All Industries, Operations, Management

When Should Trade Businesses Hire Office Help?

Mike PersingerDecember 3rd, 2020

Figuring out when to hire a new office worker can be a chicken-or-egg proposition in the trades, especially at smaller but growing shops. 

Will the revenue the new hire produces justify the move? Is there enough work, consistently, to keep new hires busy? Can someone with the right skillset be identified and hired through normal job boards? How will you get them up to speed quickly? What will your quality of life be like if you don’t hire the help?

Sometimes, those questions can be paralyzing. How can home and commercial services businesses decide?

For Vanessa Ferrara, Co-Owner at Ferrara's Air in Pompano Beach, Fla., quality of life issues for herself and her husband became the tipping point. 

For Chris Hill, President at Dick Hill and Son Heating and Cooling, in Richmond, Ind., it was the opportunity to produce more revenue with better marketing, and the potential to expand his footprint.

At one time, both companies were disqualified from using ServiceTitan because they were missing a requirement—a dedicated, full-time office worker. Both have since met that requirement and joined the ServiceTitan family. 

Now, they hope the staffing lessons they learned and the advice they offer could help others in the trades make their difficult decisions. 

‘You have to have some kind of quality of life’

Ferrara’s Air has been around since 2006, developing a reputation for top-quality work and a loyal customer base that knows the owner by name. 

“I think 99 percent of our business has been word of mouth,” Vanessa says. “They knew Tony personally. They were expecting Tony when the phone rang. ‘Is Tony there? Can I talk to Tony?’

 "Everyone knew him and they wanted (to talk to him), or someone referred them to him specifically.” 

With the company run out of the Ferraras’ house, the phone calls came at all hours. 

“That was his life for 13 years,” she says. “Every time the phone rang, he was answering it. When you have a home-based business or you're self-employed, and the stress of every time the phone rang … 

“I didn't want him to have to answer the calls. You have to have some kind of quality of life. That was the hardest part.” 

Finding an answer, though, wasn’t easy. 

Transformation of a family business

Chris Hill is a third-generation member of leadership with a company established in 1953 by his grandfather. He’s been in the HVAC business for the past 27 years. 

His wife has worked in the office, helping out as his mother was transitioning out of the business and into retirement. But it was only recently that the first non-family member worked in the Dick Hill and Son office.

“When I took over (as President), my wife had worked here with my mom,” Hill says. “And then slowly, I realized that for my wife and I, it was going to be an argument all the time.”

The company hired a bookkeeper, a service manager who didn’t work out, and a dispatcher. It was a challenge for a family business used to a high degree of retention.

“We try to instill the history of the place,” Hill says. “Everyone cares. I've got a service tech who has been with me for 26 years. We've got an installer who has been here about 25 years. So we've got a lot of people who care. We have a very low turnover rate.”

Onboarding team members into that culture requires care. 

‘It was no life for him’

At Ferrara’s Air, something had to change for Tony. 

“It was no life for him to just answer the phone,” she says. 

Her initial thought was an answering service, but that would be too impersonal for a small business built on personal service. She also considered an office manager-type role to answer the phones during the day, then a service in the evening—with an option to press 1 in an emergency, and get Tony. 

But the phones were only part of the problem. Tony also entered the service tickets, put everything into QuickBooks, managed the tech schedules and dispatching and produced paper invoices—in addition to running jobs himself. And for years, he was coordinating everything with Outlook and Excel. 

The business needed to evolve. The answer ended up being close to home. 

Knowing what you need

With Hill’s mother and wife transitioning out of the business, Hill needed help. The right person isn’t always easy to find, and experienced people with the right communication skills and who already have HVAC know how don’t show up every day. 

“We try to hire for the person, then teach them heating and air because I can't teach manners and decency and things like that to people,” Hill says. “(Heating and air) is hard to teach, but it's easier than teaching them how to clean up after themselves or how to be nice, civil to people, and not cuss or things like that.”

To replace what he lost, he hired one person for, essentially, two roles. 

“We have it classified as a dispatcher, but it's probably a combination right now of CSR and dispatcher,” he says. “We'd like to get both positions if we can build it up big enough, because I do see that there's an overflow of phones. The bookkeeper backs that up, but I'm the third person. So I do see that we need it.”

Other requirements for top job candidates? Excellent time management and computer savvy. Hill and Son has been on a mobile app since 2012, and on ServiceTitan since 2017.

‘I need help with this’

Vanessa Ferrara was in the event planning industry for years, traveling a lot and working some nights and weekends. After her children, now 4 and 2, were born, she worked as an administrative assistant to a CEO in the healthcare industry. 

But it was clear her husband needed her. 

“He was calling me, ‘I need help with this. I need help with this. Can you help me with this?’” she says. “And I had my own demands. I was like, "I can't help (the CEO) with all his stuff and help my husband run his business at the same time."

Deep down, she knew what needed to happen. 

“(Tony) was was doing a lot himself,” she says. “He really needed a second person to come alongside him and help him run it.” 

So, she did. 

But it wasn’t the only big change in store for the business. 

For Vanessa Ferrara, co-owner at Ferrara's Air in Pompano Beach, Fla., quality of life issues for herself and her husband Tony became the tipping point of making changes to their business, including adding office help.

Making every hire ‘family’

Transitioning away from family isn’t without stress, Hill says. 

“Some things got better and some things got worse, because I could trust family and not have to worry,” Hill says. “I know their work ethic to get things done. So when you're hiring new people, not that they don't care, but they're never going to care about it as much as three generations of your name being on the business. 

“It's a personal thing to me.”

Hill uses a virtual recruiter service—Recruit4Business.com—for referrals and to help with interview questions, based on an assessment test given to candidates. 

“I don't see the person until we get to the point of the interview, so I feel like it takes any bias out,” he says. “We're heating and air people, for the most part. Most (HVAC) companies are small and we don't have HR. So it has helped. 

“It's nice to hire people who can help you.”

‘I kind of have my hands in everything’

Vanessa came onboard at Ferrara’s Air a 4½ years ago, with the business still based out of their home and Tony still answering all the phone calls. 

“I was like, ‘you can’t do that,’” she says. 

They got an office and started the hiring process for the company’s first office worker. 

“For probably the good part of one to two years, it was a one-person role,” Vanessa says. “She was answering the phones, doing all the dispatch, and doing all the data entry, all the bookkeeping.”

Vanessa did the sensitive financial work, plus working on marketing, IT, human resources and in other roles. 

“I kind of have my hands in everything,” she says. “When you're a small shop, you have to kind of take it all on.”

For a while, that was enough. Then came ServiceTitan.

A goal beyond the hire itself

Hill’s goal goes beyond just needing the help. Having employees who are not family members in place makes companies more attractive for acquisition, because they are less dependent on the owner to thrive. 

ServiceTitan supports that goal, too, with the way it forces consistent procedures and processes. 

“I'm 46,” Hill says. “My goal was to be retired by 50, have an idea where it could start to be possibly sold. Not that I was retiring forever, but I was like, I could have another opportunity for something else.”

That means redoing the business structure, to make the company more attractive and protect against disruptions like Covid, and to develop management skills in others. 

“I think in five years, hopefully we have a couple managers in place—install, service. I'm required to be here when I need to be and stuff, but not every minute or every question. That would be a nice goal.”

To accomplish that, new employees will be necessary. 

“Sometimes it's based on need, and it's never a good time,” Hill says. “It's always the worst time probably, because you're scrambling around trying to figure everything out while they're trying to learn. And they're probably overwhelmed because it seems like such chaos going on.”

Hire during the slower times, if possible, Hill says. That’s what he did with one recent office staff hire. She started in July, and has done well, he says. 

“She keeps wanting more stuff, and I said, ‘It's going to be busy, it's going to get very crazy. I just need you to do this right now.’

“ServiceTitan does so much and you don't want to overwhelm them. One day, it'll just click how everything goes together." 

Divide and conquer?

Ferrara’s Air has a CSR and one other office support person at present.   

“We call it our service coordinator/dispatcher,” she says. “She does all of our inbound and outbound calls. She does all the scheduling and the dispatching, basically, but she's also responsible to make sure the techs have completed their jobs properly.”

Vanessa has tried to have a clean line between the job descriptions to separate the roles. 

“Sometimes I worry that the CSR side of it is just too heavy burdened,” she says, “but I've talked to a couple other smaller shops and it seems like it's not.”

Ferrara’s Air has spent the past two years on ServiceTitan, and is still admittedly perfecting the division of duties. 

“I think it's just because of the size of our company, it's hard to divide it out too easily,” Vanessa says. “I feel like it is three or four different roles in one, between the two of them, but I'm not big enough to have three people in there doing it.

“But in such a small shop I can't have four people in my office. That my overhead would be absurd.”

Until the growth comes, there’s a need for versatility. 

“You have to be able to multitask, you have to be tech-savvy,” Vanessa says. “You have to be able to juggle two phone calls at the same time, but you also have to have that personality to deal with people, and kind of a little bit of salesy too.

"I feel like there's just this one big hump we can't just get past to that next level.”

It can be a tough fit. 

ServiceTitan as an expansion tool

Dick Hill and Son is pursuing a strategy of acquiring smaller HVAC companies for growth. He expects many owners in the industry to look at getting out, because of their age or the challenges presented by the pandemic and other issues.

“I think there's going to be a lot of purchasing,” Hill says. “There's going to be a lot of opportunity to purchase other companies in our area to maybe spread out our area.”

It’s a strategy supported by ServiceTitan and its capacity for allowing remote work, Hill says. 

“The nice thing about ServiceTitan is once I can train a technician on how to use it, everything's cloud-based,” he says. “Phones, the way they come in, we can buy and be up and running in a matter of days, compared to what it would have been before. 

“It was the one reason, in 2017, why I went with ServiceTitan. Our system was server-based in our office, and I wanted something that if we expanded, we could have multiple people, multiple offices on one system, and no one would know the difference.

 “Old-timers had to be in one building to do all this.”

Biggest goal for Ferrara’s Air

For small companies, the hiring calculus isn’t limited to the office side. When to add a technician to help justify more office help is equally complicated. 

“We feel like sometimes, almost 90% of the time, my husband's stressed because we have too much work, because we can't find quality techs right now,” Vanessa says. “But then there's days like this week, I'm like, ‘What would I do if I had the two others that we're trying to hire right now?’ Because we're dead this week and next week.”

Ferrara’s Air doesn’t have huge staff growth goals, Vanessa says.

“There's so much competition in South Florida,” Vanessa says. “We don't need to be the biggest company down here. We just want to be known for our quality. We're not the cheapest company around either, but we make sure it's done right. We keep coming back till it's done right.”

The biggest goals for the company, she says, surround those quality of life issues, especially when it comes to Tony. And maintaining their high-quality service.

“How do I get him out of the field?” Vanessa says. “Because he's like, ‘I can't do this forever.’ He's exhausted. And so it's, what does that look like? That looks like a couple of more, I think, senior techs, or training up the ones we have now, once they get a little more experience. And then it's someone willing to manage them.” 

That leads to another chicken-and-egg question. Hire and find the work? Or wait for the work before hiring? 

“It's the same dance,” Vanessa says. “I feel like, well, once I have the technicians, then I can have the overhead, because who am I booking calls for right now?”

Chris Hill might have the answer, powered by ServiceTitan.

Slow, until it’s not

At Dick Hill and Son, like at most HVAC companies, January through March is slow. The pandemic has made the outlook for 2021 that much more unpredictable. 

“It's weird this year because we have that slow time that we're trying to prepare now,” Hill says. “But we have an election. We have a first quarter that's like, we're not really sure. And then Covid.

“I used to have a good feel for work. We have a lot of work, but it seems like every time I hire someone who is a killer, the work all of a sudden stops as soon as you hire.” 

A ServiceTitan add-on, though, could be the answer. Hill plans to use it to drive more work and justify a job posting for a new hire on the office side. 

“What I'm going to do this year that we didn't have in the past is we have Marketing Pro,” he says. “And I'm thinking maybe the things we can't do now because we're so busy, I'm thinking maybe we might be able to drum up some business that way, artificially, to shoulder that (slow period).

“And then we'll definitely need the person anyway come April, May. And by then, maybe they're better trained.”


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