2018 Best Contractors to Work For: Incentives, Education Build HVAC Careers in a Collaborative Environment
“It was kind of dreary here today, so it seemed like a good idea to get out and have some fun with our customers,” said Trapper Barnes, owner of Infinity Texas Air in Forney, Texas.
What kind of fun? That morning, he instigated an impromptu contest. Upon getting to the office, all the techs were handed Santa hats and told to collect as many selfies with customers as they could. The prize: a $25 gift card and some holiday cheer distributed. Some other week, techs might compete to see who can earn the most online customer reviews.
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Barnes said that as far as fun goes, he wants everyone feeling good about work when they come in the door. Everyone knows that’s not always easy for an HVAC field technician, especially when cooling problems demand attention in the dead of a Dallas summer, so every once in a while, Barnes schedules a cookout.
Except these aren’t “swing by when you can if you’re getting off shift” sorts of cookouts. The office will block off a chunk of time on the appointment schedule, and they will forward all of the phones to the company’s answering service. The grill fires up, and the whole team can enjoy a break. For one get-together last summer, Barnes rented a snow cone truck to add to the mix.
TECHS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN: Barnes said that as far as fun goes, he wants everyone feeling good about work when they come in the door.
TRAINING TWO WAYS
Santa hats and snow cones aside, Infinity Texas Air didn’t win the South’s regional award for something called the Most Fun Contractor To Work For; it’s the Best Contractor To Work For. More goes into that — commitment to achieve good results, a sense of community and service to the community, and other benefits and factors. In this case, one distinctive part of the workplace is the training lab.
“A lot of times, we’d find ourselves taking an unused piece of equipment that matched up with a customer’s current problem, and we’d talk about the wiring diagrams, and the tech would tell us about the problem,” recalled Greg Springer.
Springer’s business card says “comfort specialist,” but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When asked for a better description, he broke down what he’s in charge of: coordinating training, handling the warranties, tracking down repair parts, and dealing with distributors, while still holding down a spot on the on-call rotation. But back to the lab.
“So Trapper and I said, it’d be great if we had a couple of powered systems set up, with a list of topics that seem to be recurring,” Springer said.
The formal result is a still-improving setup.
“We have furnaces, air conditioners, and heat pumps,” Springer added. “Some are pretty basic, and some are high-efficiency with converters on the condensers.”
With this in place, they occasionally hold focused 30- to 45-minute classes, catering to busy schedules without straining attention spans. The lab has proven to be a good venue for training up new techs so they can build some experience outside of a customer’s house. Thermostats, programming, refrigeration principles, and setting up and charging units are all on the menu. They can also throw faults into the system to emulate what techs see out in the field.
Barnes described more informal benefits. One is the ability to focus on potential and core values that align with the company when hiring techs, knowing that the training lab can contribute to getting them up to speed on the technical side. It also provides a place to amplify the voice of experience.
“Say our senior tech runs into a couple of problems over and over on a unit,” Barnes said. “He can teach the other techs — this is what I’m seeing, this is what I did and why. We encourage all our techs to step up and teach each other periodically.”
“Trade schools tend to teach them, ‘The last thing you should do is call your service manager’ [and demonstrate a weakness or lack of knowledge], but we try to get that out of their heads,’ he said. “We encourage them to pick up the phone and call. We think that helps with retention and comraderie. Nobody feels like they’re on an island by themselves.”
This is probably the right moment to mention that employees can work out more than HVAC problems at the company’s office. Barnes was putting together his own home gym a while back when he thought about some unused space up above the training lab in their building.
“I thought, ‘Man, why don’t we put a gym in?’ And now we have a treadmill, elliptical, weights, all kinds of cool stuff,” he said. “You’ll see guys come in early, or if they’re close by, and get a little workout in. They really enjoy it.”
The gym may be optional at the 12-person, eight-tech company, but communications training isn’t.
Office Manager Tiffany Benjamin said that every Monday morning, the techs come in so the group can spend an hour online with a Service Excellence representative. It especially helps the guys in earlier stages, she said; the group will do some role playing, so newer techs can see what kinds of questions the customers may ask.
Springer picked up the thread later, telling The NEWS that they’ve been doing these Skype calls for over two years.
“We focus on identifying different personalities of our clients and customers and how to best communicate with them,” he said. “Because we’ve been with this trainer for so long, we know him well.”
In fact, that relationship is good enough that once or twice a year, the trainer will come to the area and ride along with techs and evaluate how they’re doing. Springer mentioned that the training can also get some of the techs more focused on some of the products the company offers that might typically get overlooked.
While Infinity Texas Air encourages an environment where suggestions and insight can come from anywhere in the organization, this commitment to training is one thing that started at the top. When Barnes worked for other contractors, he never really saw them spend money and invest in the techs. Then, when he was at Comfort Advisor, he saw the benefit and didn’t wait until he could hire a professional trainer.
“Until we could invest in outside training, I did the training,” Barnes recalled. “We wanted to be different. Everyone’s ‘Go out, fix it, and leave,’ but we wanted our customers to feel like we had their best interests at heart, whether they bought something or not.”
As one would expect, this level of ongoing training is not cheap by any means.
“It is a deep investment,” Barnes acknowledged. “But I wanted to give our team the tools for them to create the most profitable career they can have, whether that’s [in the form of] self-growth, money in their pocket, pride in the jobs they do. By putting these tools in their hands — techs, installers, office staff — we want them to feel like they are so proud that they own a part of what this company does.
“You’d be surprised how it can help with the tech communicating back to the office, too,” he continued. “Because the worst thing is when a promise is made and then something drops between the tech and the office.”
Barnes mentioned one last thing about the personality identification methods they cover: It starts with the employee’s own personality profile.
“Once they understand who they are, they can understand better who their customer is,” Barnes said.
This translates to better awareness of how much info a particular customer might want, how much detail, etc.
Remember the part about making customers comfortable, that the company has their best interests at heart whether they buy anything or not? Here’s why accomplishing that is especially important for Infinity Texas Air: The employee compensation is weighted wherever possible toward a “performance pay” structure. Barnes said that they have never used a traditional hourly setup, acknowledging mentors and good advice in this area from his relationship with Service Alliance.
For techs at the company, income is always affected by what they sell. However, the techs obviously have more opportunities than others to sell additional products, so it can be harder to integrate incentives for the installers and office staff. Barnes has employed a revenue goal for the whole company, where if they exceed established revenue goals for a certain period, the staff will split 1 percent of the revenue.
If revenue reaches a higher threshold, then that percentage will tick up as well. Barnes reported that the pool could be anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 at the end of the year.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this approach has to do with the installers. Springer came up with the idea for the company’s “Infinity 20/20 Perfect Install” and its associated bonus.
Benjamin, who also works with the company’s accounting, explained the install bonus basics. When an installer completes a job, 1 percent of that revenue is reserved as a bonus that will be paid 6 months later. If there are callbacks or fixes/repairs in the meantime, then those costs come out of the 1 percent. A customer complaint would, of course, trigger a look at the new system, but techs who may be out for unrelated work or specifically for a quality check can log any issues they spot, too.
“We paid out one that was quite a bit of money recently, $500 or $600 apiece,” Barnes said, noting that additional income can be appreciated “especially when you get into our shoulder season.”
After 10 years, business is pretty good at Infinity Texas Air. It seems likely the company won’t stay at its current size. Still, there’s one element they want to keep the same — other than Duke the office dog (seen in cartoon form on the website) and the “Eat, Sleep, SuperTech, Repeat” t-shirts.
“If someone has a family emergency, we just start picking up the phone and picking up each other’s slack,” said Springer. “We’ve seen quite a bit of growth, but that family culture is something we’re proud of, and we’re going to make sure we keep it.”
Benjamin has appreciated that as well.
“I’ve been here right at a year,” she said. “I’d always been in a big corporate world, doing only accounting, so this is a lot of energy and fun around the office.”
She echoed that the family-oriented philosophy is meaningful, and everyone tries to cover if something comes up.
The company works to transmit some of those good vibes out into the community via its Gift of Heat program. Every year, the staff donates their time, and one family receives a new heating and cooling system. Barnes said that while they pick one recipient, they evaluate every household that is brought up “ and if we can help with some tuneup or cleanup and get them up and running, we’ll do that.”
However, at the end of the day (or maybe, at the beginning), it starts with their own lineup.
“Everyone says the customer is most important, but I think it’s the employees,” Barnes said. “We can’t do what we do and complete our mission statement without having some unbelievable teammates.”
Infinity Texas Air
OWNER: Trapper Barnes
LOCATION: Forney, Texas
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 10
BULK OF MARKET: Residential
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 12
TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 8
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 75 or more per year
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: The company pays for all technician training, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), North American Technician Excellence (NATE), manufacturer training, etc. In addition to this, communication training is provided. To avoid burnout, the company offers rotating schedules, on-the-job lunches, breakfasts, rewards, paid time off, Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas party with white elephant gift exchange, etc. Fun competitions between technicians, installers, and office team to see who can exceed their set goals. Infinity Air offers employees an interest-free tool purchase incentive program and has an on-site gym.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Infinity Texas Air partners closely with local distributors to offer an annual ‘Gift of Heat’ to a deserving member of the community and donates to local food banks, animal shelters, and children’s advocacy centers. The company is also a member of multiple chambers of commerce and is very involved with the local high schools.
THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: An emphasis on formal training to enable techs to deal better with both equipment and customers, paired with a supportive team environment, prepare Infinity Texas Air and its employees to go above and beyond.
Publication date: 1/14/2019