Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe Newssome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Dear Al,

I grew my company to six techs and hired a service manager from another company. We've been battling for months. He acts like I work for him. Finally, he quit today and I'm relieved and afraid.

I know we'll be better off without him in the long run, but I will be overwhelmed by adding his workload to my already overloaded workload.

What should I do?

Occupationally Overloaded

Dear Occupationally Overloaded,

The service manager did you a favor!

There's nothing worse than ongoing fights that become public at a company. It makes coming to work for everyone no fun. Naturally, there will be disagreements about how things need to get done but it can't become open warfare. And at the end of the day, the staff needs to know they work for you.

Also, I don't like when owners don't give their own staff a chance to step up and take on more responsibility. By going outside the company first, you didn't give your loyal techs a chance to fill the role of service manager. If you did, you could have trained them your way. The problem tends to be owners hire in a hurry and don't plan the time to train. Plus, they see techs as techs for life, which is why so many leave. The tech sees no chance to advance.

What I suggest is you create a competition among your techs for 30 days. The techs in the top third in sales, with no write-ups for disciplinary issues like being late or sloppy trucks, and having a callback ratio that's in the bottom third get to be the finalists.

Then, you can create a contest for the finalists that involves both written and real-world testing.

The competition will bring out the best and you'll finally have the service manager that will help your company grow. One of their first jobs will be to help find and develop new techs.

Now, you'll have someone to lighten your load instead of ruining your day.

Al Levi

Dear Al,

My salespeople are lousy at closing jobs. They close only 30 percent of the calls they go on. They say people are only interested in price. But I'm able to sell the jobs when I go out. Why?

Sales Slump

Dear Sales Slump,

I'm guessing the salespeople have a base pay and an incentive to close sales. But, is the base pay for the salespeople so high that the commissions are only of passing interest? That would create no pressure to close sales.

I'm not advocating 100 percent commission because it could lead a person to unethical selling. I'm saying the system needs to give enough money to keep people honest but not enough that they would want to live on it. Also, you need to have your sales goal posted and signed off on.

Most times, poor sales are a result of having a poor or nonexistent selling system. Selling is just like every other process we do at the company and it demands that it be systematic.

Like techs, you need to do ride-alongs to find out why they're not closing sales. You need to hold weekly meetings where you ask them in front of their peers why they didn't close each sales opportunity during the week. Also, make a big deal about the sales they did close so it's not just a "beat up" session. It's a nice opportunity to share their secrets of success with one another.

Most owners tend to close higher than a salesperson because we're the most motivated. Also, customers see the owner as more special than just a salesperson so they tend to reward us with the sale. It would be unfair to hold salespeople to our closing rate, which is typically 70 percent or higher.

A fair closing rate for a salesperson should be 50 to 70 percent.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 05/02/2005