[Editor's note: Welcome to another installment of "Money Talks." Each month, Terry Nicholson, president of AirTime 500, provides business management information with the aim of helping contractors, as he put it, "make money every day."]

To serve or not to serve? That is the question. Should you run 24-hour service or not? I hear this question all of the time, and often the owners asking it have asked everyone in the world except for the people they should be asking.

In this immortal dilemma, there are three parties you need to be concerned with - your customer, your technicians, and the company.

In the HVAC world, your first impulse should always be toward your customers. Is 24-hour service good for the homeowner? That's the question that most owners neglect.

Ultimately, any elderly homeowner suffering from 100 degree temperatures on a summer day would say that 24-hour service is important. Any mother at home with small kids and a furnace that isn't working on a day when it is below zero would say that it's important. So, I believe that the first thing you should do is put yourself in your customer's shoes and say, "Should I run 24-hour service for them?"

Filling A Need

Look around our society today and you'll find that many other businesses have begun to ask themselves that very question. Even businesses like banks that used to work only on their own terms are nudging in the direction of what their clients want.

Some bank branches are offering more evening hours and most have 24-hour ATM machines available to their clients. So, it's safe to say that when it comes to your clients, 24-hour service is in their best interest.

Even knowing that, many owners are reluctant because they say running 24-hour service will kill their technicians. You hear the argument about the technician having to get up in the middle of the night. You hear about how he has to leave his family or disrupt his weekend. What it comes down to is that 24-hour service does not kill your technicians.

Those excuses are often from individuals who haven't thought about running their business any differently. Just like the one bank that refuses to put in an ATM, that owner won't last long.

Did it ever occur to you that some people work nights? Did it ever occur to you that some people prefer to work weekends because their spouse works weekends?

If you truly search, you would find that some technicians would become very loyal to your company if you let them work full schedules on Saturday and Sunday and have Monday and Tuesday off to spend time with their spouse who is also off on Monday and Tuesday.

But is it good for the company? The No. 1 reason to run 24-hour service is that it's right for your customers. The second reason to run 24-hour service is that some people want to work nights, work weekends, and receive overtime pay. It's a way to give your technicians what it is they truly desire. The No. 3 reason for 24-hour service is that you will make money on 24-hour service.

After all, when a homeowner's system is down and you're one of the only people available to help them, your competition is eliminated. Just for fun, call a few HVAC companies after 6:30 one night. See what percentage answers the phone. You may complain about the competition and the cutthroats cutting prices, but you can eliminate all of them by simply running 24-hour service. You can easily eliminate 80 percent to 90 percent of your competition just by offering service after 6:30.

Is It Profitable?

Beyond the excuses, most owners are opposed to 24-hour service because they don't make any money doing it. They can't afford to pay technicians overtime because they lose money doing it. What we have here is a management problem and a pricing problem, not a labor problem. If you are priced right, you can run profitable 24-hour service even without charging excessive overtime charges. I'm suggesting that you'll be able to keep your normal rates and still run after-hours calls.

The owner who says it can't be done simply hasn't figured out a way to inspire technicians to want to run service. Often, these technicians aren't opposed to 24-hour service. It's their families that don't understand it. Knowing that, you can develop programs that will gain the support of not only your technicians but their families, too.

For instance, one member of our organization rewards his technicians with a poker chip for each service call they run after hours. Those chips can then be turned in for prizes at the end of the year. One of his technicians was able to redeem his chips for nearly $3,000 in Christmas gifts for his family last year. Do you think his family was supportive of him running service calls at all hours? The answer is obvious.

The answer is to become a sophisticated businessperson and figure out a way to run 24-hour service. Gas stations used to not be open at night, but they figured it out. Restaurants have figured it out. Some banks are figuring it out. They all discovered how to stay open and still make a profit. Because they have figured it out, they have built a very loyal base of clients and make money every day.

My challenge to you is to figure it out. The question is no longer "To serve or not to serve?" Now, the question is, "How do I do it?"

Still don't think it's possible? Send me your biggest excuse for why you can't run 24-hour service. Mail it to me, and I'll share with you how other contractors have managed to be there when their clients needed them to be.

Nicholson is president of AirTime 500. For more information on AirTime 500, call 800-505-8885 or visit www.airtime500.com. Nicholson can be reached by e-mail at tnicholson@venvestinc.com.

Publication date: 01/17/2005