The residents of Port St. Lucie, Fla., know not to expect John Pankraz to send out one of his techs between 7:35 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesdays. It's not that he doesn't want their business or care about their problems, he just has something more important to do for those 85 minutes: He's training his techs at Elite Electric how to do a job right the first time and do it so well that the customer will call again.

Pankraz knows he's entrusting his reputation to his technicians, so he's obsessive about equipping them with the technical know-how and customer service skills to protect and strengthen the Elite Electric name. “Every time I put my guys in a truck, they become the president of the company,” Pankraz says. “So I need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're going to take care of the customer and they're going to do the job correctly.”

Higher learning. Pankraz will admit he was hit or miss with training when Elite Electric focused on residential construction. Since converting to service in 2003, though, he's made it a priority. In addition to the weekly sessions for techs, he holds a weekly meeting for office personnel and a monthly meeting for the full staff. Bringing everyone together gives them a chance to compare and rehearse their scripts. “When the guys go out in the field and are at a customer's house, they have to know what the office has done to prep them,” Pankraz says.

That training schedule is regular, but it isn't rigid. Unavoidable events can force Pankraz to shift dates and times, and sometimes he may even reschedule for fun's sake. St. Patrick's Day fell on a Thursday this year, so he delayed his weekly meeting with the techs two days so he could incorporate the holiday and punch up the fun factor (Photo above). Regardless of the day you choose, it's the consistency that counts, he says. Your techs may not see the inherent value in training at first, but if you make it part of their regular routine, they'll stop thinking about how to get out of going and start worrying about being left out. “Once you set a standard for your company's training, the guys come to expect it, and they want to be a part of the meeting,” he says.

Pankraz builds flexibility into his curriculum as well. The typical meeting will mainly consist of scheduled Code material (he writes his own technical lesson plans and quizzes) and customer service videos on things like price objections and salesmanship supplied by an affinity group he belongs to. But he also leaves room for a topic du jour. It could be an issue that came up on a service call from the previous week, or it could morph into a students-become-the-teacher exercise: Pankraz often likes to throw his techs' questions back at them and send them out to find the answers. Their findings will be discussed at the next meeting, and just like that they've become a part of the process instead of passive listeners.

Customer service is about more than just a friendly demeanor and good people skills, so Pankraz also covers mannerisms. Overcoming bad habits like picking your ears is a difficult task, but he says discussing why it's important to leave them at the customer's door can help. “All of those things contribute to the way the customer perceives you,” he says. “And they can ultimately have a negative effect.”

All of those hours spent on customer service are a waste of time if his team doesn't remember the lessons, so he makes reinforcement — in the form of role plays — a priority. Techs will take turns practicing their presentation and execution skills by playing out a fictitious scenario with a “customer” (one of their co-workers). From putting on their booties before entering the house to going over the bill with the customer, techs treat the entire call like it were the real thing. And even though Pankraz is watching and ready to offer suggestions, the techs themselves evaluate their co-workers' performances. “It's really cool to see the guys talk to each other about what they did right or wrong,” he says. “Sometimes that can be hard for them, but that way they don't have to hear it from me.”

What he hears, though, is the assurance he needs that his team will take care of his customers. Does he ever wonder if he's just a little too obsessed? “Someone asked me recently, ‘What if you pay all that money to train your techs and they leave?’” Pankraz says. “All I could think was, What if I don't and they stay?”

PROFILE: Elite Electric

Years in business: 17 (15 in residential construction, two in residential service)

2004 Sales: $1.5 million with 14% profit

Employees: 15 (10 service techs, four officeemployees, one maintenance tech)

2004 training budget: $52,000

Training budget for a new employee: $3,000 to $5,000

Sidebar: Make Your Training Stick

Pankraz says presentation can be the difference between alert listeners and zoned-out daydreamers.

  • Make it fun — He plays music and throws out the occasional Kudos candy bar to techs who ace their quizzes. “You have to keep them on their toes,” he says. “It's a serious business, but there's no reason we can't have fun doing it.”

  • Make it useful — If your techs are afraid to ask questions or don't think they're learning anything, their heads won't be in it. “Whether it's an apprentice or 20-year tech, they need to know that you'll answer their questions without judging them,” Pankraz says.

  • Make it personal — Mix in lessons on subjects that benefit your techs personally. Covering things like personal finance and goal setting shows that you think of them as more than just employees.