BY BOB MIODONSKI
PUBLISHER AND EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
ONE OF THE REAL benefits to me of our recently completed Comfortech RoadShow Series was the chance to spend time with the contractors, speakers and sponsor representatives who joined us in April and May in six cities across the country.
The focus of our one-day educational and networking programs was the residential service contractor. Our keynote speaker was Matt Michel, president and CEO of the Service Roundtable, which is an organization that provides online business education to plumbing and HVAC contractors.
In recapping the day's events one evening over a couple beers in a local tavern, I mentioned to Matt that my father had owned a service business. True, he was a dry cleaner and not a contractor, but I thought that what he learned over the course of 36 years in business was relevant to our discussion nevertheless. I'm not sure that Matt saw the connection, so I thought I would give this a try.
With his 83rd birthday coming up a few days before Father's Day, I asked my dad to spell out the keys to success in the service business. Here's what he had to say:
Stand by your work and your word. "What I would strongly emphasize is to stand behind what you do. Make sure it's done right. If a customer is dissatisfied, don't give them an argument.
" Always stand by your word. You're going to make mistakes and do the wrong thing sometimes in the service business. When that happens, fix it at your cost."
Never cut your prices. "The main thing that I could give my customers was quality, so I always tried to give them the best. I never had a sale. I thought it was an insult to give my customers a sale. I had some very affluent customers, and I tried to give them their money's worth.
" When my biggest competitor went down in price, I went up. The first time it happened I was too green to know any better.
" The main thing is to provide quality. You're always going to have competitors who will cut prices and take shortcuts."
Treat difficult customers with care. "Some people will always be a problem; you can't satisfy them. I would tell them that we agreed on a price for a job and that they were getting what they paid for, possibly more.
"I usually had to take over these customers personally. I had one customer who always raked me over the coals. I told her that we had done the best we could do, and she always came back.
"With some customers, I just told them to go somewhere else if they weren't happy. I didn't get rowdy and didn't swear. Nine times out of 10, they came back."
Build employee loyalty. "In my case, I was probably the first person in my area to give my employees health insurance. This was in the early to mid-1950s. I had a customer who worked for Blue Cross who told me that it would cost me like $ 6 per month per employee, and I said, 'Well, I can afford that.'
"You should have seen the look on their faces when their wife had a baby and their bills were paid for. You couldn't beat their loyalty after that.
"Some of the things that I did the employees didn't think were so good, like installing a time clock. But the employees accepted it after awhile. And they came in on time.
"The health insurance, Christmas parties and some of the other things that I did all helped to create loyalty. I always felt loyalty to them and they felt the same way."
Join an association. "I was the president of the local dry cleaners association and a member of the state group. We exchanged ideas about the business and talked about different products that we were using. It was very valuable to me, although I learned more during breaks and over drinks than during meetings.
"Our state group fought against the state government, which was trying to put a sales tax on service. This was many years ago, and we still don't have a sales tax on service in Illinois."
Work hard. "We just worked our tails off day and night."
You're going to be a success in the service business if you're dedicated to your customers, employees and industry, and if you're willing to work hard to provide quality. That's true whether you're a contractor or a dry cleaner.