HVAC Soft Skills Best Practices

In the residential HVAC industry, technicians are faced with customers every day. Each interaction presents its own set of unique challenges since no two customers are ever the same. While the variety of people we may encounter is wide, the HVAC technician's variety of soft skills and intuitive ability to communicate needs to be even wider. I’d like to take some time here to go over some of the best practices to implement as a technician. 

In this year’s HVAC School Training Symposium, I had an excellent discussion with Ty Branaman. We discussed HVAC soft skills and our own ideas for what technicians should know when interacting with customers. A few of the topics we covered include shoe covers, technical jargon, restroom use inside a customer’s home, customer micro-managing, dirty filters, etc. We actually had this discussion in front of a camera for Ty’s Youtube channel

 

Shoe covers

The first—and probably least divisive—HVAC soft skills topic to cover here is shoe covering. Every technician should have one to two boxes of good shoe covers in stock at all times. The purpose of the shoe cover is to limit the amount of dirt a technician tracks into a customer’s space. However, another reason to wear shoe covers is to keep your nice work boots clean! We’ve all seen those homes that are so far gone it looks like it belongs on an episode of Hoarders

A common mistake I see technicians make with shoe covers is neglecting to remove them after entering an attic or crawl space or once they walk outside. Wearing them on your walk back and forth to the truck is counterproductive to the purpose of the covers. So, always remember to remove them when you aren’t inside the customer’s home. Doing so will also keep your shoe covers in good condition for multiple uses. (However, I only reuse shoe covers for light commercial spaces. I always make it a point to let the customer watch me grab a brand new pair of shoe coverings for their home.)

 

Dealing with curious customers (or “experts”)

Another thing I think most technicians loathe about customer interaction is when they encounter that particular species of customer that says, “I’m an engineer,” or, “I used to be in the trade myself!” or, “Do you mind if I come in there with you to watch?”

I should say this before I go any further: Once, I was on a commercial metal rooftop doing maintenance on all the heat pumps up there. The roof hatch didn’t have a vertical ladder, so my extension ladder was set up. I’m at least 500 ft away from the hatch, and I’m busy working on a heat pump when I hear someone come up from behind me. I turn around, and it’s one of the managers of this store. “What the blankety-blank?!” was my first thought. I answered his stupid questions quickly and then proceeded to very gently explain why he can’t use my ladder or walk across this roof while I’m around. It wasn't because I doubted his ability, but it was a liability.

I bring that up to say that it doesn’t matter how comfortable you are with allowing a customer to watch you work; they should never be on your ladders, and they should never be around you in compromising situations where their presence could put your or their safety at risk (e.g., dangerous electrical exposure, heights, etc.) 

That said, I actually believe technicians should encourage their customers to ask questions and welcome the customers who want to watch them work. This is a controversial subject, but the reality is that the relationship between homeowners and contractors is soured by the homeowner’s distrust for what contractors do. Unfortunately, there's a pervasive mindset that harms a lot of techs in our industry:

Technicians are snake-oil salesmen who are unqualified and try to charge too much for capacitors.

The best way to confront this notion is with customer education. Allowing and encouraging a customer to ask questions and taking the time to explain the process of diagnostics can help diffuse the unspoken tension many customers feel by default. 

Probably the most important aspect of this principle is sitting down with the customer at the end of a call and being clear about what you did, what they can do, and what certain things mean. That doesn’t mean a technician should go through a bunch of technical jargon or the details of superheat and subcooling for every call, but a certain level of teaching is important. So many customers have specifically requested technicians back by name because they remembered and respected the time that one technician took to make sure they were comfortable and confident in the work that was done.

MeasureQuick is the biggest tool for the technician when it comes to building customer trust. The measureQuick reports are one of the coolest things in our industry right now as a customer communication tool. Customers love it! They won’t know what everything means, but that’s where the technician comes in. Not only do the customers now have a record of the work done and a snapshot of the way their system is performing, but they feel involved. They are now a part of the process, and chances are that customer has never felt that way before. 

 

What to do when nature calls

The next hot HVAC soft skills topic Ty and I mentioned (but didn’t go into much detail about) is whether or not a technician should use the restroom at a residential customer’s home. The short answer from both of us is NO. Here are my thoughts on the reasons why:

Using the restroom happens. It’s a human thing, and we all do it. However, when a stranger is coming into your home and there is an unknown element added to an element of distrust, it’s not going to help your confidence or respect for the stranger when they stink up your bathroom. (It's even worse when they also leave the bathroom door open and your hand towel wet.) The point is, it doesn’t matter how immaculate the technician leaves the bathroom; the very idea of having a stranger use the restroom in their own home is a huge turn-off for so many people. 

Given the fact that the HVAC industry is already fighting an uphill battle with every customer feeling like we are the scum of the earth, we should do everything we can to eliminate additional obstacles that could widen the rift between what we do and the customers’ trust.

My philosophy when it comes to being a service technician (as I explain in the video with Ty) is to leave no trace of myself when I leave a building other than the solution to the problem that existed when I arrived. That means I don’t use customers’ restrooms, I don’t touch walls, I don’t forget breakers/disconnects, I don’t eat lunch in the customer’s driveway, and I don't leave tools in attics/crawlspaces. Forgetting happens to the best of us, but one of the ways I keep from making mistakes like the ones mentioned above is keeping a mental checklist of things to go through before I leave or physically writing everything down as I go along. 

The most important aspect of this rule I keep for myself and for technicians that work with me is that it communicates respect to the customer. Regardless of how anyone else feels about this topic, it is an act of respect not to use a stranger’s bathroom. Even if I know the customer and I’ve worked with them for years, and they say it's okay, I don’t do it out of principle. This idea also applies to office restrooms for me and my coworkers.

Now, I want to take a slight sidestep and provide a caveat that I do feel exceptions can be made in certain installation settings. When a technician’s presence will be more invasive and prolonged (over the span of 4-8 hours), I do believe agreements can be made with the customer. Personally, I’ll stay away from it, but I understand and feel differently about this topic in the context of an installation project. I imagine this will spark some controversy, but before we all get too excited, I have one more topic to discuss that is sure to send some business owners into a frenzy! 

 

Filter disposal

Filters: we all change them for customers, and many companies require technicians to carry 1-2 of every size they can on their trucks/vans. However, some technicians take old filters from customers and throw them in the back of their trucks; they will continue to do so until they get back to the shop to throw all of them away. I am extremely against this practice. I understand many companies require this practice as well. In fact, I’ve worked for several companies that required this practice, and I just didn’t do it. Here’s the main reason why: It’s unhealthy for the technician.

I complied with this particular policy for the first 6-8 months of being a technician early on. That was one of the most sickly 6-8 months I’ve ever experienced! Sure, one could argue that it builds a stronger immune system, or you should be storing the old filters in boxes that you can close up. It doesn’t matter. It’s someone else’s dirt, and it’s compromising your health and ability to perform your job at 100% capacity. 

Being able to function with a 24/7 stuffy nose and a slight headache is not a superpower, and you shouldn’t be proud of it. I had a technician once completely miss the very present electrical burning smell inside a home because they had a stuffy nose. Old filters from a week ago were still in the back of their van. The truth is that no customer I’ve ever dealt with has ever refused to let me throw away their filters in their trashcan. They may have a specific bin they want it in, but they’ve never refused and they’ve never taken offense. Even larger commercial clients have always allowed me to use their dumpster. 

I’m not writing this to encourage technicians to rebel against the practices their employers have put in place. But I do believe it is important that technicians take care of themselves, and this is one way I keep from getting sick or tracking dirt into other customers’ homes that could get them sick as well. As technicians, we have a responsibility to our customers to be responsible for ourselves and our own health. 

This article is sure to draw some heat for the views expressed here. I want to clarify that my views here are not a blanket representation of how every manager at Kalos Services, Inc. thinks or feels. In fact, I would wager Bryan probably disagrees with me on a couple of these viewpoints. For more on HVAC soft skills and more best practices, you can check out his article HERE.

So, let’s make this an open discussion. How do you approach certain situations that were mentioned here? Do you feel comfortable with letting a customer watch you work? Do you think technicians should never leave the dirty filters behind? 

The point here, I think, is to get HVAC technicians to think more about the soft skills they use (whether they realize it or not), and the impacts certain decisions can have on the overall experience a customer has with the HVAC industry as a whole. The technician isn’t the one who sets the pricing model, and they don’t control how long parts take to get from the factory, yet they are the face of the company and the industry at large from the customer’s perspective. It would benefit every HVAC technician to take a moment to reflect on how they can make the most of these interactions and improve their soft skills in areas they may have never thought of before.

 

—Kaleb Saleeby

 

More Resources:

https://hvacrschool.com/videos/soft-skills-can-be-hard-disciplines-of-growth/

https://hvacrschool.com/the-secrets-to-happy-hvac-customers/

 

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