Editor’s note:In the conclusion of a two-part series on callbacks, contractors share their solutions for reducing the percentage of callbacks.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict when equipment that is properly installed and functioning perfectly might prove defective, so many contractors admit there isn’t much you can do to prevent callbacks due to equipment failure. Human error, however, is another matter. Technical training and customer relations skills are areas where HVACR contractors can help minimize the number of callbacks to maintain the expected level of profitability in the service and installation departments.

In an informal poll conducted on The News Web site, 47 percent of respondents cited some type of human error as a primary reason for callbacks. Survey participants pointed to a lack of training, the failure to follow established procedures, and simply being in too much of a hurry as common reasons for errors.

These same respondents were quick to offer advice on how to prevent service errors, or at least keep them to a minimum.

Many of them emphasized the importance of ongoing training.

“We train our techs over 200 hours a year on technical, sales, customer relations, and procedures,” responded Patrick Clark of Anchorage, Alaska. “Two years ago, we ran 4 to 5 percent in warranty calls. Our goal is to get it to below 1-1/2 percent.”

John Greiner of Dixon, Calif., emphasized the need for specialized training. “Offer electrical troubleshooting courses and spend more time on diagnostics,” he suggested.

One HVACR distributor outlined the training options he supplies for his contractor customers. “We run an annual school for our product (PowerFlame burners), and we offer night classes on other products with hands-on and bookwork alike,” said Jeff Krawic of East Hartford, Conn. “We do not charge for most of the classes. We want the service techs to be comfortable with our lines and also to be efficient at troubleshooting.”

“We lowered the amount of calls that we expect our service men to perform on a daily basis,” said a participant named John from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “We also increased training in our individual technicians’ weak areas. We have already seen some good results and hope to get better.”

Part of training is emphasizing the importance of following company procedures to the letter when installing a system. “Most callbacks can be avoided with proper setup of the system,” said a respondent named Bud from Waukesha, Wis. “I see too many companies install and run without checking the system. For example, simple things like reading the gas meter can make all the difference.”

Sometimes “human error” means a problem with a customer. Several respondents emphasized the importance of making sure the customer understands that the problem was solved and how to operate the equipment properly.

“Educate the customer about how their system will be different now that we’ve been there,” suggested Steve Bergerson of Menahga, Minn.

Keith Fagnan of Calgary, Alberta, echoed that sentiment, stating, “We always try to educate the customer on what they can expect after we are finished.”

John R. Ethier of Middleboro, Mass., has occasional problems with oil tank installations, and many of these can be traced to uninformed customers. “Explain to the customer to shut off the system before oil is added and to wait one hour before turning [the system] back on,” he advised. “This gives time for the oil to settle.”

Communication, Incentives

Communication shouldn’t end when the technician leaves the customer’s house, survey respondents noted. Several contractors emphasized the importance of discussing callback problems within the company. “Talk about callbacks,” urged Adam Sater of Bloomington, Ind. “Make people aware of what we are having callbacks on. Make sure the person knows about it and that you are counting on them.”

“We have a Corrective Action Team, including techs and the service manager, who analyze causes and come up with solutions,” stated Scott Robinson of Ashtabula, Ohio.

A Pennsylvania contractor asserted that tracking callbacks is crucial. “Measure it. When you measure a problem, you can find the source of the problem and work with the techs one on one on their weak areas.”

Other respondents pointed to the importance of establishing a system that rewards technicians who do the job right the first time.

“We use a payroll bonus system with a certain callback ratio tied to it,” said Bruce Kintz of Sarasota, Fla.

“Our people are performance pay [based], which means they go back on their own time on a callback or are charged at the repairing tech’s rate of pay,” said Vicki Nicholas of Baytown, Texas. “It makes them look harder before they leave a job.”

Several respondents referred to the fine line between getting the job done quickly and taking the time to ensure that the job is done right.

“Since I have started charging a separate fee for diagnosis only, I find myself taking more time to dig past the obvious malfunction,” stated Steve Wiggins of Waco, Texas. “In our business, one problem often leads to another, and if time is not taken to resolve the root cause, then a callback is likely to be in the very near future.”

Cameron’s Callback Tips

“Callbacks could be reduced if the following items were implemented,” said Drew Cameron, owner and president of Super-nova Selling Systems, Kennett Square, Pa. He outlined the following 10 tips for minimizing callbacks:

1. Use callback forms for internal discreet communication and conduct coaching sessions so that the service paperwork honestly reflects the problem but does not make the company look bad in the eyes of the customer. (Samples of Cameron’s service and installation callback forms are available online on The News’ Extra Edition page. See “Callback Forms You Can Use.”)

2. Set up regular service supervisor ride-alongs with techs.

3. Require ride-along training for all newly hired techs, regardless of experience.

4. Create service teams with team leaders who can act as mentors and periodically conduct ride-along evaluations and random job visits.

5. Use on-the-spot communication (such as cell phones or Nextel’s Direct Connect feature) when techs have questions or get in a jam.

6. Conduct weekly tech meetings with a brief training topic and review of frequently occurring problems and callbacks.

7. Offer expanded training offerings twice a month from 4 to 7 p.m., with dinner provided.

8. Circulate service bulletins, technical articles, trade publications, and new product bulletins.

9. Set up training on new products before they are rolled out.

10. Supervise cross-training of techs in order to expand skill base of the company.

Cameron has developed a form for service managers and installation managers to assess individual technician’s skill sets and track skill set progression.

Rohr’s Callback Strategy

Ellen Rohr, president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, Rogersville, Mo., said, “We track the number of callbacks because tracking provides the statistic. However, it doesn’t tell you why this person has more callbacks than the shop average. Many managers try to coach off of the number of callbacks statistic alone. Big mistake! The only way to know is to go. Get out there and ride along with your techs. Then, you’ll be able to determine if the callback problem is a technical issue or a communications issue. You can train, coach, or discipline appropriately.”

She said that her company’s callback strategy is implemented in their “Sales and Service Steps.” She emphasizes the importance of a “show and tell” strategy to assure the customer that the job has been successfully completed.

According to Rohr, the proper steps include:

  • Leave your area “white glove clean.” Remove all your trash from their property. Ask permission to take the replaced, discarded parts.

  • Go over your work with the customer, making sure you accomplished what was needed and wanted, to the customer’s satisfaction. (This is a callback prevention moment! This ensures that customer knows what happened, that the repair is indeed what the customer had in mind, and that it works.)

  • Collect the completion signature and payment.

    “You can have hash marks for the number of callbacks a technician has, but you can’t manage from those statistics. You have to ride along,” she said. “That way you can find out if it is a technical issue or a communication issue.

    “Nothing used to drive me crazier when a customer would call and say, ‘I think it is fixed, but I’m not really sure, and the serviceman has left.’ That was a communication issue. That’s why the ‘show and tell’ step is important.”

    Publication date: 04/21/2003