[Editor's note: Consultant Al Levi helps HVAC and plumbing contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." Here, Levi shares with readers ofThe NEWSsome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. This column is meant to serve as 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.]

Make Them Sign For It

Dear Al,
I lend out tools and materials and they come back damaged ... if they come back at all. For example, uniforms come back ripped and filthy, or they never get returned when someone leaves. There are times when I'll ask where a certain tool is or why someone isn't wearing the logo clothing I provided. The answer I typically get is "I never got it," and this drives me crazy. This is only the tip of this frustrating iceberg.

Any suggestions?

- Handout

Dear Handout,
It's impossible to keep track in your head of all the things that you and others at the company will provide to your employees over any period of time. That's why it has to be in writing and it has to go in their employee file.

Right now, your people are receiving items like tools and materials, but they don't attach any value to them. This is because everything they get they don't have to sign for. Also, they don't know the consequences if they damage or lose something. That's why you need to begin the habit of having them sign for everything they get or they borrow.

Also, you must attach a dollar value to the item, so that if and when it gets damaged or lost, they'll know it's their responsibility.

Do this and end "I never got it" and the never-ending replacement of costly equipment and resources. I guarantee your employees will "get it" this way. The discipline of paperwork, signing and giving it a value, is powerful medicine.

- Al Levi

Contractors often have to deal with many employee problems.

Retaining New Hires

Dear Al,
I make what I think is a good hire of a qualified person, and after they've been here only a short time, they either never come back or they say they're leaving. It's upsetting and I don't understand why it seems to happen so often. I tend to leave them alone once they arrive so it's not that I'm bugging them. What's driving them away?

- Chasing Them Away

Dear Chasing Them Away,
New hires are like customers who may experience "buyer's remorse." Once they've committed to come to work for you, it's natural to doubt their decision and, if they were any good, their old employer may be trying to woo them back.

That's why you have to work extra hard to address the new hire's "buyer's remorse." How you treat a new employee for the first two weeks to a month really makes a big difference. That's why I recommend a structured, written indoctrination procedure manual that details what training they'll receive and how they'll be spending those first 14 to 30 days with your company.

You've also got to make the extra effort to make them feel at home by introducing them to each and every employee. You need to meet with them regularly at the beginning to find out how it's going and to assure them they made the right decision coming to work for you. You need to remind them that you're offering a career and advancement, not just a job. Give a lot of training, which will show them you're willing to invest in them and want them to be successful.

A little effort on your part will have your new employees stick around longer and be more productive sooner.

- Al Levi

Testing Potential Technicians

Dear Al,
I run an ad in the newspaper to attract and hire new technicians. I ask for only experienced people and many times, when they show up for the interview, they talk like they know what they're doing. But once they get out in the field, it's often amazing how much they don't know. Is there a way to find out sooner?

- Knowing Too Late

Dear Knowing Too Late,
Without a written test and a practical test, there is no way to quickly identify whether the potential candidate you're looking to hire really knows the trade. And, you can't know if they're sloppy or neat.

Let's face it, there are plenty of techs who have been around long enough to learn the language of our trade and can bluff their way through an interview. But, give them a real problem to diagnose and watch them stumble. Wouldn't you like to know that before they set foot in your customer's home or business?

That's why at my shop we created a very comprehensive written test that must be completed in a specified time period. Doing a test within a time limit shows me how they'll react to pressure and whether they have reading skills (something we can no longer take for granted). But we didn't stop there. We took it one more very important step further. A new applicant must go to our training center with our service manager and show us they can fix the multiple problems we've rigged up. Now, there is no question as to what type of skills they really have. We also find out if they're neat or sloppy.

It's great to see those who know what they're doing dig right in and show off their skills. It's also great to find out those who are clueless before they're on your payroll. For those of you who don't have a designated training center, you can use your own office heating and cooling equipment to test them the same way.

- Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes in private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs for contractors. Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. For more information, visit www.appleseedbusiness.com. Levi's column runs regularly in the online Extra Edition section of The NEWS. To send him your question, which if selected will run anonymously, send an e-mail to info@appleseedbusiness.com or fax him at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 12/19/2005