It's your key to survival and success.

America has millions of homeowners and business people who own offices, shops and warehouses and have never serviced, repaired or replaced any of their mechanical, plumbing or electrical equipment.

Many of them do not even know what a Phillips screwdriver looks like, let alone know how to use one. They desperately need your services.

Back in the good old days - the ’30s through the ’50s - people did not have enough money to pay someone to fix their problems, so they maintained and did repairs themselves. Neighbors and friends helped each other with problems the other did not understand.

These days, we have some contractors who do not have a service department. We also have many who do service work only. The majority provide service and construction.

The most critical part of operating a profitable service department is building and maintaining a good reputation in your market area. Your reputation is whatever people say and think about you.

When your performance is satisfactory and your prices are fair, your customers rarely tell anyone unless asked. If your customers are unhappy about whatever you did or did not do, they will usually tell 10 or 12 relatives, friends and acquaintances. Sadly, when your service is better than expected, they might tell only two or three others.

So it’s easy to understand why these numbers dictate that you provide above-average performance your customers will brag about. On the flipside, you cannot afford these simple, little negatives or disappointments.

Answer Your Phone

A customer looking for immediate service does not want to hear your recording, “Please leave a message and we will return your call.” They will call your competitors until someone actually answers. If you cannot afford a receptionist or service manager to hear that customer’s problems, you should consider some of these options:

• Include your cell phone number for emergency calls in your advertising, phonebook listings and on your trucks. You should have pertinent information on file about repeat customers’ premises to ensure the necessary tools and materials are brought with the service tech to fix their problems. With new customers, ask for as many details as they can provide.

• Recruit and train spouses of your employees, stay-at-home friends or retirees to answer your business phone at their residence or on a company cell phone. Provide them with as much information as possible to satisfy and please your potential customer.

• When your service tech or your recruit lives in a remote area with a different area code, advertise that phone number to assure callers you provide service in their area.

Before-Appointment Checklist

Never be late to a service appointment. A large number of America’s families have two working spouses. One must stay home or leave work early to meet your service tech. Many businesses will assign an employee to meet your tech.

Before you make an appointment time with that customer, you should:

• Check with your service tech to ascertain exactly what time he will be available. Always try to send a tech who is working in the customer’s vicinity. Give your tech the information you received from the customer, including the phone number. In the event the tech cannot be on time, he can call the customer as early as possible to let him know.

• Encourage flex-time options to your techs that will meet their personal, family or recreational enjoyment schedule and provide odd-hour availability to your customers. This is especially critical for those homes with two working spouses, as well as most businesses.

• Negotiate a favorable working agreement with a competitor to answer each other’s calls to provide immediate service when your techs are busy. Outsiders think we are enemies instead of respectful competitors, but they have never been to a local contractors association meeting or attended a convention where we all share our pluses and minuses.

Keep in mind, it is an outright insult to be late and make someone wait for you. You are insinuating their time is not as important as yours.

Respect Your Customer's Promises

Once your service tech finishes the job, he should always leave the customer’s home or business cleaner and neater than when he arrived. Many service techs take off their shoes or wear cloth booties to prevent any dirt or scuff marks on the floors. Care should be taken carrying tools or equipment to avoid scratching or damaging walls or furniture. With large pieces of equipment, always send a helper to assist.

Techs should park the service vehicle out of the customer’s way and where shrubbery or fences won't be damaged.

Service techs should perform as much dirty work as possible outside or in the customer’s garage or work shed. This is extremely critical with any possibility of spilling liquids. Detergent, clean wiping rags, a broom or brush and dustpan should be on each truck; techs should spend whatever extra time is necessary to clean up any mess.

You should have a computerized skills inventory to make sure your tech has the knowledge and ability to service that customer’s installation. This skills inventory also provides information to specialize your in-house training. You do not want techs practicing at the customer’s site.

Reputation Enhancement

You can certainly understand why any of these negatives would displease customers enough for them to complain to all of their acquaintances. Oftentimes, when customers are unhappy with service, they may stretch the truth and make it sound even worse. Let’s take a look at some positive measures that will enhance your reputation.

• Teach and enforce good customer relations. Let your customers know that you have adopted their problems.

• Your service techs should be dressed in clean, professional-looking company uniforms - and smile.

• Survey customers’ problem(s) and offer flat-rate pricing to avoid any dispute or displeasure with your bill.

• Survey their entire situation and recommend maintenance, repair or even upgrades. Bring this survey back to your service manager to file and facilitate future calls.

• Show customers the advantages of an ongoing service and maintenance contract.

• Give something extra. You could do small repairs or maintenance, such as adjusting controls, tightening screws or bolts, oiling or greasing moving parts, stopping minor drips or leaks, removing moss or growth, spraying bugs, etc.

Advertising Tips

There is absolutely no advertising that will beat having customers brag about your service, but effective advertising is necessary.

You have a moving billboard with your name and phone numbers on a clean company truck driven by a courteous driver. A picture of your service tech in uniform plus a clever saying catches potential customers’ attention.

In addition to your phonebook ads, you can call on potential customers and leave printed material, prompting service and maintenance contracts.

Construction may slow down or even stop, but service and maintenance will always be needed.