In this tight labor market, there are few experienced and successful service managers around and even fewer that are available.

This may be the greatest dilemma of our labor force. There are many examples of service operations exceeding all expectations. In every case, a significant contributing factor was the leadership and management that the service manager brought to the organization.

Most service managers seem to come from the ranks. A recent survey asked some pointed questions about the reasons for hiring or promoting a person into the service manager position. A significant number of the responses were either “most senior technician” or “best technician.”

There is nothing wrong, on the surface, with promoting from within. It certainly is an excellent motivator. Indeed, every service organization probably has within it a person who has the makings of a good service manager. The question is whether the correct person is the one who has been there the longest or has the best technical skills.

In order to evaluate this, you must look at the service manager’s job description and his/her true functions. There are two separate areas to evaluate. First in importance are the employee’s intrinsic abilities and second are skills.

The Intrinsic Abilities of a Service Manager

Certainly you want an indication of leadership ability. Some aspects of leadership can be taught, but it is much better if the person starts with the potential to be a leader. Look for a person who others turn to for guidance, not with the technical but with the “soft” issues.

Often, an important intrinsic ability that really can’t be taught is the ability to think logically in the abstract. Many people can think logically when standing in front of a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. How many can think logically when faced with 40 service calls to be done today and 15 technicians spread around town?

This type of reasoning ability is integral to the job.

Other intrinsic abilities you will want to consider include integrity, stability, honesty, and ambition.

Hiring or promoting a person for his inherent strengths in these intrinsic areas is the first big step toward finding a great service manager.

Next, Look At Skills

By definition, skills are something that can be taught. Ideally, we would like to find a service manager with enough of the key skills to be immediately productive and add value to the service organization, but don’t let the lack of a skill or two keep you from considering an otherwise good potential service manager.

The best way to determine the skills that your service manager requires is to examine what you want the service manager to accomplish. Start by defining what you want your service organization to accomplish in clearly written goals.

Two common goals are, “We want our service department to grow by X% per year,” and, “We want our service department to generate X% of operating profit.” Let’s begin with these two and see what they tells us about the skills we want the service manager to have.

  • It would seem that one of the skills would be the ability to read and understand financial statements. If your service manager doesn’t possess this skill, how can he know when he is achieving the company’s second goal, generating operating profit? How can he evaluate what to change to in order achieve either goal?
  • Another skill that would seem important is the ability to communicate well in person or in writing. If we want the service operation to grow, that probably means the service manager is going to be spending some of his time in contact with customers. Your service manager must be able to communicate well with the customers in order to obtain their business.
  • Another skill that might logically be expected is the ability to estimate costs for repair and replacement work. This is a greatly misunderstood and frequently undervalued skill.
  • Few service organizations are large enough to have dedicated estimators, yet the ability to provide timely and accurate estimates is a major key to success. How well the service manager candidate understands the costs involved and how accurately he can estimate the labor time for the work involved is a often a significant required skill.

    There are several more skills we could identify, but these few illustrate the point. How do they relate to any technician you have on your staff? They probably don’t relate well at all. In fairness, they shouldn’t really relate to a technician, because the skill sets he needs to be a good technician are different.

    This is really the heart of the matter. If you want to find someone that has the potential to be a great service manager, start by looking for the person who has the right intrinsic abilities to be a service manager. Then, look further to find the person who can develop the real skills needed to be a service manager.

    Sometimes this person can be found in your current ranks. Sometimes the person will come from a related industry; and, not infrequently, the person will come from somewhere totally unrelated to your business.

    ‘Tech Guru’ Not Needed

    Don’t lose sight of the fact that your service manager does not necessarily have to be the “technical guru” for your organization. Those are really two separate job descriptions and experience has shown that when the service manager is not expected to be the technical expert, three things happen.1.The people who really are the technical experts step up to the plate. They often appreciate the opportunity to show that they are good at their jobs and to share their knowledge.

    2. The service manager feels freed of a responsibility that he didn’t feel up to, so a load is lifted from his shoulders.

    3. As the technicians begin to understand this philosophy, they appreciate both the service manager and the technical experts more. They also see a diverging career path and two separate opportunities where before there was only one.


    Now that you have found your potential “great service manager,” how do you go about fulfilling the potential?

  • You and the service manager should each do an objective assessment.
  • Identify the total list of skills required, and jointly evaluate his current level. Many of the needed skills can be easily acquired in local schools or specialized seminars. A few may require more in-depth training, but even these are not normally difficult to obtain.

  • The service manager needs interaction with peers.
  • A variety of associations and affiliations can provide a service manager access to a peer group. He needs to be able to talk with others in similar positions and see their level of development in order to have a benchmark for himself. Additionally, if history is any example, he will acquire far more knowledge and information that adds profit to the company than any cost expended.

  • The developing service manager needs a mentor.
  • Mentoring is a time-tested, proven method of developing employees’ potential. Most successful people credit a mentor with helping them reach their current level. A mentor needs to be someone who has already been down the same paths and fought the same battles. Much of the value of a mentor is the guidance offered from already having experienced the same circumstance.

    Mentors are not always easy to find. Many times a service department, especially one that is part of a larger construction company, doesn’t have anyone who has already been down the service development path. Sometimes, however, a mentor can be found in the ranks of the association or affiliation peer groups, but unless the two companies are in different geographical areas, a conflict can develop.

    If the National Association of Service Managers has an active local chapter, your service manager may find someone in this organization who can become his mentor. Another potential source is the Service Corps of Retired Executives. A word of caution: You definitely want to find a mentor with real-world service management experience. There are also consultants that provide a formal structured mentoring service.

    Summing Up

    Find the right person. Identify his strengths and weaknesses. Create a plan to bolster his strengths and eliminate his weaknesses. Get him associating with peers to have a level of comparison.

    Lastly, find him a mentor, someone who can listen to his ideas and guide him down the correct path, encourage him when he is down, and celebrate with him when he wins, providing insight into the market, the profession, and the job.

    If you do these things, you really increase your odds of developing a great service manager.

    McKitrick is an independent consultant to the hvacr industry. He can be reached at 281-480-9791; (e-mail); (website)

    Publication date: 01/15/2001