Attendees at the Big Mix group included (from far left) Mike Donley, Donley Service Center; Greg Leisgang, Jonie Heating and Cooling; Ray Huber, Jonie Heating and Cooling; Larry Bost, Tempo Mechanical Services; and Tim Cropp, Cropp Metcalfe.

PHOENIX, AZ — Every year or two, members of the Big Mix Group try to get together in person to talk about a number of issues. This year, all the members made it to the Big Mix Fall 2000 Meeting, which was hosted here by Donley Service Center.

The group currently consists of four contracting firms located around the country and is not limited to principals only; indeed, three of the four participating contractors brought multiple members of their staffs.

The group is selective about who it admits as members. First, the group carefully considers potential members to make sure they live up to the group’s set of guidelines. Then they take a ballot vote before an invitation is extended.

Steve Saunders, the exuberant ceo of Tempo Mechanical Services Inc., Carrollton, TX, a suburb of Dallas, is the informal leader of the group. He remarks that the group used to be much larger, but consolidation has “decimated” this Mix group, as well as others around the country. That’s because consolidators typically don’t like to share their information with other contractors — which is what the group is all about.

Lots To Talk About

For a three-day meeting, the agenda was ambitious. The group discussed best practices, how to build and retain service agreement customers, how to test, evaluate, and promote technicians and installers, and how to deliver on promises to the homeowner. And that was just the first day.

The second day focused on the types of challenges these contractors are facing, how to generate sales leads, how to define a technician (sales vs. comfort consultant), an extensive discussion of flat-rate systems, and how to turn sales into referrals. The group also spent a lot of time talking about task descriptions, defining exactly what the technicians are doing in the field.

The final day was devoted to critiquing Donley Service Center — giving the company feedback on where its strengths are and how it can improve.

Not Enough Techs

Like every other contractor around the country, the main challenge that came up was how to attract and retain qualified technicians. Tim Cropp, Cropp-Metcalfe, Fairfax, VA, says one of the biggest problems is the industry itself isn’t doing enough to attract technicians.

“We need more participation from manufacturers — or from ACCA or ARI. Contractors don’t have the funds or the means to make it happen at a local level,” says Cropp. Other participants agreed, noting that it would be great if the manufacturers donated equipment to traditional shop classes at high schools in order to raise the profile of the industry.

Mike Donley, vice president and general manager, Donley Service Center, Phoenix, says he’d like to see more high schools recognize the industry as a viable way for non-college-bound students to make a living. “It’s a cultural problem,” says Donley. “Guidance counselors are telling kids they must go to college, because being an hvac technician or a plumber isn’t acceptable.”

As other participants noted, however, high schools often aren’t looking at anything other than college for students, because they’re rated on how many students go on to college. “We’ve worked with high schools, looking for kids,” says Mike Breiner, Jonle Heating and Cooling, Cincinnati, OH. “But the counselors aren’t looking for us. They’ve pushed us out.”

Catherine Cotter Smith, vice president and operations manager, Tempo Mechanical Services Inc., says that in the North Texas area, the local ACCA chapter has teamed with the Federal Highway Department and others to let kids know about all the different types of jobs available in construction. “They bring kids out to a construction site, let them drive a bulldozer, tell them about hvac, and let them know that good wages are available. I’d like to see the organizations do things like this more often.”

But looking for technicians can also get you down, says Greg Leisgang, president, Jonle Heating and Cooling. “You wrestle with some despairing thoughts. But I know it’s happening in every service sector. We’ve had huge labor increases in the last three years, yet the pickings remain slim, and we have to continue to raise prices.”

Saunders says that while he recognizes that it is a challenge to attract qualified technicians, he also sees it as an opportunity to become a better company. “We need to have better jobs for the technicians,” he says. “We also need to love our technicians — and you can’t fake love. If we love our technicians, then it won’t be a big deal to find them and keep them.”

Improving Customer Base

Another issue is to improve the customer base. Saunders says that plenty of people will pay for high-end service, yet contractors often focus on the customers who don’t want to pay. “We’re controlled by the law of the minimalist. We forget that 80% of our customers are loyal and faithful and will pay our prices.”

What it comes down to, says Saunders, is that if a contractor pays technicians well, treats technicians well, and gives them the best jobs, then a contractor won’t have any problem attracting people. In fact, it’s a big competitive advantage for a company like his, which prides itself on treating everyone like family.

Part of becoming a better company also means being aware that technicians have personal lives. Their needs have to be accommodated by reducing the number of hours a technician works, as well as minimizing on-call times.

Carl Bartoli, service manager, Donley Service Center, notes, “In the off-peak times our technicians work four 10-hour days. The guys love it. In addition, they’re only on call once every 16 weeks.”

Mike Donley sums it up best when he says, “Our employees are our most important customers, and we treat them that way.”

Security Joins Hvac Monitoring

One participant at the meeting shared an interesting way his company is working to increase revenue. Tim Cropp, sales manager, Cropp-Metcalfe, Fairfax, VA, says the company has started a security system division. “It’s a great added value, it adds revenue, and it’s something our competitors can’t offer.”

Part of offering the security system involves residential hvac monitoring. In essence, a customer is wired for a regular security system, which notifies a third-party call center about burglaries, fire, and problems with the customer’s heating and cooling system. For hvac system concerns, the call center calls Cropp-Metcalfe, which follows up with the customer to inform them about a potential problem.

The company puts in the system at no charge for existing customers who sign at least a two-year maintenance agreement. Cropp says the two-year agreement is necessary to recoup the initial $200 it costs his company to install the system. He believes that when more wireless products are available, his raw costs will go down even further.

As soon as the company has 3,200 customers sign up for this service, the plans are to bring the call center in-house. And it seems as if the company is well on its way to that goal. “Customers want to pay for it, so we’re cross-training our technicians in security and hvac systems,” says Cropp.

Technology Wish List

Contractors at this Big Mix meeting have a definite technological wish list. First on the list: They’d like to be able to outfit their technicians with reliable remote computers and printers. That way, technicians in the field could produce professional-looking invoices that contain more information for the customer.

That would be vastly preferable to technicians trying to write out (hopefully legibly) every single task performed on the jobsite. Instead, a technician could input a code from a predefined task list, and the invoice would automatically print out all the tasks performed for the customer to see. For example, instead of an invoice stating that it took 3 hrs to change out a compressor, the invoice would list all the steps involved, including the parts replaced and the recovery of refrigerant.

Participants hope this might help the customer see more value in the job that the technician is performing. In addition, the invoice would be logged electronically, which would help office staff see exactly what’s going on in the field.

The second item on the wish list is to be able to give technicians a history of the customer’s system while in the field. Saunders notes, “When you go to a doctor, he has a file on you. But when we arrive at a customer’s home, we’re starting from the beginning every single time, even though this person might have been a customer for 10 years.”

Through the use of electronic invoicing and getting the history in the field, Saunders believes technicians could be more productive, which he sees as a win-win for everyone involved.

Publication date: 11/27/2000