“Callback” is a dreaded word. Webster’s New Word College Dictionary defines it in two ways:

1. An additional audition as for a theatrical role; and

2. A return telephone call.

There isn’t a third definition listed, but HVACR contractors know what it means, and they would rather not hear the word uttered around their shops too often.

Callbacks — return service calls to correct work on a job that had already been completed — are a fact of life for any service trade. Reasons for callbacks vary from a poor installation or repair to a faulty part to customer error. Sometimes the call is from an overly concerned customer, and there is no mechanical problem at all. Whatever the reason, contractors have their own ways of dealing with callbacks. The News asked its Contractor Consultants what they do to minimize callbacks in order to make their operations run smoothly and profitably.

Here are the questions we posed:

  • Does your company have a regular callback program? Do you track the percentage of callbacks and break them down according to cause (equipment failure, installation error, etc.)?

  • Do you make callback information available to your installers and technicians, and, if so, do you reward the ones with the fewest callbacks?

  • How would you rate manufacturers’ return policies for defective parts?

  • Can you provide any advice on how to reduce callbacks?

    Callback Programs

    Dave Dombrowski (Metro Services/ARS-ServiceMaster, Raleigh, N.C.) said, “We firmly believe that an effective callback program is critical to the basic success of each business.

    “We were not pleased when we performed our initial (and honest) data gathering concerning callback failures, and we discovered in some areas that we had true callbacks at a rate in excess of 25 percent. This meant that we not only had the additional expense of returning to the home, but we also lost the opportunity to produce new revenue during this time — and we inconvenienced the customer.”

    Dombrowski said there are two simple ways to minimize callbacks:

    “First, one of the most common is a strong follow-up inspection program. This is not the best, since it is costly, inconvenient, and does not address the real issues.

    “This can be illustrated with the following example: For every 1,000 customers at a 25 percent rate, we have 250 defects. If we hire an inspector, he may reasonably be expected to catch 80 percent of the problems, meaning that we still have 50 defects. If we hire a second inspector with the same 80 percent rate, we still have 10 defects and unhappy customers after we have inspected the system twice — not cost effective.

    “Second, the best method — and what we utilize — is to train them right the first time and keep training them every week. Spot-check the job to be certain they are following the training, but fix the problem before it occurs.”

    Larry Taylor (Air Rite Air Conditioning Co., Fort Worth, Texas) said his company has several callback tracking programs. “Our Shafer’s software system allows us to flag the service call as a callback, need more training code, and some others. If we flag the call, it will then give us a report on the number of callbacks per tech and the customer the callback was on. We then use that information for additional training and education.

    “We also have the men set up on performance pay, and the hours spent on a callback are deducted from their incentives. This has raised their awareness and made the number of callbacks go down. We feel you have to make the callbacks a little painful for the tech or the behavior or lack of understanding and caring will not improve.

    “We also consider a callback to be something that was or would have been under the control of the person doing the work. In other words, labor-related only, because they missed it or just didn’t care. If it is a faulty part or material problem, then we call that ‘service warranty’ or ‘installation warranty.’”

    Tom Lawson (Advanced Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Bossier City, La.) said his callback program is not as formal as others he’s heard of, but it’s still very effective. “We do have a callback program in place, but we do not generate a report of those callbacks.

    “Our program is set so that if a callback occurs, we monitor what takes place with the callback and inform the tech of any corrective measures that should be taken to avoid future callbacks. We do not, per se, have a reward system in place for the fewest callbacks, except that good techs make great money and poor techs make little money or eventually look for other jobs.”

    Hank Bloom (Environmental Conditioning Systems, Mentor, Ohio) has an easy-to-understand plan. “Our callback policy is very simple. If there are more than two calls on the same problem, one of our field supervisors meets the same tech back at the job.

    “At that time we determine if it is equipment or technically related. We then solve the issue. This has worked very well for all parties. We do not feel that rewards for no callbacks should be given, although we do monitor callbacks per tech to try to get them more training in their weak areas.”

    Sharing Information

    Russ Donnici (Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif.) said he communicates on a regular basis with his technicians. “We discuss all callbacks and/or equipment-related problems in our weekly service meeting to keep the techs up to date. We don’t single out the individual involved; we just discuss the issue.

    “We also work hard at matching the technician’s skill level to the type of service call. For instance, if it’s a clean room controls problem, we would send someone with that background and not a lower level technician.”

    Jim Hussey (Marina Mechanical, San Leandro, Calif.) said it is important to share callback information with technicians and not to overburden them. “The service manager reviews any service tags with nonbillable labor. The service manager talks with the technician as to why the callback happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening in the future. There are no rewards given to technicians based on callback ratios.”

    He shared this piece of advice: “Try not to overload the technician by saddling him with too many calls. In addition, don’t burn them out by working too many hours. A tired technician not only makes mistakes they would not normally make, but they also are more likely to get injured than a well-rested technician.”

    Ann Kahn (Kahn Mechanical, Dallas) said she is still trying to come up with the best way to utilize callback information and finalize a program for her technicians. “This is an issue we have been struggling with recently, and I look forward to hearing how other companies address it.

    “Technicians and installers definitely know when the customer calls back for one reason or another, and I believe most of them realize that there are costs involved in making the same call more than once. I just haven’t found the right way to present this information to my techs.

    “Since we don’t make an issue of presenting the information, there is no reward for the fewest callbacks. We have been revising our employee evaluation process, however, and having fewer callbacks (or doing it right the first time) will definitely factor into the evaluations.”

    Todd Morgan (Comprehensive Energy Services Inc., Altamonte Springs, Fla.) believes in sharing information. “We post all callbacks on a board in our service area and review them with all techs present to determine the cause of the callback and what we can do to prevent a similar callback from occurring in the future.

    “We view this as a learning experience. It also helps us stay focused on quality. We review the number and type of callbacks with the service technician during his annual performance appraisal.”

    Returning Defective Parts

    When the problem is due to a defective part, the contractors we spoke with had no complaints when it came to manufacturers’ return policies.

    Charlie Klapperich (Western Building Services Inc./Comfort Systems USA, Denver, Colo.) asserted that his company’s affiliation with a national consolidator is a definite advantage when it comes to return policies.

    “We do have a good return policy with most of our vendors,” he said. “Our participation in national purchasing programs through Comfort Systems USA also assists us in obtaining more favorable policies with regard to returning items.”

    Scott Getzschman (Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal/Service Experts, Fremont, Neb.) also has a relationship with a national consolidator. “In regards to warranty parts, we handle that over DaveNet, which is a very clean and efficient program,” he said.

    “The secret to a good warranty return policy with the manufacturers is a good paper trail, beginning with start-up reports that have model and serial numbers, dates and operating information,” said Hussey.

    “When failures do occur, note the model and serial number along with the information on the component that failed. Order the replacement part from the manufacturer representative and return the failed part right away along with the properly filled out return forms. Use purchase orders even if the part is sent at no cost; this will allow you to track the item. The final and most important step is to track the return and make sure you receive and apply the credit.”

    “We have not had a problem with manufacturers or local suppliers on returning defective parts,” said Taylor. “They know it happens, and, depending on your relationship with them, they do a good job.

    “We do minimize our suppliers in order to keep our purchase volume up with them, which gets us good service, access to free training, and after-hours parts access if needed without an open-up fee.”

    Reducing Callbacks

    It sounds simple, but these contractors emphasized that the best way to cope with callbacks is to prevent them in the first place by doing the job right.

    “The largest element in the reduction of callbacks is the kind of emphasis that is put on the original call,” said Klapperich. He noted that if the technician’s goal is to get in and get out of client’s premises as soon as possible, then the number of callbacks is bound to increase.

    “If the mechanic realizes and fully believes that the culture of the company is to do the job right, it is easier for them to get it done right the first time,” he said. “They know they will end up back at the premises to fix it if it was not done right in the first place. I believe that inevitability promotes the correct thought process.”

    Donnici was also straight to the point: “The only way I know of to reduce callbacks is training, training, and more training.”

    How Do You Handle Callbacks?
    To participate in this month’s online survey, please visit The News home page and click on the survey “How Do You Handle Callbacks?”

    Publication date: 03/24/2003