Service Secrets is a new monthly column designed to help you get your service business on track. Each month, a successful service contractor will reveal the secrets to one aspect of their business. Start taking notes.

Paul Loveland is a man of faith, and he puts a lot of it in his employees. Now that he's left the field to focus on the business end of Loveland Electrical Service, his St. Louis-based residential service company, he entrusts them with the responsibility of representing the company when dealing with customers over the phone and in person. But he also relies on them for help with one of the most important things he does: hiring technicians. Everyone in the office — from the receptionist to the most senior electrician — contributes to the process, offering opinions on an applicant's conversational style, personal hygiene, and technical skill. They don't know it, but electricians looking for a job at Loveland Electrical Service begin their interview as soon as they walk in the door.

A new attitude. Three-and-a-half years ago when Loveland made the leap from residential subcontracting to electrical service work, he learned quickly that he was going to have to make some serious adjustments to his approach to hiring. During nearly three decades in the residential business, his main concern was just finding electricians with the technical skills. “In construction, if a guy has two legs and can walk, you can pretty much hire him,” he says with a laugh.

On the other hand, service work requires employees to interact with customers daily, and they have to not only know how to install a new 400A service but do it while building a rapport with the customer. Suddenly the character traits Loveland was most interested in changed drastically. “Appearance and attitude became number one and number two,” Loveland says. “If you don't have a good attitude toward people, how do you expect to work with them on a daily basis?”

Attitude and comfort with the public are such important character traits to Loveland that he's willing to do whatever it takes to find employees with both — even taking on a new apprentice. “I'm not afraid of hiring someone who's a good salesperson and training them to be a technician,” he says. “In fact, I'd prefer to do that than hire a good electrician who isn't a good presenter in front of people.”

With his criteria recalibrated, he set up an application process that asked the standard questions about work experience and references but went several steps further. Not only were applicants tested on their knowledge of the Code and principles of electricity, they had to take a lengthy personality test with true or false questions like “I have trouble changing my behavior to suit different people and different situations” that would assess whether they had the right frame of mind to work in the service industry.

But even that wasn't always enough to ensure he was hiring the right people. Something was missing from the exhaustive process, because the occasional dud would still make it through and collect a few paychecks before beginning to show signs of a questionable work ethic or sub-par social skills. Loveland needed an extra line of defense.

All in the family. Even when he was in construction, Loveland recognized the importance of treating his employees well. And in service work he understood that his technicians' job satisfaction would ultimately be passed on to the customer in a pleasant service call experience. He also understood that it took more than just high wages to make that happen. “It's not that we put a lot of money in their pocket, but we treat them like human beings,” he says. “We have a lot of respect for them.”

That respectful atmosphere eventually grew into a family-like dynamic. And then something else unexpected started to happen. Loveland's employees became protective of their new “family” and began to look out for its best interests. And that included making sure the right kind of people joined it.

Today, that protective interest in the company has all but become a part of everyone's job description. The receptionist, dispatcher, and even Diana Loveland, Paul's wife and partner in the business, pepper applicants with conversational-style questions designed to get a feel for their attitude and personality. All the while, Loveland's staff is making mental notes about the applicants' cleanliness (are their shoes dirty?), communications skills (do they slur their words?), and interest in the job (did they bring friends with them?). “You have to have a lot of positive attributes to even get into Paul's office for an interview,” Diana says.

Those who do have to pass one final test: a ride-along with a technician. Loveland knows applicants put on a good game face for him, so he relies on the results of this one-day fact-finding mission to make his final decision. “When the pressure's off, they kind of let their hair down with the techs,” he says. “And that's when we can see who they really are.”

Last year was a good one for Loveland. He increased his fleet to 10 trucks, and plans to add more this year. And when they do, he has faith his system will help him find the right additions to his team of techs. “We give them ownership in what we do here,” Diana says of Loveland's employees. “And by helping us with the hiring, they're acknowledging that they have a good thing going.”

Sidebar: You Can Never Have Too Many Techs

For now, Loveland has all the techs he can use, but that doesn't mean he isn't still hiring. He's always taking applications, and if someone comes along who meets his criteria, he'll find a way to keep them around until he can put them in a truck. He'll often put them to work cleaning the warehouse or delivering tools because he recognizes that personable technicians are too valuable to let pass by. “We actually have more people now than we need,” he says. “But I keep telling the guys that I don't want to let anyone go because I know what kind of people I have right now, and they're hard to find.”