If we make our customers happy, we win. If we don't, we lose. It's that simple.

When I think about my contractor days, I mostly remember the early-morning starts.

It was a whole new day. Yesterday's success with that pesky problem and frustration over having to reach way back for a stubborn bolt that refused to budge are just memories.

I climbed into my service truck, successfully juggling my mug of coffee and service call list while tugging on the handle of a heavy, creaky door. As I put the key in the ignition, I wondered how my day was going to go. Pulling out of the driveway on my way to my first service call, I didn't realize it, but I had a passenger - a fella who followed me around my whole day.

Think you're all alone in your truck? Nope. You've got the same passenger you have every day. He's kinfolk of my passenger riding around with you, service call to service call.

Who is this guy, anyway?

He's the growth or demise of the hydronics industry.

Think about it. The success or failure of our business boils down to each tech and each customer. How our customer feels about our service positively or negatively affects our entire industry.

Mrs. Smith complaining about her heat for the umpteenth time may not seem like it's going to cause the downfall of the industry. But like the old saying about Mama, “If Mrs. Smith ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.” And she's only too eager to tell her story to everyone she knows.

And the opposite is just as true. She'd love to brag about you as if you were her own son - if you earn it. Word of mouth makes or breaks us.

It's basic math. Take the number of customers you took care of last week, multiply it times the number of weeks you work in a year. That's the impact you had on the industry. That's a lot of Mrs. Smiths.

If we make each and every Mrs. Smith happy, we win. If we don't, we lose. It's that simple.

Stay Educated

How do we make sure we get the “good press”? We need to be knowledgeable, confident, and provide the best possible service to our customer through education, experience and professionalism.

Professional? You bet! It would have been hard to convince me I was a professional when I was covered in grime, arms aching from working over my head most of the day and smelling like the fuel oil job I just finished.

Don't take my word for it. Let me drag out my handy-dandy Funk & Wagnall's.

    Professional: 1. Member of profession; somebody whose occupation requires extensive education or specialized training.
How do we get this “extensive education or specialized training”? That's a good question. I used to think I could go to the local technical college. After talking to several of them, I found that even if they did have an HVAC curriculum, hydronics wasn't one of the courses.

Fortunately, many professional organizations have nonproduct-specific seminars. Generally, these are great classes and give a solid base of knowledge, tweak interest in different ways of doing things, and maybe teach the veteran a few things.

Many organizations offer certification programs. Achieving certification sets us apart and makes us appear more professional to the customer, doesn't it?

Think about the last time you had your car in the shop and you were staring at the wall waiting. Remember all those certificates they proudly displayed? Didn't that make you as the customer feel a bit better about being there?

When I attend seminars, I learn as much from talking with other professionals as I do in the classroom. Listening to the horror stories and creative solutions adds to my experience base. The value of networking cannot be overstated. Some of the best places to get real-world solutions are trade shows, seminars, online bulletin boards and local chapters of professional organizations.

One objection I frequently hear is, “I'm a third-generation contractor and learned the business from my old man. I don't need training to do what I've been doing for years.” That sends shivers down my back. The more I learn about hydronics, the more I realize there is so much more I don't know. Our business changes constantly. The true professional keeps up with the knowledge base of his profession. The learning should never stop.

It takes a great deal of time, money and effort to find and attend hydronics courses. We have to find it. We can't afford not to.

    Professional: 2. Somebody doing something as a paid job; somebody who is engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than as a hobby.
We're all in this to make money. After all, we're professionals, right? How can education and being familiar with the “latest and greatest” help us make money? If an installation or design method reduces the cost of materials and labor, it puts us in a better position to be competitive when the customer starts comparing bottom lines.

EDS has a commercial that is a parody of the Spanish custom of the “running of the bulls,” where men of great valor and questionable intelligence run in front of a herd of bulls through narrow streets. In the “Running of the Squirrels” ad, the company says, “It's not the big, lumbering competitors you need to worry about. We'll help you compete with the quick, nimble ones.”

Education, staying up with the state of the art, different techniques and new ideas makes us nimble and competitive.

    Professional: 3. Somebody very competent; somebody who shows a high degree of skill or competence.
How can you show this to your customers? Perceived value is one secret. If perceived value is there, then they believe you are the smartest guy who ever picked up a wrench. If the perceived value isn't there, they believe all kinds of rotten things about you.

To most of our customers, the concept of hydronics is a black box. All they know is that they want their heat to work effortlessly, seamlessly and reliably. At least in an operational sense, that's all they want.

Last Guy/Next Guy

Ethical conduct is another secret. When you walk into a mechanical room, there are three of you there: Last Guy, you and Next Guy. You inherit the design methodology of Last Guy. He may not have done it the way you would have, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was the wrong way to do it. It's just different.

Criticizing Last Guy to the customer doesn't make anyone look smarter; it works against the entire industry. The customer is probably thinking, “And just how many incompetent crooks are there in your business anyway?”

Spend some time trying to climb into the head of Last Guy. Make corrections based on what he was trying to make work. Doing that takes real talent.

And don't forget about Next Guy. Think about what you just went through to get into the head of Last Guy. Wouldn't it have been great if he had left a note? “Dear Next Guy: This is what I was thinking. These are the settings I made and why.”

Now there is a guy I would have added to my Christmas list! Many times we are our own Next Guy. My memory wasn't exactly perfect at 2 a.m. on a system I hadn't seen in six months. When I found the system documentation neatly tucked away in the mechanical room, I sighed with relief and thanked my Last Guy self.

In and out in less time means you get to go back to your nice warm bed sooner. The customer is charged less service time. And you look absolutely brilliant because you weren't standing there trying to figure out what Last Guy was thinking. You knew. Document ... document ... document!

As you may have already guessed, attention to detail is one more secret. Service calls can be like solving a good old-fashioned “who-dun-it.” Just like a good detective, you're looking for clues. Interview the witnesses. What are they saying? Look at the scene. What do you see? It's the little things that could make the difference. Solve the mystery and you're a true hero.

My truck mate of years ago is still with me, reminding me how everything I do impacts our industry. Tomorrow yours will be there, too.

In order for our industry to grow, we have to be professional in every sense of the word to every Mrs. Smith every day.

About the author: Tom Meyer, senior designer/ trainer for Precision Hydronics Corp., spent 10 years as a commercial, residential design/ install contractor, specializing in multiple boiler systems. He is active in the RPA and is an instructor for the association's Radiant Basics and Radiant Precision courses. He can be reached at 888/299-4328 or tmeyer@precisionhydronics.com.