Asking the right questions and listening to the answers can keep your call-backs down and your customers happy.

How do you define a call-back? To me, it's whenever you have to go back to a customer's home and you're not getting paid for whatever reason!

To many of my techs, the definition of a call-back was something they had worked on that didn't fix the problem. If the return visit was for any other reason, they felt it shouldn't count as a call-back. I remember on more than one occasion a customer would call for no heat after we had been there. The tech who went back would call on the radio: “It was just the emergency switch left in the off position.”

When I'd meet that tech the next day, I'd remind him that part of doing the call is to make sure the equipment is running before leaving. His response was, “Well, the real problem got fixed the day before.” He thought he should get credit! We reviewed that the customer doesn't care that you fixed the problem. All they know is that they had no heat when they woke up the morning following their service call. That's a call-back.

Richie, my brother, is the best tech I've ever known (Dan Holohan nicknamed him “The Man Who Can Fix Anything”). Typically he was the “last-chance-to-fix-it guy” before the customer quit or sued. He'd return from fixing a tech's call-back and ask me, “Why do I always seem to find the problem so easily? Many times it wasn't all that difficult to find. And I know they know this stuff. Am I able to resolve these calls because I'm more motivated and because I know the real danger of having an unsatisfied customer?”

The answer was always “Yes” to all of the above.

Effective Communication

When I joined the family business, I began as a tech. I was very motivated and had access to top mechanics as teachers, but I still had a higher rate of call-backs. Sometimes, the source of my call-backs was the decision to make a bad repair because I thought I was doing what the customer wanted.

But mostly it was a direct result of my poor communication skills. I was in a big hurry, which didn't promote proper diagnosis of the customer and what he or she perceived the problem to be. In fact, I really just wanted him or her to show me the equipment and get out of my way.

What I learned from my service manager was that it wasn't enough to have solid work habits and good technical skills. He told me, “Misdiagnosis of the customer's needs and desires creates more call-backs and customer dissatisfaction than the misdiagnosis of the actual service call.”

To really lower my call-backs and deliver a quality service experience, I would have to learn to ask effective questions and really listen to the customers' answers.

And the best thing we, as a company, did to minimize call-backs was to actually look at every call we did over a couple of months. We checked each and every work order and the job service history. This took the guesswork out of what was really causing our biggest headaches. Each call-back we identified generated the question “Was it bad workmanship, training, faulty equipment or a bad repair susceptible to generating a call-back?” We finally had a handle on what was causing us the greatest percentage of call-backs and why.

Here are the seven big things we found and the steps we took:

1. Sometimes techs are in a big hurry because they know the calls are piling up in dispatch. So, they try to shortcut the process; maybe they don't ask questions and listen to the answers. Or they try to skip using all the test procedures, meter and gauges they should. And whenever shortcuts were taken, they were on their way to “Call-back City.”

We asked the techs to slow down and do all the proper testing; just let us know how long they think they'll be. Spending this little extra time made a big difference in our call-back rate. We actually got done just about the same amount of calls because we didn't have to race back to a call-back.

2. Sometimes call-backs are the direct result of trying too hard to please the customer by doing a repair that shouldn't be done.

After our research, it became company policy to no longer offer to do certain repairs even though the customer desired it. We took the time to explain this to our customers. It was easy to do when we told them our decision was based upon our research and that it wasn't in their best interest or the company's. We had a better way.

For example, we wouldn't add dope to keep a boiler going in extremely cold weather no matter what because it played havoc with the new installation and created multiple call-backs.

3. Based on what we learned, we stopped selling certain makes and models of equipment because they had a poor track record of reliability and performance that generated extra service calls for us.

4. We sat down together to create the operations manual and the associated training classes. With the best techs and top management working together, we shared proven techniques that created a best practice for the tasks we did. We created a “best practice” manual that included what to do and how to do it right in the first place.

We agreed that some call-backs are inevitable, so we established a best practice to follow on a call-back. Then when a call-back happened, we were better able to take the most logical steps to minimize inconvenience for our customer.

Some service tasks we had to do even though we knew they had a higher likelihood that a call-back may occur. For those tasks, we created “what to do on the first call” and “what to do on the second call” procedures. This allowed us to zero in on the repetitive problem as quickly as possible by not repeating the same steps over and over.

5. We got techs to ask these two questions throughout the call: “Is this normal?” and “Why is this happening?”

6. We taught our techs to count how many switches they threw and how many valves they turned. Because before they left, that's how many they'd need to account for. That helped a lot.

7. And finally, we used the training center to simulate calls from start to finish. Techs trained on the procedures in the manual and role-played on how to talk to customers.

Good habits need to be practiced no matter what you're doing so you never forget. The goal is to be automatic without getting sloppy.