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Staying Sane While Swamped

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When temperatures soar for the first time of the season, hundreds of homeowners will switch on their air conditioners…only to fi nd them inoperable. If your phone lines light up like Christmas in May, how can you handle the influx of calls and still keep your sanity?

By planning in advance, says Dave Hutchins, president and owner, Bay Area Air Conditioning, Incorporated, Crystal River and New Port Richey, Florida. “What really helps is having enough people, particularly technicians, when service demand goes way up. By having service agreements in place and marketing and selling annual maintenance and tune-ups during the off -season, you can maintain more technicians so you don’t go crazy and—more importantly—you don’t have to turn work away.”

Contractors that don’t market and sell maintenance agreements are missing the boat, Hutchins insists. “Yeah, you don’t make a lot of money going out for $59 in December and January in Florida cleaning air conditioners and spending an hour there. But you at least break even, and now you have more technicians than the guy down the street, so you have a great opportunity to gain new customers. We have about 4,700 service agreements with people who have prepaid us. They get a discount on all parts and labor included, and we do their checkups during the off-season.”

He points out that one employee sold 989 service agreements over the phone last year—“enough to keep one man busy all year long.”

Kevin Walsh, president, Schaafsma Heating and Cooling, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is another firm believer in the value of service agreements. “Get as many customers as you can on a maintenance schedule, so you can take care of problems preseason before they develop into an emergency situation,” he says. “A lot of times you find problems that have developed over the winter that the homeowners wouldn’t be aware of until they turned their air conditioners on. If you can head those off, that’s a big item.”

Knowing when to expect a deluge of calls can help you prepare, Walsh continues. “We look to see what weather forecasts are coming up, so we know a few days in advance we’re going to have extreme weather. We make sure the vehicles are fully stocked and our tools are in operating condition. We don’t want downtime due to equipment failure.”

He adds that several of his employees are cross-trained between service and installation, so they can fl oat back and forth when necessary.

Maui Will Motivate

Although Nevada has been relatively slow since the recession, Ron Ford, president/owner, Sierra Air Inc., Sparks, Nevada, remembers when business was booming. During hectic and very long days, he says, you need to concentrate on keeping employees motivated. “We have all kinds of incentive programs where we motivate monetarily or with days off if they want that,” he says.

“Last year, two of our folks went to Maui for a week with their wives. The company took care of that because in addition to their normal jobs, they created a large amount of additional revenue for the company.”

To keep his employees’ skills up to par, Ford periodically hires professionals to conduct soft skills sales training. “We don’t get too aggressive on the sales side. We softly introduce things to customers.”

Ford thinks it’s a mistake for contractors to keep operating business as usual without making adjustments to seasons and changing economic conditions. For example, he has altered working hours, now operating two shift s. “We’ve started staying open on Saturdays,” he says, “sometimes even Sundays if it’s busy. Not a full staff, but enough to where a customer wouldn’t notice the difference if they call in.”

Ford admits he’s not a big fan of answering services because “they’re too impersonal.” That’s one reason why a Sierra Air customer can call for service in the middle of the night and actually reach a technician. “We have a really good digital phone system that immediately sends them through. Their first option is to push one and speak with a technician. Number two is scheduling an emergency appointment. Many times, not always, the technicians will get on the phone and chat with them a little bit, and get them going until the next day. Customers always feel better if they can talk to a technician.”

Tips to Take the Heat Off

ACCA contractors also shared these tips for staying cool under seasonal pressure:

  • Develop a priority policy. Don’t simply let things happen. Control the situation, urges Tom Maddox, president, Maddox Residential and Commercial Services, Tyler, Texas. “From a service perspective, we have a priority list on how we respond to customers. In other words, a commercial customer that is also a preventive maintenance agreement customer takes priority for emergency service over someone we’ve never done business with before. The guidelines help us decide who’s first in line. I can’t say it always works, but it helps.”
  • Join an ACCA MIX group. “I’m in a large, very successful ACCA MIX group,” Ford reports. “I’m always bouncing ideas off guys who are in larger markets than we are on how they handle things. Taking advantage of that MIX group has been one of my keys to success. We all have the same problems, just on a different scale. We meet twice a year and share good practices. It’s like having free consulting.”
  • Schedule maintenance in slow months. Bay Area Air Conditioning doesn’t perform maintenance calls in May, June, July, or August. “We schedule maintenance for another time of the year,” Hutchins says. “We aren’t busy from October through February or in March, so that’s when we want to do all of our maintenance work.”
  • Limit vacations. “If you have two or three weeks of vacation, we ask that you take only one during the busy time and we would appreciate it if it was none,” Hutchins says. “We try to discourage technicians and people who answer phones from taking any vacations during the busy time.” He adds that the vacation policy isn’t ironclad, and he makes exceptions for special occasions, such as family and high school reunions.
  • Consider a Saturday schedule. At Bay Area Air Conditioning, about 20 percent of the office and 20 percent of technicians work on Saturday year-round. Employees are not paid overtime because they get the following Friday off. “Our workweek starts on Saturday,” Hutchins says. “Being open on Saturday helps your company because you’re providing service on Saturday at no extra charge. It’s not overtime, and you’re keeping your calls from building up on Monday morning. Being open on Saturday not only helps alleviate the workload, it also gains you new customers. Saturday is when you’ll get 15 or 20 new customers, because they’re calling their guy and can’t get anyone to call them back. It’s not a bad tradeoff .”
  • Keep growing. Once they reach a certain size, some HVAC contractors are afraid to keep growing, according to Ford. “You will be crazy with four or five employees,” he says. “You have to get past that if you’re going to keep your sanity and your family. Let’s say you’re in 1/2 million market, like we are. You have to get to the point where you have 50 employees, so you can have a life and you can work outside the business on the business, rather than in the business. To do that, you need excellent management, a strong sale force, and continual training.”
  • Minimize mistakes. When overloaded, technicians are more apt to order the wrong part or model number, Hutchins says. “You have to remind everybody that it’s the busy time and we can’t afford the mistakes. As the owner, you don’t have the phone ringing off the hook in your ear all day long, but the staff does. It puts a lot of stress on them. Try to make sure people still take their breaks and go to lunch. They just have to take things one at a time and keep moving forward.”
Margo Vanover Porter
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Customer Service, Management

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