After celebrating 10 years in business this year, Paul Sammataro, owner of Samm’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Plano, Texas, knows a thing or two about keeping his customers happy. And, not surprisingly, a lot of it comes from equipping his employees with as much customer service training as they can possibly handle. HVAC contractors, especially those in the residential installation and service market, really have to pay special attention to how their technicians interact with customers. One bad experience could terminate a potential long-term customer-contractor relationship.
“I had a young man here several years ago, and, while he was a very likeable gentleman, I could tell by interviewing him that he was a little bit awkward with communication,” Sammataro recalled. “I truly felt he was young and not used to working with people, and it does take time to develop who you are with the customer or other people. He had the skills, so I gave him a shot.
“We always call customers the day after service was done to see how everything went, and I always personally call when we send a new employee. I had one customer tell me he was great, but he made his wife uncomfortable. He told me his wife was sitting in the living room and he came down from the attic to talk to her. And, while most technicians would stand in the room and talk to her, he sat on the couch next to her. She kind of thought he was a little too comfortable. It’s a situation where you would say, ‘Do you mind if I sit down?’ It’s something we try to train, but, obviously, it didn’t work out in this case, and we had to let him move on.”
Sammataro holds weekly meetings for his employees and asks them what kind of training they think they need to be successful. He has held inner-office training and has even paired up technicians in the field for training purposes, such as how to approach the customer’s home, where to park, and even how to greet customers. “If we’re doing an installation, we ask where they want us to stage it. A lot of times, I’ve driven down a street and there’s stuff all over the yard because somebody’s in there doing a job. Now, the customer might have approved throwing half of the HVAC system and ductwork all over their yard, but, more than likely, most people don’t want their lawn covered in debris while you’re in there for eight hours. This is something I learned from a customer. As a result, we implemented a policy where we talk to customers to find out where they want us to place debris.”
Sammataro isn’t the only contractor who’s experienced a customer service blunder with a technician. Greg McAfee, owner of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning in Kettering, Ohio, said he’ll never forget when he worked for another company, and a customer called to complain, saying his furnace was not working after the company had been there to fix it a week ago. “The technician who did the work called him and asked if he’d paid his gas bill. So, that took care of that.”
McAfee noted that, depending on the season and how many calls a technician runs, they can deal with anywhere from one to 15 different customers a day. “They have to deal with several different personalities each day. When the phone call comes in, the first voice they hear, of course, is going to be that of a customer service representative, but the first live person they’re going to see is a technician. And, things like appearance and truck condition begin the customer service expectation before we even get to the door. If you look out your window and see someone walking up your sidewalk and they don’t look too friendly, you’re less likely to open the door.”
When a technician is dealing with a customer, especially when a technician is called out for a repair visit such as a no-heating or no-cooling situation, nine times out of 10, they’re going to be in a situation of having to deliver bad news, said Angie Downey, customer service manager at McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning. “No one wants to hear that their furnace is going to cost money to fix. It’s not something they plan or prepare for. So, customer service experience is crucial for any service tech because he or she is going to have to deliver that information in a way that is empathetic and where a customer can understand what it is they are trying to tell them is wrong and how they are going to solve the problem.”
HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Many HVAC contractors are beginning to prioritize customer service skills over technical skills during the hiring process. “Customer service ability is probably more important than technical ability,” said Downey. “Technical skills can be taught, and, while elements of customer service can be taught, as well, some people are just better at communicating with people than others.”
McAfee said he sets high customer service expectations during an interview, even role playing at times. “We’ll role play with me as the customer. They will knock on the door and everything. We go through the whole process.”
“One of the things we look for in an interview is how they’re communicating with us, because how they communicate with us is probably how they’ll communicate with our customers,” Downey added. “We pay attention to if they’re making good eye contact with us and what their body language says about them.”
McAfee noted that more HVAC contractors are hiring people out of trade and technical schools over someone with experience because of the shortage of people in the industry. “We’re going to train them on skills anyway, so the most important thing to us is how they’re going to come across to the customer. Are they going to speak well? Are they going to be able to look them in the eye when they talk to them? Do they give a firm handshake? Are they presentable? All of this is very important when we consider if they’re going to represent our company well.”
Wyatt Hepworth, president of Any Hour Electric, Plumbing, Heating & Air in Orem, Utah, is a third-generation owner. His company was earning $150,000 in revenue annually when he took over 22 years ago. This year, he expects to finish at $18.8 million, and he credits his growth to hiring and keeping the right people along with the ongoing training of his employees. Any Hour holds one-hour training sessions twice a week. Every other week, the focus is ‘Good to Great’ customer service training. Additionally, a new employee must complete company training before being allowed in the field unsupervised.
“No matter how experienced a person is, we put them through three weeks of training before running calls,” said Hepworth. “Depending on the technicians’ skill levels, we’ve taken this training as long as two months, but the goal is to hire people that will be trained within three weeks. This consists of ride-alongs with our four designated trainers. We also have set office training for our technicians in our company training room.”
Any Hour teaches communication and listening skills and also how to write up paperwork with real options so it can be understood by the customer. Additionally, after an employee has been with the company for a year, Any Hour sends them to a Nexstar Network Service System training. “We always have an owner with our employees because we want to clarify everything on these out-of-town trips so that our employees can come home with a full understanding of how the training comes together with what they were previously doing in the field,” Hepworth said.
Edward McFarlane, vice president, marketing and development of Haller Enterprises Inc. in Lititz, Pennsylvania, said customer service training is also a weekly focus for his team. Haller Enterprises has 85 employees and is evenly split between commercial and residential work.
“As the industry’s evolved and become more technical, there’s been a definite focus on technical training, and we just assume people know how to act,” McFarlane said. “When we focus specifically on customer service skills, we’re just better.”
Haller Enterprises hosts trainings each week at its six locations, where staff addresses housekeeping and technical questions. Trainers also stress the processes involved in a perfect service call and then coach attendees on how to execute.
“We pick one of our processes, like the arrival process, and its little things, such as don’t walk on the grass, knock on the doorframe, and step back — basic human interaction things,” McFarlane explained. “The call starts the minute they start pulling in to the neighborhood. In their heads, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been here before. This is a such and such neighborhood.’ We need to be intentional, whether it’s upon arrival, during introductions, while asking questions regarding customer expectations, when we run calls, or when finishing a job — all of this revolves on soft skills.”
McFarlane said training for commercial and residential technicians is actually very similar. “It’s mission-based training. We start with the technicians and show them survey results and the processes. Commercial training processes are not the same as they are on the residential side, but they’re very similar — you arrive, set up the day, communicate and review progress with the customer, and ensure the customer is satisfied. Our service technicians are involved in the entire construction of our processes, which is key for us.”
A TRAINABLE SKILL
There has been some debate among contractors as to whether customer service is a skill that can be trained. Dan Friesen, master trainer, Nexstar Network, said it absolutely can be.
“There’s a component of people friendliness that’s helpful, but I think it can be trained,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of people come through with little to no customer service skills go through training with the mindset they want to improve this part of their life and come out very successful on the other side. The results we see are phenomenal. When we do provide training, technicians get extremely positive reviews from customers. They’ll voluntarily go online, find your website or review site, and write really pleasant things about those technicians. That goes a long way in providing job satisfaction for those technicians. They tend to want to stay with the company that provides that sort of thing. It’s good for retention and customers. Customers who trust and like the technicians in their homes agree to have more work done — they’re far more willing to do all the things they’ve been thinking about doing.”
Friesen encouraged contractors to set up a formal system with step-by-step procedures from start to finish. He also suggested ride-alongs with a supervisor or senior technician and short five- to 10-minute, one-on-one weekly meetings with a manager or supervisor to support the training. Nexstar also has a huge amount of online resources that technicians can take advantage of, Friesen added.
Hepworth, who takes advantage of Nexstar’s training, also agrees customer service is trainable. “I used to be a technician, and I’m a very technical guy. Technical people usually take a little bit longer to learn customer service, but we need to show them what’s in it for them. We know technical skills are trainable, but it takes a long time, and it takes a lot of hard work — like five or 10 years — to adequately train someone in our field. Our trade is so complex that we have to continue to learn, year after year.
“Much like technical skills, customer service is trainable, though it might take a year or even five-plus years for people to really get it,” Hepworth continued. “Our people need both skills. If they do a bad job, but offer great customer service, this is unacceptable, and a skilled craftsman with rude customer service habits is going to run off all of our customers. Both are needed to be able to succeed in the new age of HVAC.”
Hepworth said customer service is built on communication, understanding, and respect. Any Hour asks technicians to cover any tattoos, wear a uniform, and shave daily. The company also doesn’t allow goatees or mustaches. “If they aren’t sold on their future with our company enough to do the above, then they are choosing to not be trainable for customer service, and they can work somewhere else. Most of our technicians had facial hair, but they’re willing to shave daily for the opportunity to work and build a career with our company.”
Sammataro said certain people can be trained, but they have to be open to it. “Some people, depending on their personalities, may not be able to develop customer service skills. They have to have that people-friendly personality. One of my weaknesses is that, as an owner, I feel I can always help someone grow into a role that maybe they don’t think is possible. Though, he or she has to be able to be liked and trusted by the customer. So, they can be great people, but if they don’t have a customer-friendly personality, they may have to consider another position.”
Al Kinnecom, senior service technician at Delair Heating & Air Conditioning Service Inc. in Sanford, Florida, agrees that service skills can be taught, but not to everyone.
“Some people just aren’t social. Some are more tech savvy than people savvy, and it’s hard for them to grasp customer service skills due to their internal workings,” Kinnecom said. “Customer service skills are vital in our industry for the same reason they’re important at McDonald’s, Macy’s, or the car lot, you need to be able to not only fix the customer’s problem, but help them to understand what’s going on. The home is a large part of peoples’ lives, and if they don’t feel comfortable with you, they aren’t going to trust you, and that’s not a great way to do business.”
Kinnecom trains technicians for his company and tries to remind them how they should act in front of customers.
“Because of my appearance — I’m 6-foot-6, with long hair, and I typically wear a cowboy hat — I get some strange looks from customers at first, but once I take a couple of minutes with good customer service skills and technical knowledge, they almost always end up requesting me to return for all their work,” he said. “I think an awful lot can be overcome with good people skills, and I recommend our service meetings add focus on them.”
Publication date: 12/28/2015