Ruth King
Everyone knows that you have to take care of your customers. However, many business owners forget that they have two kinds of customers, internal and external customers. Internal customers are all of the employees who work with you (and realize that I said “with” rather than “for”). External customers are those who physically write checks to you for the products and services you provide to them. I will discuss the similarities and differences between internal and external customer relations.

HVAC and plumbing contractors’ major complaint is “I can’t find good help.” It’s true that there is a shortage of qualified help in our industry. However, I can tell you that there are companies who have people wanting to work for them, technicians dropping off resumes in hope of a job opening, and a stable work force. These companies are also generally busy, even in mild weather when their competitors are waiting for the telephone to ring.

Keeping internal customers isn’t rocket science, but it does take work and attention. It is simply setting the standards, enforcing the standards, creating a career path, following through on the career path, listening to the wants and needs of your internal customers, and doing what you promised.

Keeping external customers is what most business owners focus on. Like internal customers, external customers want to feel needed and appreciated. They want you to communicate with them. They expect that you will show up on time, that your technicians and installers will be courteous, that you’ll fix the problem right the first time, and that you will be neat.

All of us have had times where the technician entering the home was not as skilled as he could be and didn’t fix the problem completely. The customer calls up and raves about the technician and says that the system still isn’t working and could you send someone out? The technician took care of the customer.

There are other cases where you’ve sent your best technician out, he fixed a difficult problem, got the system running right, and the customer hated him. You may or may not hear from that customer again.

Fixing the system is only part of the job. Communicating with the customer like the customer wants to be communicated with is the second part of the job. Some like to talk, some don’t. Your technicians of today have to be good at fixing things and be good at customer relations.

Is your company a good place to work? What do your employees say about work away from the job? Do they brag about it to their friends or is their spouse or significant other always telling them that they need to look for another job? What is your turnover ratio? Has someone said that they are quitting for $0.50 per hour more? If this is the case, money is the excuse, not the real reason that they are leaving.

You, as an owner, have to be good at running a business and be good at internal customer relations.

Find out the answers to the questions I posed above. They should give you some food for thought. Next I’ll cover internal customer relations in detail.

Internal Customers

It is just as important to keep your internal customers as your external customers. Employee turnover is expensive. Some estimates are that it costs three times a person’s salary to replace him or her. It isn’t just the salary replacement. It’s the time spent by other employees doing that person’s job until you find a replacement, the time spent by you finding the replacement that you could use doing other things (like selling), and the training time necessary to bring the new person “up to speed.”

Let’s take care of the negative first. I’ll admit, sometimes the fit isn’t there. The personality doesn’t fit in your culture, the person can’t do what he said that he could do, or doesn’t have the right work ethic. These are some of the major reasons why a person doesn’t belong in your organization. If you’ve spoken to the person about it, and changes aren’t being made, then it is in the best interest of the rest of the people in your company to use your career readjustment policy (i.e., fire the person). If the person is a drain on resources, the employees know it. You have to do something about it or morale will suffer.

Let’s look at the positive. You have a great group of dedicated employees who work hard and produce the profits for you. They enjoy their work (OK, Murphy’s Law does come into play every once in a while) and the working environment is pleasant. Obviously you want to keep it this way. The first thing to do is to make sure that everyone knows the overall goals and mission of the company. We think, well, that’s obvious. However, they may not know what the goals are; better yet, let them help set the goals. If they have an interest in setting the goals, they will work harder to achieve them.

Ask the questions, “What would you like to see the company do this year? What have we done well this year? What could have been improved?”

Have them write the answers to these questions — and give them time to think about the answers. Don’t force them to write their names on them. Some people are not as forthcoming with their opinions as others are.

In one company, the president hosts a breakfast for the entire company, which he breaks into small groups. It takes about a month to get everyone to breakfast. The groups are mixed in terms of job function (i.e., one installer, one technician, one office person — and no boss of any of the people in the group is invited to the discussion). They answer the types of questions I posed in the paragraph above. Results of the breakfasts are posted and everyone knows what the goals are for the coming year.

The second major area is to let your employees know that you appreciate their work. This can be done in many ways: notes in paychecks, notes sent home to wives and significant others, a “thank you” as you are passing someone in the hall, a visit to the jobsite when you don’t want anything other than to say you appreciate their hard work, lunch or dinner when someone reaches a goal that they set, an afternoon off to take care of a pressing issue, etc.

Finally, it is critically important to listen to your employees. They are on the front line. They have the best idea of what is happening out in the field or in the office. So, when issues arise, ask for input. If you trust them, and they know that by telling the truth they won’t get in trouble, then you can get to the bottom of the situation and resolve the issues.

Create an environment where people like coming to work and brag about it. As some of the owners and managers of companies I work with have said, they have people who want a job with their company because of their reputation. They are always getting resumes from potential employees. Their problem is finding the right combination of work ethic and work skill. And that is the tough part.

When you start getting unsolicited resumes frequently from people who want to work at your company, you know that you are on the right track. You can be choosy and make sure that the fit is right so that you keep your internal customers happy.

External Customers

Whether we like it or not, your customers don’t think about your company all of the time. The only time they consciously think of your company is when something breaks. They want to know where to go when the unexpected happens and their homes and offices are too hot or too cold. However, when something goes wrong, if you’ve taken care of your customers properly, your company’s name should pop into their heads. For residential customers, they may look in the Yellow Pages for the telephone number or just as easily through the white pages. They might have a sticker on the cover of their Yellow Pages.

Better yet, they should have a magnet on their refrigerator, potholders, and a sticker on their equipment with your company’s name and telephone number on it. Then they can stay out of the Yellow Pages altogether.

Commercial customers should have Rolodex cards, magnets for their file cabinets, apothecary jars, coasters, flashlights, etc., with your company’s name and telephone number on them. Calendars work for both residential and commercial customers.

To build up awareness so your name does pop into their heads takes time … sometimes years. First, contact them when you don’t want something. This can be done through newsletters, brochures, reminder postcards, and the Internet.

Second, when they do call make sure that all of your technicians do the right things the first time. Every impression counts. Customers are fickle. Even if someone has been a customer for 10 years, you can’t take him or her for granted. Your employees and you still have to greet the customer properly and take care of his or her needs right the first time. I’ve seen too many times where someone has been a customer for a long time and starts looking for another company simply because they sense “something’s changed” and they aren’t being taken care of like they were in the past. Will you ever know it? Probably not until you realize that you haven’t heard from that customer in years. By that time it’s too late.

Follow-up is critical. This means that you call your customers after service calls and after jobs have been installed. Comment cards that they return are great. However, if someone doesn’t return the card, a telephone call should be made. Why didn’t the customer return the card? Was it because they were upset? Or was it simply because they don’t like returning cards?

I’ve had contractors tell me that if someone is upset they’ll call to complain. If the technician did something really bad or the equipment broke again, they probably will call. But what about the rest of the customers who really aren’t satisfied but aren’t unsatisfied enough to call you?

These are the customers who will start looking at trucks in the area, start looking in the Yellow Pages or listening to ads on the radio to find another company — and they’re out there.

In most areas of the country there is so much competition that the unsatisfied customer will find another company to try next time. And if that company goes out of its way to handle the customer right, you’ve lost a customer that you spent years and hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars cultivating.

Remember, it’s important to take care of your internal and your external customers. Without your external customers, you don’t get a paycheck. Without your internal customers providing the service to external customers properly, you can’t get a paycheck.

King is director of For more information, contact her at 800-511-6844 or, or visit

Publication date: 04/07/2003