“Hire willing people and provide them the skills — as opposed to hiring spoiled, experienced people with skills and behavior problems.” 

This has been my mantra since I was a contractor at my own Long Island, New York plumbing, heating and cooling (now, electrical too) shop.

When did I latch on to this core business philosophy?

Well, it was at 2 a.m. while standing in my office one night talking to my brother, Richie. As usual, in a company full of more than 25 techs, we were still out there helping late into the night (I mean morning).

Disclaimer: I’ve changed the name to protect the not-so-innocent and I cleaned up the language, but I bet you can only imagine what true New Yorkers would be saying to one another. The message is accurate, just a lot cleaner!  The conversation with my brother went something like this:

“Don was the best tech at their shop,” Richie asked, skeptical. “I mean for heaven’s sake he’s barely mediocre compared to our guys. Can you believe how much money we had to pay him to come work here?”

“I’m sick of it,” I replied, exhausted. “I’m sick of techs telling us how great they are in interviews or taking the word of others about how great this tech is.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“Well, this isn’t working. I’m not just disappointed by the work of these so-called experienced staff, but I’m sick of their behavior issues, too. Why don’t we try hiring willing people and provide them the skills they’ll need, and let’s see how that turns out?” 

I got a nod of agreement, and we both headed home to get a solid four hours of sleep before we’d be up and at it again.

Driving home, I was pleased Richie could see this was the right way to go. I mean, how many times can you bang your head against the wall before you say, “Ouch. That hurts. Let’s not do that again”?

By the time my head hit the pillow, the fear was mounting on how exactly I was going to make that noble recommendation a reality. I didn’t know, but I was in enough pain, and if there’s enough pain, you’ll take the medicine if you have any sense at all.

Waking up refreshed from my four hour nap (can’t really call it sleep, can you?) a plan of attack was already beginning to form in my mind.


The plan

First, we document the procedures for all positions at the company. We started with the techs since that was our most urgent need. Then, we doubled back to who is key to them — the call takers (the customer service reps) and the dispatchers.

Then, we created a fully functioning in-house training center for the plumbing, heating and cooling trades so we could teach willing people the technical skills they needed. It also allowed us to fill in the knowledge holes for our existing techs in a safer and more effective way than trying to do “on-the-job training.” 

Afterwards, we created an organizational chart based on the boxes it took to run the company, and not on fancy titles. This accomplished the following:

  • Told new hires where they would be starting at the company;
  • Told them where they could go tomorrow with our training;
  • Told them who really was their boss; and 
  • Told them who they could go to for help

We then created a career path that also tied to salary levels, so they’d know from the time they were hired their starting pay rate and what the leap to the next higher box on the organizational chart would mean in terms of salary and possible earned bonuses.


Next steps

After creating the organizational chart and training center, we wanted to see what employees were and weren’t doing with all this training and documentation. We got to:

  • Sit with the CSRs and listen to the calls. Yes, this is way easier today with the great software — back then we had to record calls;
  • Sit with the dispatchers and see if they’re using the priority section for prioritizing calls;
  • Sit with the accounts receivable and accounts payable employees to see if they’re doing the data entry the right way and following detailed procedures in their manuals;
  • Ride along with the techs to see how they open calls, what they do to follow our detailed process for running the call the right way and for making a proper exit at the end of the call right down to completing the exit checklist.

What did all of this get us?

We got so good at building techs from scratch by hiring willing people and providing the skills, it became a rarity to hire someone who was a skilled veteran. When we did, we tested them and held them accountable to our standards, because we had a pipeline from what I like to call our own “Minor Leagues” of young willing people dying to achieve more and move up.

Here’s what I didn’t count on. Once I stopped trying to find “Lightning in a Bottle” with a magical hire of an experienced veteran, I found I really liked the people on board because they wanted to be there. They were excited about the company and their own futures because we lived up to our end of the bargain: “We promise you a career, not just a job!”