Pressure Grows in the Service Department

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two articles about essential skills and knowledge for today’s service departments. This article focuses on the essentials of Communications; Electronic & Computers; and Profitability. Last month, we focused on the essentials of System Design & Installation; Troubleshooting; System Economy; and Double-Checking One’s Work. We would like to thank the professionals who participated in our coverage.

Communications

Communicating effectively with customers and co-workers is more important than ever now, because service departments are expected to generate business and offset lost profits from heating oil sales.

Curtis Reynolds, Service Manager at White Mountain Oil & Propane, in North Conway, N.H., said technicians are the primary connection between the company and the customer, and they need to be comfortable with that responsibility. When a technician succeeds in establishing trust, the customer has an open channel for communications and is likely to feel well served, he said. “I consider the technician like the quarterback for the company. The customer is talking to them, and they are kind of calling the shots and setting up what needs to happen, so that sales and management can do their part,” he said. “I like it when a customers asks for a certain technician, because that means the tech has touched base with them and gained their trust.”

Bruce Marshall, a trainer for Emerson Swan, said technicians are the front line of the company and “pretty much the only person from the oil company that the customer ever sees.” It is very important for technicians to find out the customer’s needs and wants and to help the company translate those into sales, he said.

Scott Vadino, Service Manager at Harriett’s Energy Solutions, in Medford, N.J., said technicians tend to earn the trust of customers. “Usually, their word is gold,” he said. A technician might prefer to be just a repairman or installer, but the company needs to leverage their relationship in order to sell more effectively.

When a technician briefs a customer on an equipment problem, the customer is more willing to talk to the sales team about a replacement, Vadino noted. “That communications leads to a lot of sales. If the technician hasn’t said anything, they are more likely to think we’re just trying to sell them something.” The Harriet’s service team spends time in training sessions practicing customer communications, he said.

Mike Hodge, Regional Service Manager, for Griffith Energy, said it is vital for technicians to have intelligent conversations with customers about how they can save money and improve their comfort. “It’s a cultural change, especially for guys that are experienced in the oil industry,” he said. “As we move into HVAC from oil, the guys that used to just do a tune-up and leave now have to look at the entire system and have a conversation with the homeowner and point out things that could be beneficial for them.” Even when the technician’s recommendation does not lead to an immediate sale, the company still benefits. “We’re planting a seed,” he said. “If the first guy doesn’t sell anything, maybe the second time the homeowner hears it, it will click.”

As the home comfort professionals, the company is obliged to keep the customer informed, Hodge said, “If we don’t have that conversation, we are not doing our job.” The customer doesn’t not have to make a recommended purchase, but the company has to make them aware of any problems in their home, as well as the solutions, he added,

Al Breda, Service Manager at Sippin Energy, in Monroe, Conn., said the technician sets the tone for the company-customer relationship. When a Sippin tech is speaking with a homeowner, Breda wants the tech to imagine his own wife at a car mechanic’s shop and help the customer the way they would want their wife helped. A technician needs to avoid making assumptions and try to explain fully any work they have done and any problems they have found.

When Breda was a tech, he was focused on his mechanical tasks and not on the homeowners. “The human experience was not why I was there,” he said. “If someone had taught me differently, I might have gotten it, but we didn’t do it that way. It was about how many tune-ups you could do in a day.” Times have changed dramatically. “Customers can’t just like us any more; they have to love us,” or the company could lose the account, he said. For technicians, that means providing thorough explanations after making repairs and communicating proactively about safety, reliability and energy efficiency.

Effective communications with customers is only half the battle; techs also need to communicate effectively with other team members, according to Breda. Sippin relies on technicians to report all their findings and recommendations, so that the sales team can follow up promptly. If follow-up is required after a service call, customers expect the company to get to it without delay, he said.

Reynolds said miscommunications within the team can lead to mistakes that alienate the customer. For example, a technician might tell management that a customer is interested in replacing their burner when in fact they are considering a complete furnace replacement. If a salesman followed up on that incorrect information, the customer might perceive that the technician was not listening to them. Reynolds said. “That sets the company up to fail,” he said.

Technicians should also report everything that they learn about the customer’s equipment so that their colleagues do not repeat unnecessary steps on a subsequent service call, according to Emerson Swan’s Marshall.

Breda said cell phones can greatly enhance communications within a service team. For example, a technician on a service call might call a co-worker who had visited the same site earlier to ask for advice or point out a problem with their work. “If it’s done in a constructive manner, it’s only good,” he said.

Electronics & Computers

Electronics and computers are everywhere in home comfort, and service teams need to be comfortable with them. All modern heating and cooling systems incorporate electronic controls, and many service departments are using portable computers for dispatch and communications.

Mike Hodge, of Griffith Energy, told Oil & Energy that new homeowners are technologically savvy and are looking for advanced home comfort electronics, such as thermostats that they can control remotely from a cell phone. He said Griffith is training its technicians to understand Nest and Ecobee thermostats and so that they are in step with customers. “If you’re not up to speed, you’re not going to survive,” he said. “Techs want the training. They’re screaming for the training,” he added.

Vadino said the service team at Harriet’s Energy Solutions jokes that they need to hire a computer repair specialist. Companies that are seeking success in HVAC need to understand home automation technologies well enough to discuss them intelligently with customers and win their confidence, he said. He said new technologies are cycling through the industry rapidly, and companies must train frequently to avoid falling behind.

In the mountains of New Hampshire, there are a lot of second homes, and remote control technologies are very popular, according to Reynolds, of White Mountain Oil & Propane. Customers are requesting Honeywell RedLINK™-enabled thermostats and similar devices that enable them to set the thermostat while en route to their New Hampshire property or monitor conditions while they are away. His team has spent a lot of time training on the devices to improve their familiarity, he said.

Emerson Swan’s Marshall said the widespread use of microprocessors in system controls is forcing service teams to learn electronics.

It’s not just thermostats and controls that require computer literacy; many companies now require technicians to use a computer on the job. Vadino said technicians at Harriet’s recently began carrying tablet computers loaded with company software that enables them to look up a customer’s history and communicate billing information to the office. “We’re counting on them to use it. It’s the wave of the future,” he said.

Dispatch operations have also gone digital at Sippin Energy, according to Breda. “I tell people when I am interviewing them that you can go a week here and not speak to a human being in the office,” he said. “The computer tells you where to go and when.”

White Mountain Oil & Propane also uses electronic dispatching. “We have computers in all the vans. The days of writing things down in hard copy are over. It’s all done electronically,” Reynolds said, and customers notice. “They see that we are keeping up with the times, and that’s important,” he added.

At Sippin, Breda also sees technicians using their smart phones to access information from manufacturers, such as wiring diagrams, YouTube videos and manuals. “There is more information available to these guys quicker and more directly than in the past. It’s a big advantage for a guy who can do that versus a guy of the same rank who is scratching his head and calling the office for help,” he said.

“Today with an iPhone or an Android, you can go on your phone and get schematics, instructions, diagrams, anything you need. You are at a real disadvantage if you can’t do that.”

Profitability

As heating oil gallons have decreased in recent years, the role of the service department has changed dramatically. Instead of merely supporting the profit center of heating oil sales, service departments must become profit centers on their own.

“We used to be there for the oil customers so they would be comfortable with our services and not go anywhere else,” said Breda. Now service departments like Sippin’s are installing and servicing air conditioning, converting homes to gas heat, and installing solar hot water heaters. “We are much more like an HVAC contractor for profit than a subsidized service department. That is the way to go.”

He said service departments have to price for profit now and offer a broad range of services that will be attractive to homeowners. “The mentality of the technician has to be that you are an HVAC contractor and you have a duty to tell people what’s available and let them decide whether they want to purchase these products or not.”

Vadino said the days of under-charging for service contracts are over, because companies can no longer cover losses with oil sales. “People are sensitive to the price. You’ve got to make a profit on service, because you don’t have that luxury.”

“Our new thinking is that this is an HVAC company that also delivers oil,” he added. “You have to make money on service and expand into new areas like plumbing and water conditioning. We want to own the house and take care of whatever needs they have. We don’t want anybody else in there.”

Hodge said Griffith has been emphasizing service department profitability for about 10 years. His technicians are working to familiarize customers with the company’s range of services and improve sales, and he trains them to bill all work properly and not give away parts and services.

Emerson Swan’s Marshall said the pressure to turn a profit from service is great because there is no longer enough margin in oil sales to cover service department losses. Service contracts can be profitable as long as the tune-up is done well and there are no additional service calls. “As soon as you go back on a service call, you’ve lost money,” he said.

As more homeowners choose other fuels, it is imperative for service departments to diversify into gas heat, plumbing, solar and geothermal, according to Marshall. To succeed, they must be willing to spend on technician training. “It’s an investment, like a truck,” he said. “You won’t make money on those technicians on the days when they are training, but you’ll make more money down the road.”

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