Good communication between the contractor and the customer is an integral part of providing optimal service. If customers don't properly communicate their needs, or if contractors don't understand customers' needs, there's definitely a problem.

It can be hard enough to communicate problems or needs if both parties involved speak the same language. It's even more difficult for that communication to take place if the parties speak different languages. Contractors are bound to encounter language barriers at some point. What happens then?

To find out how contractors handle this situation, we contacted members of Quality Service Contractors (QSC), a self-supporting business unit of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling-Contractors - National Association. Most agreed that having a bilingual person on staff is a benefit, although most say it's not a necessity - yet.

Chinese-Canadian Population

Ashton Mechanical Ltd., Vancouver, offers many different services, including smaller-size new construction, commercial and residential retrofits and renovations, residential and commercial service - basically all forms of plumbing, HVAC, and drain cleaning work.

"In the greater Vancouver area that we service, our customers are largely English speaking, but we have a very large proportion of Chinese residents," said Patricia Allen, the Ashton Mechanical's general manager. "For example, the city I live in has a 40-percent Chinese population."

At present, none of Ashton's 13 technicians speaks any language other than English, but Allen said the company has employed bilingual technicians in the past. One Chinese-speaking technician worked for the company four years before deciding to branch out on his own. "I would like to have someone on staff again based on the proportion of the local population that is only partially open to us at present," said Allen.

Ashton Mechanical usually gets at least one call a week that involves a customer who does not speak English well. Using a little English, as well as drawing pictures, pointing at things, or gesturing usually allows the technicians to figure out what the problem may be. If there is a bigger communication issue, customers may have to resort to calling someone who can act as an interpreter.

"I believe that having a technician who speaks Chinese would be an asset," said Allen. "While it's not a problem having no one from our firm speak it - somehow we always muddle through - I believe it would open up a broader market for us."

She noted that it may be difficult to attract such a person, because of the "extreme shortage of skilled tradesmen in the area."

Spanish-Speaking Phoenicians

Marlin Services is a full-service HVAC and plumbing company in Phoenix, which has a large Hispanic community. Two of the company's 10 service technicians speak Spanish fluently, but General Manager Dave Styes said that fluency is rarely needed.

"We have quite a few instances where we have Spanish-speaking customers call us, but typically they have someone on their end who speaks English. It's not unusual to have a child doing the translation. We don't necessarily have to have a Spanish-speaking technician go on any particular job."

If questions need to be answered while the technician is there, Styes said most of the time the customer has a friend or relative handy who can speak English. He added that while there's never been an instance in which a technician couldn't communicate with a customer, Spanish-speaking customers may be going to companies with Spanish-sounding names.

"One of our competitors is a company with a Spanish surname in it. I suspect that the people who are non-English speaking and don't have ready access to a translator probably look for someone that they recognize can speak their language."

Having employees speak Spanish isn't crucial for Styes, although he said that it could make a difference in the hiring process. "If it was a choice between two equally qualified people, and one of them spoke Spanish and one didn't, I would probably hire the one who spoke Spanish. It would be a deciding factor, but it wouldn't be the deciding factor."

Hearing-Impaired Customers

Speaking a different language is one issue, but what happens when the customer is deaf? No one knows how to handle this better than Bob McHone, owner of Crown Plumbing Co. in Frederick, Md. The family-owned company, which specializes in residential repairs and remodeling, is located near a large deaf community.

About once a month, McHone fields a call from an intermediary who is calling on behalf of a deaf person. "The person who calls us can read what the deaf person is typing," said McHone. "These calls generally take about five times longer than a regular call, so when they identify themselves as translators, I figure I'll be on the phone for quite a while."

McHone added that it's sometimes difficult to remember that he's not talking to the translator but to someone else. "When I'm done with my thought I have to remember to say ‘go ahead' and then the translator sends my message to the client. I also have to talk slower so the translator can type everything. And I can't say something like ‘did you get that' to the translator, or else the translator will keep typing whatever I say to the client."

Out in the field, service technicians use paper and pencil to communicate with deaf customers. Sometimes the hearing-impaired homeowner can read lips, which reduces the need for written communication. In these cases, it is critical for the technicians to remember to face the customer for maximum visibility. They also should enunciate carefully and try not to cover their mouths, according to the national organization Self Help for the Hard of Hearing (S.H.H.H.).

Technology has definitely helped the hearing-impaired community, which is something technicians have to keep in mind when visiting these homes. For example, flashing lights are common in a deaf household. "I thought the light had a loose connection, but it turns out it was wired to the doorbell and the phone. The light would flash so the deaf person was aware someone was at the door or calling on the phone," said McHone.

No one at Crown knows sign language, but McHone would definitely consider training one of his employees to learn it.

Reaching out to those who can't communicate in the traditional fashion is a great way to differentiate one business from the next. A positive service experience can result in numerous referrals.

Publication date: 03/29/2004