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Key Soft Skills for Technicians
As with most other trades, HVAC/R technicians need to have a solid set of hard skills to make it in the industry. Whether we pick up those hard skills by working on cars as teenagers, learning them in a trade school, or acquiring them on the job, we’ll have to rely on our hard skills to get our jobs done right. But what about soft skills?
We often can’t make the most of an HVAC/R career if our soft skills aren’t up to par, especially in residential HVAC. For example, a technician may have hard skills that are good enough to get the job done, but he may not make his customers feel comfortable. So, they may not be willing to recommend the company he works for. As a result, he may miss out on raises or promotions; he may not reach his full potential because his lack of soft skills holds him back.
Soft skills may be tricky to learn, as schools and training programs don’t teach them directly. So, developing soft skills requires honest feedback, practice, and self-awareness.
Why focus on learning soft skills?
Since mechanical aptitude is one of the greatest indicators of success in the HVAC/R industry, soft skills may seem like an afterthought. That’s especially true of commercial and industrial environments where some of us have little interaction with other people.
However, soft skills can affect the effectiveness of your hard skills, and they can make or break a customer’s experience with you.
When you think about it, every customer of yours has an experience with your company. Several things factor into that experience: your competence, urgency, efficiency, courtesy, and more.
Hard skills fall under competence only. You need to diagnose and fix a system correctly for the customer to be satisfied and avoid the negative experience of a callback. Soft skills like observance, conscientiousness, and resourcefulness all influence your diagnostic success; hard skills alone are only part of the equation.
Urgency and efficiency come from having a work-first mindset and showing up to a job ready to work. Being organized and neat also allows you to find parts and tools much more easily, saving precious time in the long run
It also goes without saying that customers would rather deal with a pleasant technician than a grumpy one who complains about their boss and their job all the time. Keeping drama out of work, listening to the customer, and smiling while talking to the customer all improve that customer’s experience with you and your company.
Soft skills vs. personality
Keep in mind that soft skills don’t necessarily refer to someone’s personality. While it may be easier for someone who’s more extroverted and warm to develop certain soft skills, the actual skills refer to habits and behaviors that make the customer comfortable. Introverts can provide excellent customer service, especially if they know what to listen for and how to answer a customer’s questions.
Some soft skills don’t have to do with communication, either. Someone may be very friendly with customers, but they could leave tools behind or make other silly mistakes because they are unobservant or disorganized.
All of the soft skills we’ll highlight can be practiced and improved over time. The goal of applying these skills is to make the customer feel comfortable, respected, and satisfied with the experience you have given them.
Being observant and conscientious
Observant techs are aware of what happens around them. Conscientious techs take that a step further by responding to what they see appropriately and diligently.
For example, an observant technician may see a dog dish and think, “Ah. That customer has a dog. I will be careful when opening and closing the doors.” A conscientious technician will ask the customer if any gates need to stay closed or if other special considerations need to be taken for the dog’s safety.
However, observation skills and conscientiousness also complement your hard skills. When you take a wide-narrow-wide approach to diagnosis, you can start with a holistic view of the equipment, zero in on a likely problem area, and then assess the entire system again. You may be responding to a classic capacitor failure, but you may notice that the blower wheel is dirty and that the airflow is poor.
Since you have observed a potential problem area, you can step in and take care of that issue before it causes the customer heartache.
We encounter all sorts of units in our work because there are so many manufacturers in the market, and each one is a bit different. In other words, while there are many consistencies between systems there are also nuances that eitther require costly trial and error or a bit of reading… and the second option is prefferable.
So, while it would be great to know everything about every manufacturer’s product lineup, it would be better to know where to find the manuals and information that can help us.
Are you working on a Lennox unit? Know where to find Lennox manuals and read about the approach method for charging. Are you confused about the thermostat wiring on a Ruud or Rheem heat pump? Read the manuals to see what those units need.
So, you need to know where to FIND the manual before you RTFM.
You can also find out a lot of useful information by looking at the data tag of a unit. You’ll see the model number and can confirm the tonnage. You can see the supply gas pressure range and manifold pressure on a furnace data tag. The data tag is an underrated treasure trove of information that can help you diagnose or benchmark a unit, and you would be wise to know how to read it.
Staying organized gives you a few different ways to improve the customer experience.
Keeping all of your tools in one area will make the customer feel that you’re respecting their property. Leaving your tool bag on the lawn, some wrenches on the concrete pad, and a full pump sprayer by the air handler is just sloppy. Even worse, customers may perceive your sloppiness as a lack of respect for them; their whole lot is your dumping ground.
Having your tools and parts scattered around your van makes it harder for you to keep track of your belongings. When you can’t keep track of your tools and aftermarket parts, you may lose a critical component for a job. The customer will probably be unhappy with you for wasting their time.
However, when you keep all of your tools together and know where to find everything, you can make your jobs a lot more efficient because you won’t have to take the time to look for tools or parts floating around your van somewhere.
Quicker jobs improve the customer experience, as people are accustomed to quick service and will almost surely be happier when you finish earlier than expected.
I think most of us know somebody who brings down the morale of everyone around them. Oh, but that person swears they’re not rude; they’re just blunt, dry, or brutally honest.
That communication style won’t impress customers.
When customers write reviews for HVAC businesses, you’ll notice that many of them focus on the technician’s demeanor. The customers expect us to know how to fix their equipment, but they are especially impressed when we’re friendly and make them feel good about the job we just performed.
We sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news when an expensive part like a compressor fails. That conversation can go a few different ways; you might be negative and say, “Oh man, I’ve got some really bad news for you. The compressor failed, and it’s going to cost a few thousand dollars for a part that’ll be here next week at the earliest.” Alternatively, we can focus on smiling, being informative, and showing that you’re determined to find a solution that works for the customer. I think you’ll find that the second approach will result in a more satisfied customer.
You can even empathize with the customer without being negative. Don’t lead with empathy; allow the customer to react and then respond accordingly. If a customer is upset about the cost of a part, you can tell them that you understand that the problem is upsetting and start a conversation about financing options. That way, you use empathy in a way that leads to a solution.
Your body language can also make you seem more pleasant. If you smile, make eye contact with the customer, and show that you’re grateful for the opportunity to serve the customer, customers will likely feel more at ease around you. In the end, they may feel better about the service they’ve received.
In the same vein as being pleasant, listening skills help you a lot when you need to communicate with customers.
To be a good listener, you need to make the experience about the customer, not you. Take their concerns into consideration and develop a plan tailored to their needs. Don’t object to something the customer says because it makes YOUR job harder.
Customers are also not the people you’ll want to vent to, either. When you make the job about you instead of the customer, you can come across as a manipulative person. Customers don’t want to feel like you’re manipulating them or that their decision has to appease you.
Listening is a discipline; we have to practice slowing down and addressing the customer’s fears. If the customer thinks that the thermostat is the issue, it’s a good idea to check the thermostat, even if you’re pretty sure that’s not the problem. You make the customer feel heard and respected, which improves their experience.
Perhaps the best way to build a customer’s trust is to involve them in the job and be as transparent as possible.
From the beginning, customers would appreciate knowing what to expect. Let them know when you’ll likely arrive at the job site. (Then you have to fulfill that expectation by showing up on time or letting them know if you’ll be late.)
Early on, you’ll want to set the agenda with the customer. They’ll probably want to know what you’ll be doing inside their house. It’s even a good idea to show the customer what you’re doing; that way, they can know what you’re fixing and how your repair will improve their system’s performance.
Thorough communication builds trust with the customer. When you show that you can listen to the customer and communicate a solution that addresses their concerns, you boost their confidence and improve their experience.
We’ve talked about the Dunning-Kruger effect a few times before and how it’s a plague of ignorance. In short, some people who have the least amount of knowledge about something tend to be the most confident in their abilities.
We see others in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect all the time; I’m sure many of us have Facebook friends who suddenly became infectious disease experts sometime last year because they read a few articles about COVID-19. It’s annoying and difficult to take those people seriously.
So, it’s annoying (and more than a little concerning) when HVAC/R technicians embody the Dunning-Kruger effect, too. If you aren’t aware of what you don’t know, you may end up making costly mistakes and creating more of a headache for your customers.
However, when you’re willing to admit that you don’t know something, you’d be able to use your resources to find the answer. You’d be much more likely to do the job right if you had the self-awareness to acknowledge the gap in your understanding and seek help.
Being pleasant and having organizational skills is fine and dandy, but what does that look like in action?
We’ve gathered some top tips for improving the customer experience. We’ve based these tips on some previous podcasts and input from members of the HVAC School Facebook group:
1. Walk quickly
One of Bert’s top tips is to walk quickly whenever you’re at a job site. Customers and coworkers judge you on how quickly you move. When you move with urgency, you give the impression that you’re on a mission and that you’ve got your mind on the task at hand. When you walk slowly, you may give off the impression that you don’t respect the customer’s time or the job they’ve given you.
2. Listen to and validate the customer’s concerns
Many people in the Facebook group mentioned that empathy is a valuable soft skill, and they’re right. However, that’s a rather vague answer, and empathy has its pitfalls; you’ll want to avoid complaining with the customer and talking about how you “understand what they’re going through” because you’ve also gone through something difficult recently. You’ve just made their concern all about you, which is what they DON’T need you to do.
When you listen to the customer, you get out of your own headspace and can focus on a solution. For example, if a customer mentions that the thermostat might have an issue, they will feel validated if you check the thermostat. Even if nothing is wrong with it, you listened to them and were focused on a solution for them. Moreover, when a customer is upset, you can simply say that you understand their emotions and stick to the facts and solutions. THAT is what we mean when we say that it’s better to respond to a customer accordingly than to lead with empathy.
3. Give attentive eye contact
Maintaining eye contact is one of the most important things you can do to show respect to others and be professional. When you make eye contact with the customer as they’re speaking to you, you’re letting them know that they have your undivided attention. If you’re looking around and don’t look the customer (or your boss) in the eye, you may look distracted and make them feel disrespected.
However, it’s not a good idea to stare at a customer all the time; eye contact can be overdone, so try to show that the customer has your attention without being creepy about it.
4. Stay off your phone (unless it is work-related)
Like making eye contact, staying off your phone shows that you are focusing on the job and that you are NOT distracted by social media or text messages. If you have to use your phone for something related to the job, you can show the customer what you’re doing. For example, if you use our recovery tank fill calculator, you can show the customer why you’re putting in certain values for the tare weight, water capacity, and refrigerant type. Then, they will know that you’re focused on the job and won’t be able to judge you for being distracted.
5. Respect the customer’s property with drop cloths, shoe covers, etc.
The customer’s home may just be a job site to you, but it’s their living place, and they probably feel a bit anxious that a stranger will have to enter and work inside their home. To help ease that anxiety, you can put some shoe covers on once you reach the front porch. Instead of walking around their house with dirty shoes (or your nasty socks), you’re showing concern for their living space. If you’re cleaning an evaporator coil in place, you can also put down drop cloths to protect the customer’s floor. You’re showing that you respect the customer’s property, and they will almost surely appreciate that.
6. Follow up with the customer after you finish the job
We’ve talked a lot about communication skills before and during the job, but we haven’t said much about what we could be doing better after the job. You can show the customer that you care about their needs and the work you’ve done for them by giving them a phone call or email a few days to a week after you finish the job for them. Following up will only take a few minutes out of your day, but it can mean a lot to the customer; that call or email shows that you’re thinking about the customer and want to make sure they’re still happy with the work you’ve done.
While it’s accurate to say that soft skills shape the customer experience, they’re a lot more useful than that.
The soft skills you practice on the job can also help you improve your personal relationships. For example, your partner, spouse, or kids would likely notice and appreciate an improvement in your communication skills. Or, if you need to repair your car and appliances, your heightened observation skills may help you catch a small problem and nip it in the bud.
Most of all, soft skills can help you in ANY field. While trades careers are great because they require a similar set of hard skills, you can take your soft skills anywhere if you decide to enter a completely different field after so many years in the trades.
So, practicing and improving your soft skills is an investment of time and effort, but it can pay off in all areas of your life, not just your current HVAC/R career.