Just put on a uniform and 'Ride Along.'

"His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with." -- Abraham Lincoln's reason for relieving General John C. Fremont from his command in Missouri, Sept. 9, 1861.

President Lincoln wrote these words to the man he was appointing to replace General Fremont. The new general would make no mistake about what was required of him: Get out there and circulate among the troops.

Lincoln was an extraordinary leader. He was a "hands-on" leader, and, by his concern, compassion and direct involvement, he earned the trust and respect of the American people. Particularly, the Union soldiers.

Lincoln understood what the soldiers were going through on the front lines. In 1861, he spent more time on the battlefields than in the White House. He visited the wounded, he counseled with the generals and he saw first hand the results of his and their decisions. He was kind and affable and wholly supportive of the troops. He acknowledged them as performing "the hardest work in support of the government." And the soldiers loved him for his appreciation of their sacrifices.

Lead By Example

In his book, "Lincoln on Leadership," Donald T. Phillips, writes, "One of the most effective ways to gain acceptance of a philosophy is to show it in your daily actions. In order to stage your leadership, you must have an audience. By entering your subordinate's environment -- by establishing frequent human contact -- you create a sense of commitment, collaboration and community."

Bill Raymond is a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. Bill is the co-owner and vice president of Frank & Lindy Plumbing & Heating Service Co. in lovely Peekskill, N.Y. He is also a first-rate trainer (Bill co-developed and leads the highly acclaimed Contractor's 2000 Boot Camp management course), and a life-long student of business. He gave me a copy of "Lincoln on Leadership" because we share an appreciation of the Great American Statesmen.

Bill has Lincolnesque leadership skills. He's a "hands-on" manager, and he isn't afraid to get in the game. He is a firm believer in the "Ride Along."

"How do I know what's happening in the field if I don't Ride Along with my techs?

"The techs are really the ones who pushed me into Ride Alongs. I tried imposing new sales techniques and customer service standards, and they would say, 'You don't know what it's like out there! That will never fly in the real world.' But I wasn't getting anywhere sermonizing from the training room. So, one day I put on a service uniform and hopped into a truck with one of my techs."

Prepare To Be Scared

"Here's what I discovered. As a manager, what you think is happening out there, well, it's not. It's downright scary what goes on in the field. And it's not that the techs aren't trying, or willing to do the right thing. It is just an incredibly difficult position. We need them to be sales professionals with great communication skills. We need them to have finely honed technical skills. We are asking our techs to be superhuman.

"You can't just sit back in your cozy office and say, 'Sell more!' You have to discover what's going on with each technician, and help him get better at handling these situations."

I agree with Bill. The Ride Along is an essential part of training and coaching. How do you really know what's going on in the field? You have to Ride Along.

Oh, I can hear your excuses:

"The tech won't act the same with me along as he would without me. He'll just put on a show. What good is that?"

"I don't have time!"

"He'll think I don't trust him."

Do you see what's happening here? You are afraid to Ride Along. These objections are just your fear talking. You are afraid of what you are going to see out there, so you just stay in the office.

"The best way to combat fear is with pain. When the pain becomes big enough, then you'll be willing to change."

A Potentially Painful Exercise

Start tracking your closing rate on service calls. Divide the number of service calls where you get the job and do the work by the number of calls run. Consider that more than 90 percent of all customers get someone to do the work. What's your closing rate?

If your closing rate is less than 90 percent, you are burning up opportunities -- and potential billable hours. If your closing rate is hovering at 50-60 percent, why do any more marketing? You are just going to blow half of those calls. You better find out why you aren't getting the sale. And the way to do that is to Ride Along.

When To Go: "Schedule one day each week to Ride Along. Stick with one tech for the whole day. You can't judge a technician's skills on just one call. And the first call you go on together will probably blow up on you. He will be extremely uncomfortable. So, make a day of it. Give him a chance to loosen up. And, always treat him to lunch."

With Whom: Everyone. "Start out with your under-performing techs. If someone has a low closing rate, that's a priority. However, don't neglect to go with your top techs. They can teach you a lot about what's working. Often, we ignore our best people. They need support and acknowledgement, too."

Basic Game Rules: Look, listen and learn. "You can't learn anything if you are doing all the talking. The technician will introduce me to the customer by saying, 'This is Bill. He'll be assisting me today.' My job is to keep my mouth shut and observe."

Also, stay and work. Help plumb, if you are a plumber. Carry tools and open doors if you are not. Pitch in to get the work done.

What To Watch For: "How does he greet the customer? The customer is under a fair amount of duress when he calls us. How does the tech reduce the duress and gain the trust of the customer? This can be subtle. Look for indicators that the customer is relaxing and starting to trust and like the tech -- smiling, laughing, breathing easily, talking easily. Or negative indicators -- frowning, not talking, arms folded across his chest, his boot up your butt. What words seem to help, or not help?"

How To Give Feedback: "Wait until the call is complete and the work is all done. Then, radio the dispatcher to let him know that you'll be out of the loop for an hour. Go get coffee or stop for lunch. Then, give your feedback. Never jump into the middle of a call, even if you see the sale slipping through his fingers.

"Then, break down each point of the sales process. If it went well, have the tech relive the 'win.' If it went poorly, have the tech analyze what went wrong -- and what could have been done differently. Go through the technical troubleshooting process the same way.

"And let the technician talk. The more time you spend together, the easier it is for the tech to trust you and share vital information about what really works -- and doesn't work -- in the field.

"The Ride Along is a great opportunity to get to know each other. Learn about his kids and hobbies.

"You can't motivate people to do what you want them to do. But you can create a culture where people want to play the game your way. If things aren't going right in the field, there is one person to blame: Yourself. For not training. For not holding people accountable. And, for not creating a compelling vision for your team.

"Being a service technician is a tough job," Bill concludes. "The least you can do is face your own fears, and get out there and Ride Along."

Abe would be proud.