For HVAC contractors, 2020 has been a year of constant changes. Even now, with the future of the pandemic uncertain, contractors need to consistently revisit company policies to ensure they are keeping technicians and customers safe while continuing to grow their companies.
Making Sure Technicians Keep Safe
While technicians are in the field visiting customers, it is not always possible to observe the amount of effort they exert to keep themselves and customers safe.
Amy O'Grady, general manager of Charlie's Tropic Heating & Air in Atlantic Beach, Florida, said that even before COVID-19, managing a manned truck is a challenge when technician behavior can’t be directly observed.
“I learned early in management to always ‘inspect what you expect,’” she said. “So how do we do this from a distance? I start by reviewing the condition of the vehicles. Do they have the safety items in stock and are they in an area that appears to show regular use? From there, it all comes down to regular communication of the expectations.”
She added that managers can also follow up with customers or do spot inspections. She also said that technicians have been telling her company that the homeowners dictate what level of safety they are comfortable with. Customers can always make additional requests to feel safe and comfortable with a technician visiting their home.
The process for training technicians has also changed. O’Grady explained that her office has created a dedicated space for training since technicians can be easily distracted from virtual webinars if they are in a busy environment.
“We also know the mindset of a technician is hands-on,” she said. “So we try to put together as many training boards as possible to keep the interest and attention.
“Don’t forget to recognize the effort that the field is giving,” she added. “They are putting themselves at risk at times by entering a home. Check in on their comfort level and supplies they might prefer. Allow for more time between calls in case they need the break. And find a way to still incorporate team building events in a safe manner.”
She explained that while not able to bring every employee together in a large gathering, her company has been able to intentionally recognize her team’s work in smaller groups, such as bringing smaller amounts of people to sports entertainment facilities.
Hiring-wise, O’Grady said that much of prospecting for applicants was virtual even before COVID-19. Online platforms allow contractors to prequalify candidates before an interview, which can followed with a phone interviews to help screen for communication skills. Video chat interviews or in-person can help ensure a hire is a good fit.
Training and Industry Organizations
Doug Jackson, operations manager at Jackson Comfort Systems in Twinsburg, Ohio, said that in additional to doing virtual training, his company has shifted from group training to doing more one-on-one training sessions.
“With one-on-one, the training is a lot more individualized, and a guy might be more likely to speak up about something he doesn’t understand, rather than being in a group setting and uncomfortable or embarrassed if he doesn’t know something,” Jackson said.
While it is much more time consuming and takes more effort, the training is more effective. Without the ability to hold company-wide meetings, his company has shifted toward virtual meetings to hold the monthly assemblies. This allows the managers to remind employees about the company’s core values.
Like O’Grady, Jackson said that his company’s hiring process hasn’t changed much. They have had an uptick in the amount of second interviews they hold over video, though they still work to meet potential job hires in person before any hiring.
“What has changed is our hiring leads,” he said. “Where we were getting a pretty steady diet of leads from new technicians, it seems like technicians are holding out in their current companies, rather than taking a little bit more risk.” He explained that the leads have only shrank a little (not a huge drop off), and this is likely due to uncertainty surrounding the election, economy, and whether virus cases will spike in the winter.
Jackson explained that the past year has taught him the importance of a company being diverse with their equipment suppliers, as well as being a part of industry organizations.
“Make sure that you have a second or third place to go for equipment should your primary vendor run out,” he said. He said that the largest value came from his company’s membership in Service Nation and ACCA, since he is able to gather business management ideas from other contractors to best handle issues arising from the pandemic.
Maintaining a Company Culture
John Michel, head business coach at Business Development Resources (BDR), explained that training is incredibly vital for contracting companies since so many things are changing with the pandemic. He began by saying that all companies should abide by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regulations.
“With indoor air quality becoming such an important topic, we can greatly protect our customers by training our techs to communication the features and benefits of indoor air quality products,” said Michel. He explained that this sort of training — focusing on the soft skills necessary to communicate with customers around IAQ — can be very valuable during this time. He added that management works to create their company culture by making sure that employees are connected and engaged.
“Leaders should continue to give clear expectations,” he said. “Employees need managers who give and reset their priorities, and keep involving them in reestablishing their goals and their role relative to their company, coworkers, and customers.”
Plus, management must make sure that technicians have the right materials and equipment to minimize the stress of employees and maximize performance. He explained that contractors need to connect technicians with the mission and purpose of their organization.
“People need to see how they fit into the bigger picture, how they’re impacting customers, and that their work really matters,” said Michel. He said that managers reaching out and checking in with their employees is especially important if leadership is not regularly seeing employees in person.