One company's learned that if you want to treat your customers right, start with your staff.

Help Wanted: $5,000 Signing Bonus. Plus one year house cleaning service, one week paid Florida vacation for two and six months dining out in Boston's finest restaurants.

Too good to be true? The 63 service technicians and staff members at Robert L. Pann Co. in Cambridge, Mass., will tell you it's not. For five years, company owner Michael Pann has been attracting (and retaining) some of the best workers in the field by promising and delivering benefits nearly incomparable in the industry. The reason for his madness:

"Quality service starts with your staff," Pann says. "If your staff is happy and satisfied, it rubs off on your customers."

Robert L. Pann Co., founded by Michael's father in 1953, runs plumbing, electrical, carpentry, HVAC and environmental services divisions, so that's a lot of customers. And while many of his professional peers are either scrambling to find good employees or complaining about the ones they've got, Pann is completely at ease sending his workers out on the job.

"There are plenty of people out there to hire - they just happen to be working," Pann observes. "You need to steal them."

Down To A Science

Pann explains his technique for luring experienced workers as almost scientific, although he also admits it's a game of seduction for him, one that goes beyond the humdrum of typical "great benefits/great pay" ads.

The game began a few years back, right before he started running the ads, when Pann dreamt up all the perks it would take for him to leave a company he had been working for, and then he listed them. From there, Pann imagined additional benefits that would pique the attention of interested technicians' significant others, who might be the final push in encouraging or discouraging their spouse to make the leap from the stability of their current but unsatisfying work situation.

Pann then placed the help wanted ad, which was chock full of benefits by this point. It wasn't long before the calls started coming. And it wasn't long, either, before copycat competitors started ripping off his technique. Pann, who says he took the imitation as flattery, continually upped the ante until competitors couldn't keep pace. And this is how help wanted ads that read like a technician's wish list resulted.

One Hand Washes The Other

Pann and his employees have a mutual understanding about how their relationship works: Pann helps them in any and all ways possible as much as he can, and they help him by providing reliable, quality service. Here are a few ways Pann keeps his end of the bargain:
  • 401(k) matching retirement program
  • Health, dental and eye plans
  • Two weeks to one-month vacation, pending employee start date, plus sick days
  • Profit-sharing plan
  • In-house lending programs
  • Free legal assistance
  • Free uniforms
  • Company vehicles
  • Daily commission and incentive programs
  • Professional schooling
Pann is the company's father figure, and it's not unusual to find him offering employees advice or loans to help solve personal problems. Sometimes he'll hand out a roll of quarters to employees whose performance has been exceptional and have them take a turn on the company slot machine. Raffles for free dinners and show tickets also keep things interesting. And once a year, Pann flies employees and a guest to Florida for a paid week vacation, with free accommodations.

"If people need help, and you can help them, then you help them," Pann muses. "I have a responsibility to make their life as productive and happy as possible."

Pann's generous philosophy has not gone unnoticed by his techs, who show their appreciation with service calls performed at the highest caliber. Imagine employees who go out of their way to remove the competition's work stickers from appliances customers had repaired before calling Pann. How about techs who, instead of bullying customers into making a decision, patiently explain the pros and cons of replacing rather than repairing appliances?

For providing such reputable service, Pann admits he encounters more than his fair share of slack from disbelieving competitors.

"They don't believe when my men walk onto a job that they wear protective shoe coverings, put down red carpet, drive around in $50,000 vehicles," Pann says. "We do that - it's called showtime. They all talk nasty about their technicians. I tell them, 'Would you work for yourself? Go look in a mirror - who would want to work for you?'"

Moving On Up

Changes have been gradual but effective since Pann bought the business from his father in 1995.

"I've been here for a long time, and I've seen a lot of changes," says Frank Martin, a senior plumbing technician who has been with the company for 18 years. "And for all the benefits and quality of life here, no one can touch it."

One of the first expansive decisions Pann made was merging the plumbing business with his brother-in-law Peter Needham's electrical business. After adding carpentry and other divisions, the company now is treading new territory with environmental services.

The company also has been moving into flat rate pricing, experimenting first with plumbing, a change that Pann notes has been successful so far. Pann maintains his customers are more than willing to pay the extra money, especially since it reflects in the quality service they receive.

Pann is confident in his assertions because the customers tell him so every time they return, with high grades and praise, the report cards that he has his techs leave at the end of a service call. Regardless of their comments, he sends customers a care package to show his appreciation for time spent filling out the report card.

Instead of keeping supplies on site, another change Pann has implemented is real-time inventory, where each truck receives daily a personalized package containing stock depleted from service work done the day before. In addition to eliminating unprepared service trips, the new method also has been eliminating excess inventory spending - down to an estimated $75,000 from about a quarter of a million.

The most physical transformation the company will undergo is moving its 2,200-sq. ft. headquarters down the block to the new 16,000-sq. ft. plot Pann invested in. The new facility will house an employee rec room and workout room, two features the tiny three-family dwelling the company operates out of now simply does not have the space to provide. The additional space will give employees more parking spots for the 45 trucks the company has in its fleet, too.

Pann credits many of the improvements his company has seen within the last few years to his joining Contractors 2000, a decision that sounds almost like a religious experience when he mentions it. In addition to sending his employees to its classes and seminars for regular training, his technicians undergo internal training two times a week using prepared lessons from the organization.

While Contractors 2000 may have pointed the company in the right direction, it was Pann and his crew who ran with it.

"I'm just a guy with a little bit of vision surrounded by a team of talent," Pann says.