Early in his career, Jamie Wilkie, owner of Mister Sparky of Greenville, S.C., learned a valuable lesson. Eight years ago, Wilkie — already a licensed master electrician — attended a sales seminar designed by Charlie Greer, creator of the Sales Survival School for plumbing, HVAC, and electrical service technicians, Fort Myers, Fla. At the seminar, Wilkie was introduced to the idea that when working in the residential service sector, customer service is just as important as electrical know-how. “My technical ability was great,” Wilkie says. “But that was just part of what was necessary.”

The other critical ingredient, according to Greer, is developing an understanding of the customer and an empathy for the anxiety inherent in having something go wrong at home, not to mention having to make a financial decision based on systems the homeowner knows little about. “A good closer isn't somebody who's good at pressuring people,” Greer says. “It's someone who is simply good at helping people make decisions. The real difficulty is in getting a decision. It takes the average person 48 minutes to pick out a movie to rent, so imagine how long it takes them to figure on a service upgrade.”

Soon after putting Greer's lessons into practice, Wilkie noticed a difference in his revenue-generating abilities. His sales jumped from $15,000 a month to $30,000 a month. Possibly even more important, his callbacks — warranty or complaint calls — decreased dramatically. To top it off, his customer satisfaction ratings rose. “I learned to listen,” Wilkie says.

Birth of a salesman

Service contractors rarely think of themselves as salespeople. Yet, a service contractor's livelihood is dependent on its service technicians' abilities to sell. “That's a scary thought,” says Greer, who calls service technicians the “reluctant” sales force. His advice for contractors is to think of themselves as a sales company, and what they sell is service. One of the first orders of business when setting up shop is getting rid of the stigma that surrounds sales. “‘Sales’ is not a bad word,” Greer says. “It's okay for service technicians to sell.”

But selling doesn't mean pressuring homeowners into big-ticket decisions. Greer's curriculum is based around the idea that high-pressure sales don't work. Instead, he stresses that sales techs can increase their leads more by performing a full systems analysis and educating the consumer on what their system requires — not just focusing on a specific repair. “Always quote more than the bare minimum on everything,” Greer says. “It's all about going beyond the bare minimum.”

Through his years of experience as an electrical contractor, Tom Nunn, president of SCC Electrical, Colorado Springs, Colo., has developed a philosophy of sales that eschews high-pressure practices. To foster this ideal, Nunn deemphasizes high commissions on upsells. It's not that he doesn't provide commissions to his two service technicians, but he counsels them on having patience and performing the work when his customers are ready. “We have a way of keeping track of repairs so that they can mention work to the customer without hard selling it,” Nunn says. “It gets entered into the computer, and if the customer calls back and wishes to have that done at a later date, then the tech will get credit for it. There's not as much pressure there. We try to keep it more informative than high-pressure sales, and we provide materials for the techs to hand out to the customers telling them why we suggest they do certain things.”

A database of clients is an excellent way to keep track of leads, and many contractors use it successfully to stay in touch with their customers. “Your No. 1 customer is your current customer — the people that use you already,” says Todd Damschen, CEO, Mainstream Electric, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. “Everyone in business knows that's your most important customer. We keep in contact with them all year.”

Damschen runs Mainstream with his wife Elaine, president of the company. In addition to the database, they've recently started offering a club program to their customers. “That keeps your customers as your customers,” Damschen says. “That's one of the benefits to us, and the customer gets a lot of benefits too. They've invested in you with the club membership so they're not going to call anybody else. Why would they when you're guaranteeing your work?” (See Join the Club below).

Confidence sells

SCC Electrical's Nunn is selective about the technicians he hires. He credits his success with repeat customers to the professionalism and likability of his employees. “Customers tell us they like our techs,” he says. “We're pretty picky about who we send out there. I think that's the key; just picking people with the right personality who can deal with your customers.”

But choosing the right employees isn't enough. Training your service techs for the softer sales approach is also important. Greer recommends that contractors schedule weekly sales meetings lasting from half an hour to an hour. “Every other professional sales organization has weekly sales meetings where they're covering some sales in some kind of an organized fashion,” Greer says. “But we have a staff of non-sales professionals whose whole job is to actually make sales for us, and we never have any sales meetings. That just doesn't make sense.”

During these meetings, Greer and other sales experts recommend role-playing exercises to familiarize service technicians with what to say and do in certain situations. For even more repetition, it can also be helpful to videotape and play back these exercises for critique and improvement. Ultimately, preparation will instill confidence in your service technicians who may feel comfortable in their technical abilities but less so with people-handling skills.

“Confidence really comes from doing,” says Scott Rehberg, manager of SR Custom Electric, a division of the Amy Family of Companies, Carpentersville, Ill. “Because of the videotaping and the role playing, you feel more confident. Confidence sells.”

As a graduate of Greer's seminars, Rehberg schedules individual meetings every two weeks with his three technicians. He also holds meetings for special topics, such as the ins and outs of the company's financing program, and how to offer that option to customers faced with costly repairs. “Preparation is important,” Rehberg says. “It's not so much a canned approach, but to at least have some phrases you can pepper in there every time you talk with someone.”

Rehberg expects his technicians to handle different situations appropriately, such as the difference between meeting the needs of a customer in the throes of a system breakdown versus one requesting estimates for an upgrade. “There will be parallels between the two calls, but you certainly have to treat them differently,” Rehberg says. “Emotions are heightened when something is broken. When someone needs service, often you're going to be the only one they call, and it'll be a split-second decision. When someone wants an estimate, it'll take a lot more time to create value in that person's mind because there's going to be anywhere from two to three more companies giving estimates for the same project.”

Preparation is good for unexpected situations as well. “There are going to be times when technicians walk into a house and are faced with something they're not familiar with,” says Kevin Gurski, support specialist for Electricians' Success International (ESI), Los Angeles, a division of Clockwork Home Services, Sarasota, Fla. “One of the most important things you have to do with your technician is you have to train them and you have to role play with them,” he says. “If you want to offer repair versus replace options, that's where training is most important.”

Three years ago, Damschen and his wife Elaine transformed their company from new construction for commercial and residential to a strictly residential service company. Since then, the company has doubled its revenue each year. “I shoot for time-and-a-half growth, but I've managed to hit double, which is pretty exciting,” Damschen says.

Currently, the company employs five service technicians and requires them to attend training sessions twice a week. On Tuesdays and Friday, the company holds one-hour meetings. One of the meetings per week is for normal housekeeping matters, such as invoicing or Code requirements. The second meeting, however, is reserved for personal development and business practices, such as building relationships with customers and sales. “We never would have done that when we were in new construction,” Damschen says.

First contact

Even with this newfound confidence and preparation, service technicians shouldn't be answering the phone in the office. The first impression that your company is going to make is with the call taker, who must be both professional and available. “I knew from the get-go I wasn't qualified to be answering the phone,” Wilkie says. “It's not my skill set, and I didn't have the training for it. I recognized early on that you have to hire people around you to do the things you can't do.”

Being accessible also means no answering machines. It's best to hire a live call taker who can schedule appointments with the clients. Appointments should be made for a time when all the decision makers in the household are present. Gurski recommends setting up a two-hour window that's most convenient for the homeowners.

The appointment should include a complete inspection, or full-system analysis, of the electrical system. “The best way to be able to get that courtesy inspection scheduled is to have it handled on the incoming phone call,” Greer says.

Have the incoming call taker let your clients know that for a set price a technician will come out to assess the problem but also perform a courtesy inspection of the electrical panel. That way, because they're paying the fee they feel entitled to the entire inspection. “It's not as easy to do a free inspection, a courtesy inspection, as you'd think it would be,” Greer says. “They don't really want you poking around.”

When responding to a call, service technicians should always introduce themselves and present a professional appearance. Some firms issue uniforms. But the most important aspect is to build a rapport with the homeowner, says Gurski. That way, if the full-system analysis yields bad news, the technician will be able to explain the challenges and offer options to the homeowner. “It's in the homeowner's best interest to know what's going on in their home,” Gurski says. “They don't necessarily have to act on it, but they should be aware of it. You're educating them and making recommendations that fit into their budget. You never pressure them. You just let them know what's in their best interest.”

Greer calls this the art of “negative selling.” Service technicians should never appear glad to find problems. “When you find extra things to do, act like it just means more work for you but that you're willing to do it,” he says.

Also, when explaining the problem, think about it from the customer's point of view. “Don't tell them they have to address Code violations just because they're Code violations,” Greer says. “Stress the benefit of getting it done.”

In doing so, Greer advises to set up a pricing structure in such a manner that the more work the customer has done on that call, the cheaper everything gets. Repairing four things on one call should save the customer money over making four different calls over a period of time. “The most important thing to stress when you're in a selling situation is the savings,” Greer says. “Let the figures do the talking.”

For jobs too costly for cash, contractors should also be able to offer clients payment through credit card or financing. “Most electricians are hesitant to accept credit cards, and they also don't offer financing,” Gurski says. “But if you're going to offer a consumer — especially in the market conditions that we're in today — a whole repanel, which is going to cost $3,000 to $5,000, you have to be able to offer them options.” In addition to providing a valuable service to your clients, it's also a way to differentiate yourself from your competition.

It's a career

Since attending his first sales seminar, Wilkie has nurtured his company and added three additional service technicians to his team. This is a result of yet another valuable lesson he learned through the sales seminar. “That's the first time I thought about how my trade was a profession and something I needed to work on to become fully rounded,” Wilkie says. “I learned I needed to set career goals, to make plans for my family, and I needed to have a long-term vision of where I wanted to go in life — and how I was going to get there.”

Wilkie now finds himself on the other side of sales training, imparting techniques to his employees. “I try to make everything available to them,” he says. “We train them on anything that's valuable to them in their personal and professional lives.”

This allows Wilkie to foster growth for his company without being in the field as much, a long-term goal he hopes to reach by continuing to increase sales for his company through low-pressure practices, even if he's no longer making them. “There are no old people in service,” he says. “I've had knee surgery already. Earlier this week, I was at the chiropractor. Eventually, we have to look out longer term.”


Sidebar: Join the Club

Maintenance agreements with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) companies have revolutionized the industry, says Kansas City, Mo.-based HVAC business coach Mike Treas, proprietor of www.miketreas.com. According to Treas, companies that don't have many maintenance agreements are stagnating while ones that do are growing. “Maintenance agreements ensure the growth of the company,” he says. “Hands down, it will grow business exponentially.”

For every million dollars in revenue a residential service contractor brings in, it should have 1,000 maintenance agreements. “If you don't, you're leaving money on the table,” Treas says.

According to Treas, individual maintenance agreement customers bring in $702 a year, on average, for HVAC companies. This is a lesson electrical contractors could learn from. “These guys have proven strategies and methods, and they're willing to share that information with us — teach us to be successful basically just by doing the steps they did to be business people and not so much contractors. That's what really makes the difference,” says Todd Damschen, CEO, Mainstream Electric, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. “You're a business person first and a contractor second. Service agreements have been a big part of the plumbing and HVAC business for decades.”

Members of the club program at Mainstream Electric receive discounts, priority service, and yearly inspections on their electrical system. Started in January, the program comprises 40 members, but Damschen expects it to grow. “We'd like to see it as high as 50% of our customers,” he says. “Actually, we'd like to have all of them.”

Known by a variety of different names, such as “maintenance agreements,” “service contracts,” or “discount clubs,” these programs can be beneficial to both contractor and customer. Most agreements offer a yearly inspection, priority treatment, and discounts for a monthly fee. “Home protection plans are basically a way for our clients to lock in customers and for customers to receive a service, priority attention, and discounts,” says Kevin Gurski, support specialist for Electricians' Success International (ESI), Los Angeles. “For example, if there's a storm and power gets knocked out, what this membership does is give preferential treatment to the club members who will get put to the top of the list because they're paying a monthly fee to be a club member. It also gives them discounted rates on service and repair work.”

But don't mislead your customers by naming it something it's not. The value to the customer is what makes these programs successful. A “maintenance” agreement must include a maintenance component. The same goes for “service” agreements. In fact, Treas advises not using the term “contract” altogether because nobody will want to sign a contract. “The advice to contractors is to term it a ‘discount’ program,” he says. “If you're going to offer this type of discount plan and charge customers up-front for that maintenance, there has to be value in it for them. Give them a 10% to 15% discount.”

This value will then sell itself, maintains Treas, but only through diligence on the part of the contractor. Call takers must be trained to ask customers a few pointed questions, such as, “Are you one of our discount customers? Will you be paying full price today?” This opens the door for the customers to ask about the program and gives them the option to join instead of the contractor going in for the hard sell. Service technicians should also be trained on the same type of script when on calls. “You use specific phrases and words so the customer says, ‘Tell me more about that,’” Treas says. “Nobody wants to pay full price, so they'll ask how they can get that discount, which leads the way for the explanation. It lets the contractor off the hook of trying to sell those agreements because nobody likes to sell, and nobody likes to be sold to.”