Dad was all Scottish, his lineage as strong as any member of the St. Andrew Society. His maternal grandfather was a master millwright. It’s said that great-grandfather McDougal could shore up a wayward cottage with a cast-off telephone pole, a level, and an armful of gravel. His talents were legendary around Pine Island and Dad reveled in the memories.
Then there was his paternal grandfather. Great-grandfather Todd immigrated to Boston as a stationary engineer. He learned his trade in Edinburgh, and as with all knowledge it served him well. His first job in a new land was the stationary engineer at Boston’s YWCA.
With genes like that, our Koven boiler was no match for Dad’s skillful hands. Or so he thought.
“Soot stops heat,” Dad’s fateful words still ring true. With that thought, combined with a fistful of tools, Dad’s lineage and Mom’s torpedo-shaped vacuum cleaner, we tackled my (and his) first boiler cleaning.
What could be that hard? Take off the right screws, find the soot and vacuum it away like dirt on the living room carpet. I’ll never forget the cloud of soot and the groans that poor vacuum cleaner made as it met an untimely demise.
Fortunately, Mom had the number for our oil company memorized. Mac came to the rescue, and put the poor boiler back together.
Just goes to prove you can’t expect to succeed in service by channeling the souls of talented, departed ancestors.
You, too, may have roots that, when combined with drive, could launch you into service. Service is a component of our trades that we take for granted. You know how the parts go together. Your customers need someone to help if the parts break. Why not start performing service? OK, just do me a favor and follow these suggestions:
The Basics: Learn the basics of oil heat, and while you’re at it, learn gas heat, too. Both trades deal with the components of combustion, and combustion means learning all you can about safety issues.
The codes will help you install and maintain heating systems safely, but codes are only the minimum. Find out which codes regulate your installations. NFPA 31 regulates oil-burning installations; NFPA 54 regulates natural gas; and NFPA 58, combined with CETP classes, addresses propane.
Codes need to be combined with common sense and experience. And learn from every experience. Visit with your local fire, building and public safety officials. Ask them if there are any classes that you could take. Even better, see if there are local codes that you need to work within. I remember meeting some code officials at a class years ago. Their talents are a resource I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for that chance meeting.
One way or another, you need to gather directed experience under the watchful eyes of someone who knows what to do. Those “eyes” don’t necessarily have to be peering over your shoulder either. Today’s oil heat resources are abundant. Manufacturers, trade associations, local technical schools and the Internet are at your disposal.
Please, don’t skimp on this first very important step. I hate the analogy of a trip without a map, but this time it really fits. Keep an open mind and a closed mouth. It’s hard to hear someone over the sound of your own voice.
At the same time, you should challenge your teachers. I don’t mean “stump the teacher.” Make sure your presenter can substantiate his or her “facts” with a published, current knowledge base. I stress current. I caught wind of a soapbox lecturer denouncing some installation standards. Unfortunately, this self-professed expert was quoting code standards that had been rescinded. Sadly, this lecture was presented to an assembled crowd of tradesmen, all thirsting for sound direction.
Troubleshooting: Learn all you can on how to troubleshoot. Oil heat is a sophisticated combination of basic trades. You’ll need a background in combustion science, electricity, hydraulics, plumbing and physics. Without a solid foundation, you’ll end up just changing parts until it finally works, or the customer comes to his senses and throws you out.
Troubleshooting requires a defined series of steps, starting with the basics and building toward a conclusion. I was fortunate to learn from some brilliant men, some of them educators, others tradesmen and my father, an industrial designer (boiler cleaning excepted).
One common thread rang true: Start with a disciplined list and stay with that pattern. Write down your plan. Next time you need a new game, try “filling in the blanks” on a job, starting with No. 1.
I had a class in college that stressed the difference between a job and a task. What’s the difference? A task is one component of a job. A job is the sum of all related tasks. Take removing a part. Each step involved is a task. Now, put them in order and you have what’s referred to as a job. That was an eye-opener. List every task for a particular troubleshooting job ahead of time. You’ll be better prepared and finish the job faster than you could ever imagine.
Valuable Service: When you perform service, charge what you are worth and collect it. I worked for a man I’ll remember and respect to the day I die. He learned retail sales from a hardware store. Everything was an expense. Profit didn’t happen until “everything in the box is sold.”
This time “everything in the box” refers to your talent. Are you sure you’re selling everything in that box? Service has a value, and this value should not be discounted. Don’t fall into the trap that you’ll make plenty of money with the replacement opportunities or that service supports some other sale.
Sooner or later, someone has to pay. You have to pay for parts, materials, tool replacement and labor; expect your customers to pay you back. Oh yeah, profit. Why invest your money and not get a return? When you buy those parts and supplies, you’ve made an investment. You need to expect a return - or profit - so embrace the term.
Now comes the big question: How much should you charge? Here is where you need to seek out some professional advice. Ask your accountant for direction. Join your local trade association. Get in touch with some of the trade experts. You can find them here in PM. A simple business concept. The proper formula for profit margin. Some advice on staffing. It’s the little steps that make your efforts worthwhile.
You’ve all heard the old saying, “I lose 5 cents on every sale, but, boy, what volume!” Don’t get blindsided by busy. Slow down. Use proper, methodical business practices and establish your service business with solid, sound principles.
Know Your Costs: As you build your business, know your costs. That’s fairly easy to work with. An employee is paid weekly. You calculate a base on a 40-hour week. Let’s say your employee gets two weeks off and five days sick pay. That’s three 40-hour weeks paid with no billable work.
Add in some time for education; I’d say 16 hours per year per employee. Considering all your other expenses, you’ll see why I say you need guidance. All of those expenses, plus your expected profit, will establish your sell price.
Be Picky: Do you have a list of supply houses? How did you choose them? If you picked them because they are the cheapest in town, I’d ask you to choose your suppliers based on how you relate to your customers. Are you the cheapest company in town? I hope not. If your customers expect quality from you, expect the same from your suppliers. Do you just work from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday? I doubt it. If your customers expect you to be there for them regardless of time or day, expect the same from your suppliers.
High standards are a two-way street. Quality supplies, quality supplier, quality service and the rest is up to you.
And while you’re at all this, tell the truth. If you don’t know how to fix it, tell yourself the truth and find someone to help you. If you can’t, tell your customer the truth and let them start fresh with someone else.
Would you like to hear some stories of what happens when you don’t? Just ask any insurance investigator or industry expert witness about some of his latest horror stories. There is a proverbial road paved with good intentions that leads to…well, you know that one.