way.”

John Szwarc, business development coordinator, Ace Answering Service, State College, Pennsylvania, said contractors need to look for a company that is specific to its needs.

“You should look for the same qualities you would look for when choosing a bank, accountant, or any professional service,” he explained. “You want a company that is responsive to your needs and treats your customers as though they were their own. You don’t want an answering service where the agents sound unpleasant, distracted, or just plain confused.

“Every HVAC contractor is different, and their needs are different,” Szwarc continued. “What works for one company may not work for the next. That’s why it’s important to find a company that will create a customized approach for your business. The answering service needs to accommodate your employees, just like your receptionist would. Some employees want to be alerted by a real, live telephone call when they are needed. Others may want a text message. Sometimes, how you reach them depends on the hour of the day. The answering service should have procedures in place that allow them to reach your staff in the manner in which they are accustomed to. Everything from the answering phrase down to the interaction with your customers is open for negotiation. It can be done exactly as you instruct us and the caller need not know they reached an answering service if you don’t want them to.”

Szwarc also suggested looking up prospective answering services’ Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating and online reviews to understand just who will be talking to your customers.

Top Notch Service

Scott Good, owner, Goodco Mechanical Inc., State College, Pennsylvania, actually switched to Ace Answering Service from a different company two years ago because of Ace’s ability to customize its service to fit his company’s needs.

Good understood from the very beginning, just six years ago, that he would need an answering service to help with after-hours calls.

“We provide 24-hour service, seven days a week, and I didn’t want to be taking calls myself all night,” he said. “Initially, the first few months, I did. But, as we grew bigger, this move was a necessity.”

Good said he doesn’t get much feedback from customers regarding the company’s use of an answering service, but then he doesn’t really expect to. When an emergency after-hours call comes in, an on-call technician is dispatched and required to call the customer back within 15 minutes.

“We try to differentiate ourselves through our customer service,” he said. “Our focus during regular hours is to pick up the phone in two rings. We promise a return phone call within a certain time period, and we get to our preferred customers within 24 hours. If it’s an emergency, we shift things around and get to them sooner. Quite honestly, I don’t think most HVAC service companies are good at customer service. Most of these second- and third-generation businesses get a little bit complacent. We try to approach the marketplace a little bit differently, respond faster, and communicate better. This helps with our whole persona.”

Publication date: 1/26/2015

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