When temperatures start to rise and summer kicks in, HVAC contractors know the busy cooling season has finally arrived. While a busy summer season can bring increased business and profits, it can also mean long hours and tough conditions for employees.
So, how do contractors control the chaos and maintain morale when it gets hot? Here are some tips from experienced HVAC managers who’ve strategically handled heavy workloads and emerged profitable and positive.
Communication and Scheduling
According to Derek Youd, service manager, Western Heating & Air Conditioning, Orem, Utah, it can be difficult to switch into busy-season mode, but communication helps ease the transition.
“The hardest time for us is when we go from just doing maintenance tuneups to doing repairs,” he said. “For us, it’s like a light switch.”
When the weather heats up, communication is more important than ever.
“Communication is a big thing,” Youd said, explaining that he follows the weather forecasts, allowing him to communicate expectations to technicians well in advance. “I can give them a four- or five-day forecast, to get their mindset ready.”
Technicians should also be aware of where they are going and when they’re supposed to be there.
“We have a three-month on-call rotation, so the guys know for the next three months which Saturdays they have to work and which holidays they have to work,” Youd said.
Brad McGhee, general manager, LBA Air Conditioning, Heating & Plumbing Inc., Kansas City, Kansas, also stressed the importance of communication with employees, which, he said, can be as simple as just talking to them in weekly meetings.
McGhee added it’s important to prepare for the longer hours and stress that can accompany the busy season. “We do a lot of preaching with our guys, telling them to let their families know [longer hours will be starting], so they’re not caught by surprise,” he said.
McGhee explained LBA typically has one person on call but tries to have two or three people on call for the nights and weekends when hotter weather is in the forecast.
Chad Harrison, HVAC service manager for Lee Co., Franklin, Tennessee, has set up a second-shift crew that operates year-round, which is especially helpful during busy season. Harrison came up with the second shift as a way to better serve customers during the later evening hours, and he said it has worked out well.
“We have a second-shift crew that comes in Monday through Thursday, and that relieves some of the day-shift guys, so they’re not running until eight or nine o’clock at night,” Harrison explained, adding that the second shift, which starts at 1 p.m., only has two techs, while the day shift staffs around 50 techs.
“Sometimes that increases during the peak season. I’ll add a third person to take some of that [pressure] off,” he noted.
The pressures of busy season are also reduced when the managers have a positive attitude and pitch in alongside their employees.
According to Kathie Todd, administrative manager and CFO, Central Oregon Heating & Cooling, Redmond, Oregon, people don’t need more management during busy season, they need reinforcement and encouragement. For example, she said, it’s important for people to see her stepping up to help during chaotic times.
“I will do whatever needs to be done,” she said, noting that sometimes that means ordering in lunch for everyone when it’s extremely busy. “They need to see that we are not deserting them in any way and appreciate, understand, and recognize their overload and efforts. Sometimes they just need a break, hug, smile, or kind word.”
And, in a crunch, Todd added, “A sense of humor helps, too.”
At Lee Co., Harrison said: “We’ve got a really good team here; the support staff and all the management come together. Last year, we had some months that got really crazy. We would all go into one room to regroup, and then we’d break out to go take care of things.”
McGhee also believes owner and management involvement during the busy season can inspire employees.
“The fact that the owners [J.D. McGhee and Bill Anderson] and myself are heavily involved in the day-to-day operation helps. I know a lot of other companies where the owners don’t step in,” McGhee said. “You don’t have to hire one more person when your owner is willing to step in.”
Plus, a positive attitude from the top is felt all the way down the chain.
As a service manager, Youd said, “If I come in at eight with a bad attitude, it sure rubs off on them [the technicians] real quick.”
He added, the first seven to 10 days of the busy season are the toughest, but the “big thing is to stay positive.”
Rewards and Incentives
A positive atmosphere can also be maintained by incentives or reward programs, which some companies use to lift employee spirits when calls keep coming and shifts run long.
At LBA, McGhee said the company instituted a unique program to encourage people to work more hours during the busy season.
“In May, June, and July, we ask people not to take any time off for appointments or vacations,” he said. “If they don’t take time off and put in an additional 24 hours, they get a trip for two to Mexico or Las Vegas.”
There’s also a cash option of $1,500 instead of a trip. Or, employees can bank the first busy season reward, add a second year of not taking off time during the critical months, and then go to Hawaii for five nights.
“This year, we’re only sending two people to Hawaii, but we had a lot of people go to Mexico,” McGhee said, adding that roughly three-quarters of the company’s technicians usually end up qualifying for the reward trip. “We’ve probably sent close to 20 people and their significant others to Hawaii since we started this program.”
At Western Heating & Air Conditioning, Youd noted incentives can help to keep employees going. He said Western has offered everything from gift cards to extra vacation days, adding, “Everybody’s got a different personality, so you’ve got to find out what drives different techs.”
Throughout the year, he said, employees can earn points for things like good reviews and cash them in at the end of the year for prizes like a TV or date night. Plus, Youd said company owner Ryan Snow has been known to give people paid days off if he’s seen them working “a whole bunch of hours.”
Fruits of the Labor
Of course, when it comes down to it, the busy season must be recognized as an integral part of an HVAC business.
Todd said her husband, Don, refers to busy season as “berry-pickin’ season.”
“When it is berry-pickin’ season, everyone works whatever hours it takes to get the job done,” she said. “They all know this going in — it’s the nature of the beast. It is a temporary period of time, and they get very fat paychecks. They understand that’s how it is.”
SIDEBAR: It Might Be Busy Season If…
How can you tell when it’s busy season for an HVAC contractor? Here are some responses that might make you smile — and nod your head in agreement.
“When all eight phones lines in our office are lit up at the same time all day long.” —Kathie Todd, Central Oregon Heating & Cooling.
“When our service managers and owners start running service calls.” —Brad McGhee, LBA Air Conditioning, Heating & Plumbing Inc.
“When my children ask me who I am.” —Derek Youd, Western Heating & Air Conditioning.
Publication date: 3/23/2015