Home. What do you think of when you see the word? Visions of Mom's fresh-baked Swanson's chicken pot pie? Dad snoozing on the couch in front of the TV while the Cleveland Browns are stinking it up again? Maybe you think of comfort and security, or a place on the beach?

A home is usually the largest investment a person ever makes. It has an abundance of attached emotion because so much takes place there.

The residential HVAC selling proposition is extremely rare because it almost always takes place in your customers' homes. Your customers' homes become your office.

Think about it - you wouldn't request the salesman at the local Dodge dealership to come to your home to sell you a car.

However, every day, homeowners invite someone from your company to come into their homes, either for sales or service. Not to get overly dramatic, but it's kind of a privilege to be invited into someone's home for the express purpose of providing them with a product or service.

HVAC contractors should take special care with that privilege and make sure that every employee understands and respects the importance of this unique opportunity to provide excellent customer service.

In a retail setting, the customer chooses to go to a store, browse the aisles, entertain suggestions from salespeople, and purchase an item, or even go to another store. They have additional options available that are inherent in a retail setting, but not so in their own home.

For example, a customer can choose to brush off a boorish or overexuberant salesperson with bad breath, and move onto someone else with whom they'd prefer to talk. Can't do that in the home. The customer is stuck with whomever your company sends, and most people are too nice to abruptly kick you out of their home even if they don't like you.

A retail store customer who is treated rudely by a clerk may choose to leave immediately and go to a different store. A service technician who tracks mud across a clean floor, might get yelled at by a homeowner who has no heat, but likely will be allowed to complete the job. (Of course, you can expect not to be called back for the next service call, and the irate owner will likely tell seven friends about the negative experience.)

Does It Work When You're Not Watching?

The point is everyone in your company who comes in contact with a customer has to totally buy in to the concept of customer service. The ramifications of poor service are just too great.

It's not enough that the owner or general manager of the company truly believe in respecting the customer; this is a concept that must be internalized by every member of the team. And, if it's worth doing, it's worth measuring.

Global positioning satellite (GPS) technology has become popular in HVAC businesses. (See the story "GPS: Living Up To Its Popularity" in this issue.) Even though it's sometimes initially frowned upon by a few employees, the benefits have proven to outweigh any perceived problems. GPS is one measurement for your company's hard numbers.

What about the soft side? Perhaps you should "mystery shop" those people in your organization who routinely have contact with customers. Restaurants do it all the time. A mystery shopper shows up, eats for free, and grades the level and quality of service.

Atlas-Butler Heating & Cooling of Columbus, Ohio, mystery shops its service technicians once each year. It's not a sting, but a training operation. Every tech knows in advance that they'll be mystery shopped, they just don't know when. Select customers provide management with feedback that is later shared with the employees.

Another training program Atlas-Butler has initiated uses three miniature cameras located in and around a mystery home. Afterwards, the service manager and technician review a videotape of the call.

Russ Puckett, vice president and general manager of residential services, said, "The purpose isn't to get anyone in trouble. However, we've found that our level of customer service has been greatly enhanced, and the techs tell us they enjoy learning how to improve their presentations."

Atlas-Butler has perfected a unique customer service training program to ensure compliance with customer expectations. Residential customers have a right to demand excellent service in their own homes. It might be the nicest office you'll ever have. You don't want to lose it.

Mike Murphy is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-244-2905 (fax), or mikemurphy@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 12/20/2004