Service managers and trainers discuss skills and knowledge that every company needs
By John MacKenna
Serving customers effectively has never been more important for full-service fuel retailers. Customers are better informed than ever and more willing to switch providers. In areas where natural gas is available, they may also be tempted to stop using heating oil or propane altogether. Loyalty is practically non-existent, and companies need to dazzle customers with great service that will make them love the company and choose to stay.
Oil & Energy recently reached out to the National Association of Oil & Energy Service Professionals (OESP) and some trainers to identify the essential skills and knowledge that service teams need to give customers the kind of outstanding service that inspires loyalty and generates referrals.
This month, we feature a discussion of four essential skills: system design, troubleshooting, system economy and checking your work. The coverage continues next month with discussion of more service team essentials.
System Design and Installation
Ralph Adams, Service manager at Parker Fuel Co., in Ellicott City, Md., said he always performs a heat load (or loss) calculation on a new installation, because there is no guarantee that the current system was sized correctly. Even if it was, the load may have changed due to insulation or window replacements.
Air conditioning replacement requires special design attention because today’s high-efficiency equipment does not tolerate incompatible duct sizing, Adams said. “That’s why you see more compressor failures.” The contractor should measure the airflow to be sure the ductwork is moving enough air. “If not, why are you selling them high efficiency equipment? It will never get the efficiency you promised, and you’ve sold them a bill of goods,” Adams said.
Al Breda, Service Manager at Sippin Energy, in Monroe, Conn., said it is company policy to always perform a heat loss calculation when bidding a job. You don’t want to assume a higher load and quote larger equipment,” he said. He said it is crucial for system designers to stay current with new materials, equipment and components, so that they can quote accurately and make bids competitive.
When a company installs oversized equipment, the risk of problems is high, according to Breda. “The customer will not get the optimum comfort they want, and they’ll get larger energy bills.” Their maintenance costs will also be higher, and the system might be noisy. “When they are not comfortable and not happy with the job, that cuts into your profit and erodes your reputation,” he added.
The risks of designing a system poorly are particularly high for heating oil companies, because sloppy work jeopardizes accounts that they cannot afford to lose, given the lack of new heating oil accounts, Breda said. “There is a lot on the line.”
Breda instructs Sippin’s installers to speak up if they think there is a problem with a design. “They are given the authority to question the design. I tell the installer it’s your license on the line.”
Mike Hodge, Regional Service Manager for Griffith Energy, said getting the design right is essential. “With a bad design, it is left for the service department to straighten it out, and you’ve lost money and customer satisfaction.”
Reputable companies that design jobs correctly can find themselves losing jobs to competitors who are willing to take shortcuts to come up with a lower price, he said. “You have to go in and explain that you might have to run returns or adjust the ductwork. It’s a tough sell,” Hodge said.
Bruce Marshall, a trainer for Emerson Swan, said poor system design “will come back to haunt you at the worst possible time, which is in the coldest part of the winter,” because the extreme conditions will expose the system’s flaws, he added. “The customer has expectations, and if the system can’t do more because of the design or the contractor’s failure to understand it, they will go somewhere else, and you’ve lost their business. If you’re a fuel company, you just lost those gallons.”
Curtis Reynolds, Service Manager at White Mountain Oil & Propane, in North Conway, N.H., said customers are more aware of heating and cooling technology than they used to be and more interested in what contractors are proposing to install. “Because of the Internet, they have all the information in front of them now.”
Installing a poorly designed system creates risk for the company, according to Reynolds. “People talk, and your reputation is going to go downhill if you do something that costs them money or that you have to go back and fix. Once your reputation is damaged, it’s a hard thing to build back up.”
John Barba, FloPro Trainer for Taco Inc., said that any system with any degree of sophistication requires a professional design. One potential benefit is that designers can keep material costs low by not oversizing jobs, which helps them bid more competitively. “If you are in a competitive situation and you are matching a price, the materials costs don’t change, so any price adjustment comes out of your profit.”
Poor system design can lead to short cycling and premature repairs that strain the service department and the customer relationship, according to Barba. “Now there are service issues where you are trying to explain why the system isn’t as efficient as it could be or why the fan inducer wore out right after the warranty ended.”
Scott Vadino, Service Manager at Harriett’s Energy Solutions, in Medford, N.J., said effective troubleshooting is essential, because callbacks are very expensive, both in direct costs to the company and in loss of customer confidence. “Customers understand that things happen, but you want to make sure they have confidence in the company and the technician,” he said. “When I first started, we had the same customers year after year, and they didn’t check the prices much. Now they are more educated on pricing and more likely to leave.”
Adams, of Parker Fuel, says good troubleshooting is critical, because customers are counting on their home comfort provider to be the expert. A failure to diagnose correctly on the first try necessitates a second call, which can be upsetting for the customer, especially if they have to take time off from work. “Figuring out what is happening is the most important thing,” he said. “If you didn’t find out what caused the motor to fail, you are setting yourself up for failure. You got it running, but did you fix it?”
He said manufacturers are increasingly asking to see documentation on airflow after a heating or cooling unit fails in a furnace or air conditioner, because they know that technician errors are often the cause of equipment failures. “Nine times out of 10 it is airflow or overcharging,” he added.
Adams’ company recently won a new account from a competitor who failed to troubleshoot a heat pump they had just installed. After three service visits in quick succession, the customer gave up and called Adams, who found the unit “screaming” when he arrived and took out 4.5 pounds of refrigerant. “That is what bad troubleshooting can cost you,” he said. “Do you think that customer will ever call them back?”
Adams insists that all Parker technicians perform both service calls and installations. “If you are a service tech, you’re a better installer because you’re not just going to slap it in any old way. You have to make it service friendly, because you’re going to work on it.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that troubleshooting does not come naturally to everyone. “Some people just don’t have the skill set of being able to follow a chain of events one to the other to see what went wrong.”
Breda, of Sippin Energy, also said that effective troubleshooting is essential to maintain strong customer relationships. “When you have to make multiple visits, that costs money and erodes customer confidence. It can also be an inconvenience if the customer needs to miss work,” he said. “It’s always an abrasive situation when you have to go for the second or third time.”
Sippin strives to develop well-rounded technicians, but it’s a simple fact that some technicians are better troubleshooters than others, according to Breda. When potentially challenging service calls come to dispatch, the company tries to match jobs with technician skills sets when possible.
Angel Gonzalez, Field Service Supervisor for Petro in the Bronx and Queens, calls troubleshooting “the most important aspect of any service department” and says not all technicians are cut out for it. There are 48 technicians in his division at Petro, and the company profiles their skill sets and assigns them to work that matches their skills, whether it is installations, tune-ups or troubleshooting. “Some technicians are very strong in diagnosis, while others are strong in plumbing or installation work,” he said.
“A good troubleshooter understands every aspect of the system. They are sponges for knowledge,” he explained. They also know their own limitations. “A good troubleshooter knows when it’s time to ask questions. We have some technicians who are afraid to ask questions, because they don’t want people to know what they don’t know,” Gonzalez added.
Griffith Energy’s Hodge said the object of troubleshooting is to get it right the first time. “If you go back a second or third time, you’ve lost credibility with the customer, and you’ve lost money.” Good investigative skills are required. “You need to be able to take the blinders off and look at the entire system,” he said, adding that the correct tools are very helpful in system diagnosis. “Without the proper tools, they can’t test it,” he said.
Marshall, the Emerson Swan trainer, said it is no surprise that troubleshooting is difficult, because heating and cooling involves such a broad range of trade skills, including plumbing, electrical and HVAC. “There are so many different skills sets you need to understand in this business,” he said. In addition to all the technical skills, troubleshooters need “soft skills” too. “You need to listen to the homeowner. They live there. Let them talk.”
Troubleshooters also need a knack for getting to the bottom of the problem. “It comes back to understanding the heating system,” Marshall explained. “You have to have an open mind and not go in with any preconceived notions. Understanding the machine will lead you to the problem.”
Reynolds, at White Mountain Oil & Propane, says that on a scale of one to 10, troubleshooting is an 11. “If you just change a fuse and leave, you’ll be back,” he said. “You have to figure out what’s going on.” He believes every technician can be an effective troubleshooter, although some need more training than others. A methodical approach to identifying the problem is very helpful, according to Reynolds.
Barba, the Taco trainer, said a good troubleshooter is like a veterinarian, because he has to diagnose a “patient” with no verbal skills. “It takes a really analytical mind” as well as a natural inquisitiveness.
Helping customer maximize their fuel economy on heating and cooling is a great way to protect the company, according to Parker Fuel’s Adams. Most heating and cooling companies are local businesses, and their reputations spread. People are especially likely to tell neighbors about a bad experience, so it is important to create good customer experiences, such as helping a customer reduce their energy bills.
“If I go in and sell a high-efficiency system and get it working at peak operating condition, they are going to see a nice change in their energy costs. Next thing they’re telling a neighbor how much they saved, and guess who that neighbor is going to call?”
Heating oil companies might believe they sell more oil by letting customers operate their equipment uneconomically, but they wind up selling less because they lose customers, Adams said. “The customer will figure it out,” he said. “What goes around comes around.”
Vadino, of Harriett’s Energy Solutions, said a company can put accounts at risk by letting customers use too much energy. A homeowner might wind up speaking with a plumber who points out energy savings steps that they could take. “Then they wonder why didn’t my regular company do that for me,” he said. “You don’t want to leave any openings.”
Companies need to do everything they can for customers, and they need to be prepared to discuss their energy choices, according to Vadino. A customer might say they heard they could get 95 percent efficiency with a natural gas system, and the company needs to be prepared to discuss the customer’s options. “There is a lot of news about energy savings, and it is a lot more on people’s minds,” he added.
Vadino said it is better to sell a customer less oil if you can maintain their confidence that you are looking out for their best interests. “The customer puts faith in you, and you need to return that.”
Breda, of Sippin Energy, said that helping customers save energy is a necessity. “You need to be at your best to maintain your customer base. Customers used to stay with you if they liked you and the company,” he explained. “Now they have to love the company, or they’ll jump to someone else for a nickel a gallon or some promotion in the mail. You’ve got to get the customers to really love you and buy into the fact that you are the best value. If you provide service, you have to over-perform.”
It has become essential for technicians to report to customers on the performance and efficiency of their equipment, according to Breda. “It’s almost a necessary conversation in most service calls. The technicians did not want to address it, but we have one shot a year to interface with the customer and give them our recommendations. We would be remiss if we did not do it. The technician has information that the customer doesn’t have, and you have to share it. You are giving them options that they probably didn’t even know about. I don’t have techs selling things and quoting prices, but I want them to tell the customer what they’d like to do if it was their house.”
He added, “If you don’t do that, you’re not doing your job. The customer may feel betrayed if he finds out you’ve been doing the tune-up for five years and never mentioned they could save with an indirect water heater. Then it appears that you are a fuel supplier and not an HVAC contractor. That’s not in the culture of this company. We want to sell fuel, but we want to do it for a long time, and this is how we maintain that.”
Improving the customer’s system economy is part of the core value that full-service fuel dealers bring, according to Petro’s Gonzalez. “When you brand yourself and sell to the customer on your reliability and what makes you better than the next guy, that is part of the value. If I sell you equipment, it is supposed to operate efficiently, and you have every right to expect that it will. If we can’t do it, we’ve failed, and today’s customers are not that easily fooled. Many understand what they’re looking for, and they ask the right questions.”
Griffith Energy’s Hodge said he wants all his technicians to discuss energy conservation with customers, not only to meet customers’ needs but also to generate sales leads. “We want our guys to have that conversation. You get customers thinking about it, and that turns into a lead. You have to plant the seed.”
Griffith positions themselves as the customers’ home energy professional and partners with building shell professionals, so that techs can make whole-house recommendations, and all the work goes through Griffith. “If we are not suggesting a certain item to save money or be more comfortable, someone else will tell them. We don’t want that. We are the professionals, and we need to own the home. We can’t be non-informative.”
Marshall, the Emerson Swan trainer, said customers are smarter and more educated than they used to be, and they are looking to their service company to save them money. “For the company that supplies fuel, it’s incumbent on you to sell them less fuel. You have to lower their gallonage. You’re taking money out of your pocket, but it’s better than no gallons.”
Reynolds, of White Mountain Oil & Propane, also said that helping customers cut energy use is good for business. “If we can make customer realize that they have more money at the end of the year because they used us, they will talk, and the company will have a good reputation for serving customers.” He said he has seen energy-efficiency work lead to referrals. “When they hear that you put a system in and the energy costs are only half as much as they were, people want to know what you can do for them.”
Taco’s Barba said the contractor’s reputation is constantly on the line. “Word of mouth is a two-edged sword. A customer who is happy tells two or three people; an unhappy customers tells everybody.”
Checking Your Work
Adams, of Parker Fuel, said techs should always take a few minutes to check everything they did. “You have to have a way of checking yourself before you walk out the door. The customer won’t be happy if they call you back, and chances are you’re not getting paid if you go back. You have one chance to make money. Everything else is a loss.”
Vadino, of Harriett’s Energy, said a tech should always go back to everywhere they worked and look for anything that might be leaking or something they have left behind. “That little inspection saves the technician and the company lots of money,” he said.
Rechecking work is critical, according to Sippin Energy’s Breda. The most common cause of callbacks at Sippin is something Breda calls “incomplete jobs,” which can include leaving a switch or zone valve off or forgetting something else. “When you put in a boiler and it’s working perfectly but the bedroom thermostat was hooked up wrong, you look like a clown. You did your best job, but the little things make you look bad and cost you money, and a portion of the profit is gone. If you don’t do a job completely correctly, that is what the customer will remember. They won’t talk about the shiny straight pipes you installed and how quiet it is. They’ll remember the 86-degree bedroom.”
Petro’s Gonzalez said failing to double-check work sets the company up for trouble. “By not checking, they have set us up for a repeat call where the customer is unhappy, and there are additional costs involved.” Unchecked work can even lead to hazardous conditions, particularly if the tech has bypassed system features while making a diagnosis.
Hodge, of Griffith Energy, noted that a technician doing a tune-up might be taking apart oil lines and oil filters. Failure to check every connection could lead to an oil leak and a claim against the company. He tells technicians to slow down and look at the whole picture.
Reynolds, of White Mountain Oil & Propane, said he tells technicians to always run the system through a cycle while they are still on site, maybe while they are vacuuming or talking to the customer. “Wouldn’t you rather find the fault while you’re still there rather than get the call saying the system still doesn’t work?”
Taco’s Barba said double-checking is necessary because nobody does everything right the first time. “We all make mistakes, but the people who have paid you aren’t always tolerant, and if you have to go back you won’t get paid for that. Either spend 10 to 15 minutes doing a once-
over before you leave, or do a two-hour service call that you won’t get paid for. The widget that you sell is an hour of your time, and you have a limited inventory. When you spend it fixing your mistakes, your ability to make an income can be affected.”