Does the thought of total turnover scare you? Is that why you put up with poor performance from your technicians?
"I can't switch to flat rate. All my servicemen would quit."
"Enforce a dress code? Are you kidding? I'm just grateful that they show up at all!"
"If I started drug testing, I wouldn't have an employee left. I'd rather not know."
Every contractor I know is looking for good, qualified technicians. Industry-wide, we are in deep trouble. For too many years, PHC jobs have been synonymous with long hours, low pay and rotten work. Certainly, the long-term solution to the technician shortage is to raise your prices enough to pay very well and train even better. But until those changes take hold, what are you going to do? Are you willing to be held hostage by your service techs?
Steve Dohner of Dohner Plumbing Co. Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, is a master plumber who has been in business since 1984. He is enthusiastic and powered by positive thinking - in spite of what has happened at his company in the last couple of years.
In January 1998, Steve reflected on his life and his company. And he didn't like where he was with either.
Steve's Story"I realized that I had lost control of my business. The employees were running the show. Every day I was compromising my standards. The reward for all my hard work and dedication? It just wasn't there. I was working too much, for too little money. It was time to change the company, to change my life or to get out of the plumbing business.
"There were no systems at my company. I needed to impose order and discipline, but I didn't really know how to begin. My wife Kim and I discussed joining Contractors 2000. It was a significant investment for our small company, but I couldn't imagine how I was going to make big changes without some kind of business support group.
"Kim agreed to join with two stipulations: One, that we would take a real, two-week family vacation in 1998. (It had been many years since we had taken a vacation. The business was always in the way!) And two, we would work on the business for five years. In
January 2003, if Dohner Plumbing Co. wasn't providing the satisfaction and lifestyle that we desired, we would close it down or sell it.
"So, we joined Contractors 2000 in February 1998. I went to the first meeting and hooked up with some great contractors. I got busy revamping my company. I hired Susan, a terrific woman who would be in charge of implementing new programs. We jumped in with both feet. We started sales training and tracking all of our sales and marketing data. We beefed up our technical training efforts. We crunched the numbers, raised our prices and made the move to flat rate pricing.
"Of course, we raised the pay structure. Based on conservative projections, our technicians could receive $60,000 in wages. They could take two-weeks paid vacation and six paid holidays per year. The company paid for uniforms, training, tuition reimbursement and medical insurance. We offered a 401(k) plan and flex time. They could take the trucks home and avoid the expense of driving to and from work. I wanted the best plumbers to work for us. And I wanted them to stick around.
"It was incredible how quickly things improved at the company. Finally, we were profitable, and our customer satisfaction reports were glowing. All my efforts were paying off. I knew there was a way to create a win-win-win with my company, my customers and my employees. We were making it happen. It was like a dream come true.
From Dream To Nightmare"At this time, I had five servicemen working for me. Before we started making changes, there was no accountability at our company. As I imposed more and more systems, the techs started to feel more and more uncomfortable.
"My top techs started grumbling about my new policies and procedures. It all came to a head when one of the techs refused to attend a mandatory safety meeting. We had one of those 'You're fired!' 'You can't fire me - I quit!' discussions. Now I was down to four technicians.
"I thought that letting the troublemaker go would put an end to the resistance movement. But for too long, I had let the techs do whatever they wanted. The four remaining techs tested my boundaries on everything. They wanted to know if I was serious, how far I was willing to go to enforce policy.
"All the tracking mechanisms I had put in place were working beautifully. At any moment in time, I knew where I stood on calls, sales and productivity. So, the numbers were pointing out the problems. I learned that the techs weren't making any sales after 2 p.m. because it would take them past the 4 p.m. quitting time. Sales were plunging.
"A new opinion leader had emerged. He was now conducting the 'meetings after the meetings' in the parking lot. Bottom line: They didn't like the changes, they didn't like flat rate and they weren't going to play the game by my rules.
"Right before Christmas, I was ready to take off on the two-week vacation I had promised Kim. The day I was leaving, I got a scathing complaint from a big remodeling customer. I rushed over to check out the job. The work was terrible! And the responsible technician refused to redo the job. Our policy for refusing to do assigned work was a two-week suspension. I said, 'You're suspended.'
He said, 'I quit.' Down to three techs.
"I was tempted to cancel my vacation. But, I couldn't let my family down. I went, but not before begging another technician to cover for me and satisfy the rightfully grumbling remodeling customer. He grudgingly agreed, but I was still begging for compliance.
"When I returned, the remodeling job had not been handled. I had to jump in a truck and finish the job myself.
Another One Bites The Dust: "One after another, the technicians quit, or tested my resolve by committing fireable offenses. I stuck to my guns. As soon as I would hire a new person, another tech would quit. We had our company holiday party in January. Only one tech showed up. The others had quit - I was down to one technician. The five original techs were gone.
"It was the inside office staff that kept us going. Ted in dispatch was awesome. Leanne worked wonders on the phone. And thank goodness for Susan. She had helped implement major changes at another company, and understood that turmoil and turnover were inevitable. But she could see that I was trying to create a smooth-sailing company, where accountability, respect and discipline created lifelong careers and happy customers - and profits to be shared by all.
"I searched for the real reasons the techs were leaving. One of them took a $10,000 pay cut to work for one of my competitors because I enforced our hair-above-the-collar dress policy. Was it really the haircut?
"I discovered the core problem was lack of self-esteem. One of my guys, as he was quitting, told me, 'I guess I'm just a butt-crack plumber. I'm not worth what you are charging.' That hit me like a ton of bricks. I raised my prices so that I could pay my techs the professional salary that I knew they deserved. And this fellow didn't think he was worth it.
"It's funny. It wasn't the customers who thought our prices were too high, it was the techs who had a problem with the prices. I needed to change my recruiting strategy. I had a good technical and sales training program mapped out. I didn't need a superstar, I needed someone who felt he was worth what I wanted to pay him!
"I visited with my remaining technician, Bryan. He told me he was scared. Who could blame him? He worried about the survival of the company. He wondered if he would have a job next week, so many people had left! I asked him to help me find some new techs, people who were interested in becoming professionals with professional salaries and benefits.
"With his help, I was back up to three technicians. Plumbers know other plumbers. He started selling the benefits of Dohner Plumbing to other techs. We moved forward slowly. I needed to remember that most folks live in a world of fear. Change scares them, failure scares them - and success scares them.
"Now, I am careful not to let my emotions run away with me. I can't take it personally if someone chooses to leave, I must insist on compliance. I am not going to let anyone persuade me to drop my standards. We will run as a well-organized, disciplined, accountable company or not at all. Period. It feels good following through on what I believe in.
Life's Lessons"Business is much better, though profits haven't caught up, yet. The past two years have taught me a few things. I've discovered that the boss gets to make the rules of the game. And for every well-designed game there are players. Also, the level of resistance to change will be determined by the employee with the most fear.
"I promised my wife and my family that I would give our company my best shot. I have until 2003 to make it work, but I'm convinced that my ability to develop self-esteem in my employees will be the key to our success. The best use of my time is making sure that my techs understand how important they are. I'm committed to spending time each week one-on-one with a member of the team. I'll buy them lunch, ride along in the truck, work with them on the job, whatever it takes to make them successful. Together, we can create an incredible company.
"The other day, one of the new guys remarked, 'I can't believe anyone would walk away from this job!' It felt great to hear that. I knew I was offering a better way. And I am finally hiring people who recognize that."
May Steve's story inspire you to make the necessary changes at your own company. Good luck!