No more customers, only clients

THE MECHANICAL contractor is facing an increasing number of challenges, from technology to labor shortages, from skyrocketing material prices to astronomical fuel costs, and of course the ever-present low-ball competition. Homeowners and business owners are facing the same rising costs, and the attraction to a lower price often overshadows the best solution. At Innovative Service Solutions, our standard

THE MECHANICAL contractor is facing an increasing number of challenges, from technology to labor shortages, from skyrocketing material prices to astronomical fuel costs, and of course the ever-present low-ball competition. Homeowners and business owners are facing the same rising costs, and the attraction to a lower price often overshadows the best solution.

At Innovative Service Solutions, our standard business procedures ensure that we evaluate every material purchase and, through efficient dispatch, we minimize unnecessary fleet costs. But we also recognize that business owners need more education when making buying decisions. BOMA offers a comparison tool for building owners that uses average square footage costs. That's a great benchmark if the competition shares the same quality philosophy, but it doesn't apply when comparing apples to oranges. So, how does a building owner get past the sizzle of the low price and into the meat of the decision?

We looked at ourselves and decided we needed an attitude facelift. We needed a differentiating factor. Why are we better?

We started by evaluating why customers buy our services. Our research led us to the definition of customer. According to Webster's dictionary, a customer is someone who buys goods and services. Think about that. Do we really want our highly skilled professional services to be thought of as a commodity?

Our customers see something in us that keeps them coming back. They see the results of ongoing customer relations and technical training. They see our clean trucks and our uniformed technicians, but is that the meat or the sizzle? We needed to look deeper.

When people have health concerns, they choose a doctor. It's possible that the choice of doctor is limited by insurance coverage, but they are seeking care by an expert. They are not shopping for a commodity. When a people need legal advice, they find an attorney. They are seeking guidance. They are not shopping for a commodity.

We turned again to the dictionary and looked up patient and client. Both definitions refer to someone who is under the care, protection and guidance of an expert. Nothing is said about buying goods or services. The definition speaks to providing expert professional care. That was our paradigm shift.

We no longer have customers; we only have clients. So how do we demonstrate that this attitude change is meat, not sizzle? We started by educating our entire staff. Client vs. customer became the buzzword and we defined the difference internally. We made it a way of life. We no longer have customer service representatives; we now have client service representatives.

With the name change came the constant awareness of the difference. Now, when we speak with clients, we speak in terms of care, or guiding them to a decision. Our detailed quotations have become educational tools and give us an opportunity to demonstrate differentiating factors. We redefined our maintenance agreements to be client-driven agreements that reveal the depth and commitment of every team member.

When our technician arrives at a building, he informs the client he is there and working to resolve the task at hand. Small things such as wearing booties in a client's office area demonstrate a commitment of caring. When the call is complete, a review and sign-out protocol with the client's representative is part of the tech-nician's responsibility. Every team member exhibits this professional attitude.

Many years ago the chairman of Chrysler made the term "buyer's remorse" famous. We wanted to make sure it didn't apply to ISS. When our building owners choose us as their expert, we assure them that their decision is correct. A member of the CSR team makes a follow-up call within 48 hours to determine client satisfaction, and only then authorizes the release of a detailed invoice to complete the transaction.

My next challenge was to bring this "client's perspective" attitude to new decisionmakers. How do we demonstrate our differentiating factor? The easiest way is through client testimonials. If clients are happy with the care and service, they will share that exuberance. We ask our clients if we can refer the occasional new client to them or if they will write a testimonial letter, and they overwhelmingly agree.

The next thing we did was invite new clients to our offices. Here, decision-makers can compare the depth of the organization against the competition. They can feel the caring attitude of the entire staff. They meet the support staff and evaluate our training programs. We are educating the decision-makers.

And by doing so, our entire team becomes empowered and has an opportunity to demonstrate their ability. This opportunity to "show off" is a powerful positive motivator for the team.

We continue to follow good business practices. By adopting a caring and guiding attitude toward those seeking our service, we have demonstrated a differentiating factor and provide another comparison tool for the decision-maker.

Rich Bodwell is the president of Innovative Service Solutions in Orlando, Fla. Bodwell has spent 17 years in the heating and cooling service industry. Innovative Service Solutions is a member of The Unified Group. For more information on Innovative Service Solutions, visit www.innovativeservicesolutions.com or call 407/296-5211.