Between now and tomorrow you can’t gain a substantial edge over your competition. And yet, if you don’t eventually offer something “extra” your business will not be a market leader in the communities you serve. You have to continually produce some measurable benefit to customers who call your company for their service and repair needs over what the competition offers. Otherwise, your competitors will take business away from you, until they have it all. Many strong businesses have seen their sales fall when they didn’t notice competition luring their customers away. However, it never happens overnight.

The good news is you have time for a plan to continue to be the leading company (or become the leading company). Since the results you want are not attainable on an instant basis, you need to identify what will cause customers to call your company, first and always. Accomplishing your goal may require devoting some attention and resources to several facets of your business — certainly customer service — but maybe some other areas, too.

You’ll need to assess your company’s strengths and weaknesses and identify where you can make the most difference with the least investment.

Most Important Areas: Although every facet of running a service and repair business must function effectively, there are a few members of your team who I think deserve the most attention. The first one is the one you see in the mirror. You need to keep abreast of the latest management techniques and motivational tools if you are going to lead a winning team. Naturally, your technicians and their helpers are a key element in your success, too. Sometimes forgotten, your customer service representatives (CSRs) are the people who speak to your customers first, and determine whether a service call is scheduled or lost. There are even a few tips I can share for the remaining members of the team, who often remain in the background. Though, without them, the rest of the organization couldn’t function. Let me review some recommendations for each group separately, starting with managers and owners.

It’s always amusing to speak to business owners who are convinced that it’s their technicians who need all the training, attitude change or work habits or skills, etc. Now the fact may be that the technicians could use a few tips here and there, but without top quality decisions from the boss, the team will flounder. For example, today, any manager who expects his people to price jobs using time and materials — the old-fashioned way of pricing — is asking for customer resistance. Customers are likely to wonder: Where did the price come from? Was it made up? They’ll also be tempted to compare your materials to home warehouses. I wouldn’t want to wish that on any of my technicians.

Another effective technique managers can use to motivate technicians and encourage them to serve your customers’ needs is to pay on an incentive basis. That way, the most skilled technicians — skilled at meeting customer needs and closing sales, not just skilled technically — get the most pay. The better they do their job, the more they make. Instead of encouraging our technicians to do the job as fast as they can and get on to the next job, they earn more and take their time to do every job right. This method of payment alone has allowed us to keep the best technicians. It keeps them happy and our customers satisfied.

I mentioned I would not forget our technicians when discussing ways to gain a combative edge. Since your technicians are the equivalent of a sales and production department, their interaction with customers is critical. If they are not familiar with modern customer service techniques, your business is in trouble. It takes more than just competent technical work to impress customers today. Quality customer service means: technicians in clean, professional uniforms; well-groomed, courteous technicians; clear explanations about what work needs to be done and how much it is going to cost — before the work is begun and technicians who cleanup after the job is done. Other specific examples of ways your technicians can give your business a competitive edge is to arrive carrying a clean briefcase with the tools they need, instead of a rusty toolbox with a few greasy wrenches inside.

Our technicians use Polaroid cameras to produce instant photos of problem areas in the customer’s home. They also have a laser pointer to show the customer exactly what needs attention, without requiring the customer to bend and twist into dusty, hard-to-reach places. These special tools are just as important as the tools of the trade. They help the customer understand the job, so more customers are comfortable agreeing to have your company perform the service work necessary.

Our technicians would also be lost without their pricing manual. It’s a tool that allows them to demonstrate to the customer where the price quotation came from. The customer and the technician look up the price for the job together. The manual also shows the tasks that will be performed. Further, it lists common add-on jobs the customer may want to consider having completed while the technician is there. The pricing manual shows how much the customer will save if they elect to fix that leaking faucet or other fixture or appliance that’s going but not quite gone. Why wait until something breaks — and pay for another service call?

The pricing manual indicates standard pricing and value pricing, so customers are encouraged to inquire about getting the lower price. Since that price is only available to service agreement customers, technicians are able to sell service agreements easily. Getting your technician familiar with the system is easy; you can switch to flat rate pricing virtually overnight.

“Hello, How May I Help You?”: The CSRs who answer your telephones are your business’ link to your customers. Since it costs about $50 in advertising, promotion and support to generate a call from a customer, you don’t want to throw that investment away. Every time your CSRs can identify the caller’s problem quickly and schedule the service call they increase your company’ profits. Every time they don’t do that they are wasting your money. What determines the difference in outcome? It’s simple: training. Untrained CSRs don’t use a script, spend extra minutes on the telephone and may even try to diagnose the customer’s problems on the telephone, or worse, quote a price for an undiagnosed job.

The difference in performance between trained and untrained CSRs is dramatic when you look at your profits. For example, a CSR who, as a result of a lack of training, discourages just one caller from scheduling a service and repair job per day costs your business thousands. Figure it out: one job a day times your average invoice (ours is over $300), times five days a week. That’s $1,500 a week, times 52 weeks a year. It totals $78,000 a year — and that’s only one call a day mishandled. Think if more calls are lost!

It’s interesting that one of the most important skills of any employee, whether in an office or not, is to comprehend accurately what other people tell them. Though it seems easy, listening is actually a skill that must be developed to work effectively. Communication problems create customer dissatisfaction, internal conflicts in a company and generally reduce productivity. That’s when we made better listening skills available to everyone. Now we have recorded an expert who gives fun examples of how to be a more effectively listener. It’s a skill most of your people could improve.

To gain and keep your competitive edge, you’ll have to rely on your people — and they’ll have to rely on you to keep their skills current. It’s a team effort. Training is the way you are going to beat the competition. Your people will do it for you, if you give them the tools.