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Building a Service Department

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As the Service Manager for Walton and Company, I handle the preventative maintenance (PM) sales, overseeing 100 individuals in our team. Walton is celebrated its 30th anniversary this April with our 240 employees in construction and engineering, along with service.

Currently we do 450 service PM contracts per year – over $6.2 million. There are multiple different types of clients. Large single company facilities, schools, hospitals, and even large tenant shopping centers.

We’re strictly a commercial and industrial HVAC provider. We do places like Harley-Davidson, Armstrong Floors, Glatfelter Paper Company, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and Becton Dickinson. We also work with building owners that have multiple properties they both own and manage.

Half a Century in the Business

I started out working for a company that my father was the sales manager for. At the age of 12 I assisted adult techs with working on refrigeration and ice machines. After high school graduation I went to University of Maryland during the night while I worked full time during the day. Upon graduation I chose to move on to join the union and develop better skills. I then went to work as a Regional HVAC manager at Wendy’s International for 8 years. All in all I have 50 years in the business. Over time I’ve learned a lot about how to build and maintain a first-class service department as well as develop the same sales skills my father was known for.

When I started at Walton in 1990 I was the first tech hired. Twelve years ago, I attended the ACCA Service Managers Forum. At that point I had 22 technicians working for me.  A marketing person from Trane did a presentation there and told us how to develop a team or grow a team in a way that you can oversee it and maintain it. And from that point our team grew from 22 people to 100 people, which includes the technicians, dispatchers and support staff.  The average tenure for the service staff is 13 and a half years, so we don’t get a lot of turnover.

Promotion from Within

The key to building a service department is to find the right base people, the right leadership people, and then promote from within your group. Promoting from within creates loyalty. Loyalty is important, because the longer a person is with you, the more invested they are in your company, the more likely they are to stay with your company. You always want to promote from within first. Never hire from outside – as far as leadership is concerned.

Our service department is fashioned on a military configuration. It works like an army platoon, which is a group of soldiers overseen by a platoon leader or a sergeant. Over the years we started out building a team with myself as a leader and multiple persons were working with me, somewhat what the military is like.

And as the department grew we built another team and then another team and we would basically assign someone to lead that team that started out originally in the first team. So, the leadership skills and the teamwork skills had already been given to the people in my team and as that team grew we moved the person from there to developing another team

A Winning Formula

Our company is well known, so we have a lot of people come to us simply because they want to be part of a winning team. We’re like the Yankees, winning championships year after year and that’s who we strive to be. We have better growth, better vehicles, better training and equipment. We tend to attract people who want to be part of that winning formula.

One advantage of a larger company is our response time; our ability to respond to our customers is quicker than with a small company. We guarantee four hours or less.  We also work with a primary and secondary technician. Every customer has one or two technicians that they work with that they’re very familiar with.

Walton has a 99% retain rate for our contracts. One reason is that we keep the lines of communication open. We meet with the customers often. I have a tendency to have a conversation verbally with most of my larger ones multiple times per year. In some cases, with our larger customers we have a breakfast meeting or orientation where we talk about what’s wrong, what’s working well, what things we can do to make it better.

We try to provide the best quality. Our company has been built on the fact that we warranty all our work – a year for parts and labor and materials, which is big.  It’s all quality. I basically under promise and over deliver. I give you more than what you’re looking for.

Making Things Right

And if you take nothing else from this article, here is the number one; always be truthful to your customers. Never lie to them no matter what.  If you make a mistake, always tell the customer. Be honest about it and they will understand and appreciate it.

Bill Vervaeke
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