How to beat busy season blues.
The busy season is in full swing, and as the excitement of increased cash flow wears thin, contractors are faced with mounting workloads and tiring technicians. Despite the fact that most HVAC businesses resemble a Wal-Mart on Black Friday right now, there are ways to alleviate the frenzy and handle the rush with finesse.
There are multiple elements to staffing that provide HVAC contractors with reasons to stay awake worrying at night — all of which are exacerbated during the busy season. Looking at two that go hand in hand — overtime and technician burnout — contractors face balancing customer demand, increased profits, and staff morale.
Matt Michel, president of Service Nation Inc., explained that there are several ways for contractors to handle overtime for their employees.
WORKING OVERTIME: When it comes to overtime, ask technicians and office staff who is interested, and then put them in line first. PHOTO COURTESY OF AIRMAN 1ST CLASS MEGAN E. ACS
“The first consideration in assigning overtime is seeing who welcomes it,” he said. “Some guys want the extra pay and the extra hours. Put them first in line. Other contractors juggle hours to provide after-hours service without overly taxing their teams. This means staggered start times.”
Michel also referred to Larry Taylor’s approach to overtime. Former owner of AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, Taylor sold his business and is currently an HVACR advisor and coach.
“Larry encouraged employees to allow him to deposit their overtime in a separate savings account,” said Michel. “They would later tap into that account during the off-season to ensure a evener household cash flow.”
No matter the approach contractors choose to deal with overtime, it is important that they communicate expectations and busy season procedures clearly with the staff.
“Start by setting expectations for the summer with the team and the team’s family,” said Michel. “The summer is all hands on deck. This is the HVAC Christmas, and time off is not high on the priority list.”
He explained that although it may seem harsh, addressing limitations to summer family vacations and limited time off while children are out of school is part of a weather-based job.
“Vacations should be scheduled only after the initial weather increase has passed,” said Tom Merriott, customer experience coach, Nexstar Network. “For some contractors, that might be two weeks. For others, it might be two months. No matter what, it boils down to communication and setting your clear expectations up front.”
Technicians aren’t the only staff members contractors need to include in these considerations. According to Tyler Kime, general manager of Standard Heating and Air Conditioning Co. Inc., Birmingham, Alabama, having enough office staff is just as crucial to keep the business successful during the busy season.
“You have to have enough staff to support the technicians in the field and be able to take care of customers when they need you most,” he said. “Customers expect immediacy, so you have to be able to answer all calls and respond to the myriad of options for customers to contact you.”
Although expectations and communication are necessary, Michel said that there is no substitute for managers and contractors having a good feel for their people so they can head off trouble before it is really an issue.
“Recognize when someone’s at the limit and send him/her home for the afternoon,” he explained. “Buy him/her a restaurant gift card and movie passes to recharge. Sometimes a few hours off is all that is needed.”
CUSTOMER COMFORT IDEAS
As contractors take care of their staffing concerns during the busy season, it is also important for them to address customer issues. There is an urgency in customers who have no cooling in blistering temperatures, and just as the technicians are affected by the heat, so are the customers.
Merriott suggests that contractors remember to tell their customers the truth about their situation and reference the weather to provide evidence to longer wait times and limited resources.
“Most of your customers are reasonable people, so letting them know that large numbers of consumers need your services when it is hot is a reasonable process,” said Merriott.
When customers decide to abandon reason, Michel explained that this is a time for the technician and the company to differentiate themselves. He considers these situations an opportunity to resolve the problem as well as to reinforce the value of being a service agreement customer with preferred status.
“Train everyone on dealing with difficult people,” said Michel. “Customers are often hot, uncomfortable, and anxious about repair cost. Be patient with them, but be candid. Do not promise more than you can deliver.”
One way that several HVAC companies across the nation are handling customer discomfort is to provide temporary cooling solutions to those who have to wait for parts or new units to arrive. There are different ways to accomplish this step-above service.
Mike Tucker, owner of Tuckers Air Conditioning, Heating & Plumbing, Frederick, Maryland, provides portable loaners to customers who are waiting on replacement systems; however, he makes sure to take care of the elderly and those with medical issues first. But these services should be well planned, he cautioned, to avoid potential problems.
“There is a downside as you are trying to provide good customer service and trouble arises,” Tucker said. “Examples include when the loaner stops working over a weekend or you can’t get the portable unit to them fast enough due to the workload. Sometimes you create an unhappy customer while trying to do good.”
Comfort Systems Inc. in Larned, Kansas, used to provide portable units but found three distinct issues arise as a result of its program: adequate power, a proper location for placement, and liability.
“Most newer windows do not lend themselves to window or portable a/c units,” said Steven Lewis, owner of Comfort Systems. “We had homeowners not return the equipment or return it damaged, so we do not offer the service anymore. We do offer small electric heaters to use in the winter months, however.”
Other contractors experience success with this service, and it helps set them apart in the industry. Michel has seen a number of contractors save working condensing units that have been replaced to use for other customers.
“When there is an installation backlog, they will try to quickly pump-down and remove a condensing unit with a bad compressor and then sweat on a temporary unit,” he explained. “The coil will more than likely be mismatched, and the efficiency will stink; however, if the unit blows cold air, it’s a relief to the customer.”
Michel suggests that those using this approach should paint the part an obnoxious color and require the customer to sign a rental agreement that applies rent to the system’s temporary replacement in a week or two. This will help the customer to proceed with having the unit replaced properly and not consider the temporary solution as a permanent benefit after the system in their home has been repaired.
Sometimes, going the extra mile is worth it for over-and-above customer satisfaction.
“For loyal customers — especially if a change-out is hanging in the balance — consider putting them up in a hotel overnight,” said Michel. “Negotiate with a local hotel for favorable rates, and maybe barter some service. For most people, this takes a negative and turns it into a fun positive.”
Contractors are hard-pressed to ignore the extreme heat that technicians face during the busy season, making it another concern that shouldn’t be ignored when handling the quick pace of business.
“Supplying extreme weather aids — ice, water bottles, cooling towels, etc. — during this time is a critical step,” said Merriott. “The relatively small amount of money you spend will pay itself back in employees being ready and able to work.”
Along with physical cooling items, Michel suggests contractors train everyone in regard to the signs of becoming overheated, as well as those indicating the onset of heat stroke.
“Because people are working in the field unsupervised, they need to have the knowledge necessary to monitor their own health,” he said. “Some company owners and managers make an effort to visit techs on the job site during especially hot periods, bringing them refreshments. Others keep ice cream bars and other refreshments in a refrigerator at the shop. These are small steps, but they demonstrate care.”
When the discussion of weather safety comes up, it is rare that the idea of telling customers no can be a solution to overworked, overheated technicians. But according to Michel, there is a point where work should be turned down or deferred.
“Remember, it is easier to recruit a customer than a technician today, and there are a lot more of the former than the latter,” he said. “By all means, take care of your loyal, service agreement customers, but consider turning away a few new customers if you are at the breaking point.”
CONTRACTOR TIPS FOR THE BUSY SEASON
Here are five tips from industry peers to help HVACR contractors handle the busy season. If it’s too late to make the changes, contractors can save these tips for next year and look at them again in January 2020.
- Plan for overtime. Plan for burnout. Plan for high labor-time work in slow time, like January or February. — Eric Kjelshus, owner, Eric Kjelshus Energy Heating and Cooling, Greenwood, Missouri
- Have your staff trained on the products that you’re installing and typically servicing. I think that knowledge is very key and instrumental in preparing for the heat. — Ronnie Lovell, service manager, Barkers Heating and Cooling, College Station, Texas
- Just because the customer requires service, do not accept the responsibility unless you can actually deliver in an agreeable, timely manner. Only promise what you can deliver. — Tye Leishman, president, Tempco Heating & Cooling Specialists, Powell River, British Columbia
- Give your field staff time off. — Brian McDonald, president, One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning/Outer Banks, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
- We try to under promise and over deliver, but it can still be crazy; sort of like a retail store on Black Friday. — Kenneth Sievers, administrator, Comfort Tech Service Now!, Del Rio, Texas