LAS VEGAS, NV — In Ruth King’s estimation, a contractor must have people, customer relations, and financial skills in order to run a successful service department.

“These are the three things you really, really need to focus on,” said King to a room full of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) members, who were attending the association’s 2001 annual conference, held at the Rio Casino Resort here recently.

King, the “implementor of neat ideas” for the American Contractors Exchange (a network of independent hvac and plumbing contractors), gave more than a few pointers in her presentation, “Seven Critical Activities Service Managers Must Do to Run a Profitable Service Department.”

“In your situation, if you have absolutely wonderful people, you can train them to do anything,” she said. “If they have the right attitude and some mechanical ability, you can be sure that you can train people to do what you need them to do — from a customer service perspective and from a technical perspective — so they can take care of the customer. It is your job to take care of the customer promptly.”

People Skills Paramount

Under the heading of “people skills,” King discussed three rules to abide by.

RULE 1: Understand how you work best and work on weak behavior areas.

In this segment, King gave a detailed look at four personality behavioral types: dominant, influencing, steady, and cautious/careful. She noted that each contractor should not only identify the personality of his employees, but himself, too.

In a nutshell, “dominants” want authority, challenge, prestige, freedom, varied activities, and have a bottom-line approach. “Influencing” personalities, on the other hand, want social recognition, are popular people to talk to, and provide a favorable, friendly environment. “Steady” personalities want security, time to adjust, and “clearly defined goals, roles, or procedures and their place in the overall plan.” “Cautious/careful” personalities want planned changes, personal attention, and “take time to prepare their case.”

Knowing these personality traits, a contractor can help improve productivity, King explained. For instance, she cautioned not to place two dominant-type personalities together or a dominant person with an influencing personality. (“They mix like oil and water,” she said.) Instead, King said a dominant style is more compatible with a steady personality.

RULE 2: Have a career path for your field employees and work the career path.

“If you do not want to have discussions about salary increases or raises, the only way you can get around that is to determine a career path for them so they know what is expected in each one of the career levels,” said King. “They need to know what is required to move on and to advance.”

In a career path description, King advised to include title, wage range, experience required for the position, tools required for the position, length of time required in this position, and requirements for advancement.

“Everybody says there is a technician shortage and I agree. But if you take real good care of your guys, and you let them know what is expected of them, you will be better off,” said King. “One of my favorite sayings is: ‘You don’t have to be nice. You have to be fair.’”

RULE 3: Commit to regular communications with employees in your department.

“Tell them what’s going on,” said King. “It’s important. You can’t be unfair to them, either. You have to let them know what’s going on, good or bad.”

Customer Is No. 1

Under the category “customer relations skills,” King pointed out two specific rules.

RULE 4: Treat your dispatcher with respect.

“They [dispatchers] have the toughest job in the company,” she said. “No. 1: Listen to them. Your dispatcher knows what’s going on.”

She warned contractors not to allow technicians to go behind the dispatcher’s back, and she encouraged them to back up their respective dispatcher. She joked that technicians and two-year-olds are alike in that they need to be watched and disciplined.

“That’s why when you are looking for a dispatcher, put the ad under ‘daycare,’” she said, in all seriousness. “I promise you will get good applicants.”

RULE 5: Resolve all customer issues within 24 hours or give the customer a schedule for its resolution within 24 hours.

King noted that bad news “gets worse if you don’t do something about it.” She encouraged contractors to listen to angry customers, repeat back what they said, and ask how they would like to resolve the situation.

“Giving money back isn’t always the right solution,” she said, noting that the best solution is to tie the customer to the company, if possible.

Taking Care of Business

Under the heading “financial skills,” King concluded with two more rules.

RULE 6: Control inventory.

“The worst thing I see most contractors do is their lack of control of inventory,” she said. “And I mean that. Inventory is a debt. How you control inventory is critical.”

Among her suggestions, King said there should be accurate truck inventory and that technicians should be responsible for lost inventory. She noted that one contractor she helped had recorded that he had $500,000 worth of inventory. Yet, when they re-examined what he had, only $250,000 was accounted for.

“That’s a lot of money that went out the door,” she said. “You can lose $250,000 of inventory if you do not track it.”

RULE 7: Read and understand an income statement.

“A financial statement is your scorecard,” she said. “It is the only way you can keep track of what’s going on in your company. A financial statement lets you spot minor problems before they become a major crisis. A financial statement let’s you know where you stand.”

Publication date: 03/26/2001