Is it knowing the refrigeration cycle? … Learning how to read blueprints and wiring diagrams? … Being a good salesman? … Punctuality? …
… What is it that the old guys pulling down six figures know that you don’t? …
You hear some surprising answers when you spend a lot of time talking to guys who have had long and lucrative careers in HVAC.
When they talk about what made them good, what made them the go-to guy in the shop, it turns out it’s not the technical skills that they have found most valuable over the years. It isn’t some secret compressor-whispering magic ability to isolate problems that no one else can…
It’s the soft skills: communication and customer service.
A Background In Customer Service Is a Secret Weapon in HVAC
Kyle Buscher, an operations and service manager at a midwest HVAC company that handles both residential and commercial services, actually looks for retail experience in the background of his new hires.
“We’ve had a few guys who were strictly doing construction and those are the guys that seem to have the hardest time with customer service,” Buscher says.
In construction jobs, mechanics might have learned solid technical skills, but they never had to talk to anyone who wasn’t another construction worker. Those who worked their way through school at a retail job, on the other hand, had a handle on customer expectations and knew how to communicate with people who didn’t have a handle on industry terms.
A retired HVAC foreman that we talked to with 30 years under his belt in a wide variety of highly technical commercial HVAC and refrigeration jobs, has a surprising answer when asked about what made his career in the industry successful. He told us, “One of the leading comments I got … was my communication skills, and the ability to communicate effectively to clients.”
Not everyone has the ability to explain the troubleshooting process to customers in a way they could understand or keep them patient with the confident assurance that the problem would soon be resolved even as temperatures in the building were climbing.
No customer wants to hear that it’s going to take a complete airflow survey to diagnose the issue, but being able to break that news and talk about it in a way that is straightforward and genuine can definitely calm the situation down.
It’s very interesting to think that at the end of the day it is the ability to communicate clearly and honestly that makes sure your employer keeps getting repeat business, not the technical skills you use to resolve problems… This is something every shop owner and contracting company needs to think about.
It’s Easier to Teach Technical Skills than Communication Skills
Being able to talk to customers is a rare quality and not everyone has the knack.
How do you teach somebody communication skills?
It’s a question that most HVAC programs don’t even try to answer. Most focus strictly on technical skills training. But most of their graduates are going to be on the front line of customer service on day one after landing a job. Dealing one-on-one with a customer who has been roasting with their AC out for two days requires tact and skill even if you know how to fix the system.
Most companies have a sink-or-swim approach instead of offering any real training in customer service. It’s up to individual technicians to figure out the best ways to handle customer relations.
The most experienced guys out there will tell you that the best thing you can do is just be honest.
As a company representative you want to make a sale to get your commission and keep your boss happy, but you are also working for the client. This means you have an ethical duty and a responsibility to that client to provide an honest assessment and a fair appraisal.
Although the news may be unpleasant, being honest about what you can and can’t deliver, and at what cost, wins business and loyalty over the long haul.
Customer Service is Customer Retention
Timeliness is also a factor. Buscher’s company lost a construction customer because a two-man shop came in and undercut their pricing by 25%. But the customer came running back soon enough because of the customer service differences.
“We’re back doing their work because when they called for a service call, nobody could come,” Buscher said. “They’d drove from an hour away and their service guy was their install guy so he couldn’t do it until his day was done. When we can be there in 30 minutes it gives us a whole other level of service.”
These types of incidents are the building blocks of success or failure in the industry, regardless of technical expertise. Customers need to trust the companies they are dealing with, or they will find alternatives.
Being a Good Observer is the Key to Expert Technical and Customer Service Skills
Eventually, most HVAC technicians find their own way to deliver good customer service, or they just don’t last in the business. No service manager, like Buscher, wants to be spending all of their time smoothing things over with customers that a technician has made unhappy with either a few careless words, or maybe even worse, a lack of adequate communication.
But not everything can be papered over with smooth talk. You still have to have the technical chops to understand and deliver what the customer needs.
The rarest combination of skills may be the technical knowledge of troubleshooting together with the ability to translate that process into plain English for the customer. There are no courses that teach that combination of skills but they can be learned over time. One key to both is the willingness to just listen. To give the customer what they want, you have to know what that is. Listening intently while they describe the problem is the first step.
Similarly, carefully observing what the equipment is doing is the first element of troubleshooting. Jumping in and making a lot of changes before you see what is happening only muddies the waters and makes it harder to figure out. And jumping into a conversation with customers before you’ve listened to their concerns just makes it clear to them that you don’t really care about those concerns. Careful observation is key to both processes.
Careful observation of technical problems and customer concerns helps explain why mechanics like Buscher are able to succeed in both aspects of the job… and shows new HVAC techs how they can achieve a similar level of success in their own careers.