Cool Heads Prevail During Crisis
11 Pieces of Advice from Home Service Leaders on COVID-19 Pandemic. “We have to adapt to the changes the best way we can.”
As a home services contractor whose services are deemed essential, how do you lead in a crisis to keep everyone calm — including your employees and customers?
“Open your heart, open your mind, then open your mouth,” says Larry Taylor, a well-known HVAC industry leader who served as chairman of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America during the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The terrorist attack took us all by surprise, with no warning or time to prepare. The coronavirus is different, he says, but its impact is basically the same.
“The fear of the unknown — what is going to happen next,” is the common denominator, and it’s the place where home services contractors need to start by communicating best next steps, he says.
Taylor joined Chris Hunter, founder of Hunter Super Techs and Go Time Success Group, along with several other industry leaders in the skilled trades for a Q&A webinar Thursday afternoon to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on contractors.
Here are the key takeaways:
1. Remain optimistic. Open your heart, open your mind, then open your mouth.
Open your heart by listening to those who are in pain, scared or suffering, Taylor says. Get a feeling for what is going on.
Open your mind by gathering data and facts to help you make intelligent decisions.
Communicate more and do it calmly. Try to focus on the outcome, and not the event. Provide reassurance: “We are going to be OK, we are going to survive,” he says.
2. Ease your employees fears, then tell your customers the plan.
“The biggest thing people are looking for is someone to tell them what the plan is,” says Tyler Kime, General Manager at Standard Heating, Air, and Plumbing in Birmingham, Ala. “When you don’t tell people what is going on, they will create their own scenario.”
Communicate the processes and procedures your company follows in a crisis to your employees as soon as possible. Make sure they know exactly what they need to do to follow best practices.
Share that information with your customers by sending an email blast or posting a blog on social media, then boost it to reach your exact target audience.
Share that blueprint for operations as soon as you can. Tyler shared his with employees on Sunday afternoon, reducing the number of calls he had to wade through on Monday morning.
Record a quick podcast or video on your smartphone and share it quickly with employees, says Jim Batson, owner and CEO of H.C. Blake Co., an HVAC contracting business. “Talk to them and tell them what is going on,” he says.
Record a Zoom meeting with your phone and blast it out to all employees in your company, says Dave Rothacker, Coach at Go Time Success Group in Tampa, Fla. “I educate my employees first, then the customer,” he says.
3. Don’t overreact to a high number of cancellations in the midst of a crisis.
Tom Howard, Vice President of Customer Experience at ServiceTitan and owner of Lee's Air Conditioning, Heating & Building Performance, says the COVID-19 pandemic caused $250,000 in cancellations at Lee’s Air in just one day.
“It was not good,” he says. But the team at Lee’s Air stepped up and started calling customers to ease their fears. They were able to save $200,000 worth of calls by working out new, extended financial arrangements.
“Look at the data, and reduce the worry when things hit,” he says. “Be transparent, don’t overreact, get data and fact-driven communication.”
4. Remain cautiously optimistic that things will improve.
Home services contractors are still needed to keep us safe and our homes working properly, especially now that so many more people are working or learning from home.
“We’ve had over 40,000 calls over the last 90 days. Our two peak days were Monday and Tuesday of this week,” says Matt Michel, CEO of Service Roundtable. “About 80 percent of contractors are about the same or better.”
“That’s right now,” says Batson. “We’ve got a big hill to climb, and we’re in a deep valley.”
“This is just another bump in the road,” says Ben Stark, business owner and HVAC-R industry consultant. “This crisis will bring on change … we have to adapt to the changes the best way we can.”
5. Take out loans or lines of credit to better position your company when the crisis is over.
“I called my banker on Monday … got a $100,000 line of credit, just to cover payroll if it comes to that … or if I want access to capital for other opportunities,” Kime says. “But if you can’t pay it back, don’t go get it.”
Batson dedicated one of his employees to analyze his company’s accounts payable to get rid of unnecessary, recurring charges. He also paused on ordering inventory for his commercial construction work.
Howard suggests automating as much as you can now, so your company is stronger and healthier on the other side.
“Budgeting and forecasting is what separates contractors during these times,” he says, adding that it also allowed him to acquire other companies that didn’t make those good financial decisions ahead of time.
“The best time to get a line of credit is when you don’t need it,” Hunter says.
6. Resist the urge to pull back on growing your home services business.
If you think a recession downturn is going to happen, a lot of other people are thinking the same thing, Stark says.
“Resist the reactionary,” he says. “Don’t pull back, extend the marketing. I’ve gone through a recession, a crisis … we put on the accelerator and we have always come out on the positive side … even when we had to borrow money.
“Push it a little bit, instead of pulling back.”
Stay focused, Stark says, and don’t always be looking for that next shiny, new object.
7. Be of service to the community.
The more helpful you come across to customers in a time of crisis, the more they will remember you the next time they need a plumber, electrician or HVAC tech.
“Approach marketing with a servant’s heart,” Michel says, and don’t focus on trying to sell them something.
Some contractors on the Service Roundtable are reaching out to customers with offers to pick up essentials from the grocery store or pharmacy when they have trucks in the area, he says.
Batson teamed up with a friend who owns a restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., for a dollar-to-dollar gift certificate match for employees and customers. His friend is worried he may have to lay off his entire staff, and Batson wanted to do something to help his community.
Be a leader and start a crisis resource page in your community. “They won’t forget how you treated them during this thing,” Hunter says.
8. Keep moving forward; hire more techs and train them.
Don’t make techs go on service calls if they are concerned, but send the message that your company’s services are “essential” to the public.
“Rally your team. Tell them, ‘We’re going to keep you safe and our customers safe. This is our time to shine. It’s go time!’” Hunter says. “They will step up.”
Batson plans to host some virtual job fairs in the next 30 days to “find some fantastic techs” to join his team. “If you do it right, you can come out on top … really scale quickly.”
Stress test your budget, Howard says. Analyze how many calls your company is getting and how many techs you can potentially handle. “Marketing is the easiest thing to cut, but it can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.
9. Avoid layoffs without real data.
“It’s all in your data analytics,” Batson advises. “People who just start slashing without the data are the ones who will suffer.” Instead, look at your financial forecast to make the right decision.
Stark advises keeping techs involved in the process and making sure they know they are your No. 1 asset. “Give your guys a little bit of help sometimes … make them aware of what’s going on.” Most will step up to the challenge.
Layoffs should be your last resort, Stark says. “It’s hard to pick up that momentum again, especially with training and education. Layoffs are the most expensive thing to do, in my opinion.”
10. Evaluated experience is the best teacher.
Create a learning document, and keep it fresh and updated, Rothacker says. Pay your company first and make sure you have a system for cross training when employees need to be out sick or caring for a loved one.
Believe in your team and be their cheerleader. “Really ramp up and be demonstrative about it,” Rothacker says. “Show belief in your people. We will be here, we will overcome this, we believe in you!
“One of the biggest things is to be very upfront and forthcoming with belief in your people,” he says.
11. Be steady and don’t show fear (even if you are feeling it)
“Get control of your fear,” Michel says. “Be the steady person, be confident, be calm. If you have fears, compartmentalize them and focus on them later.”
Research the data, look at your spreadsheets and performance, and try to understand how your company could handle the absolute worst thing that could happen.
“The worst thing is probably not going to happen,” he says. “But we are in the service business, we’re going to have to go into quarantined homes sooner or later. We really don’t have a choice. … Talk through it now.”
The COVID-19 crisis is different from the financial crisis that occurred after 9/11, he explains. This is more a V-shaped recovery, with home services companies experiencing a sharp downtown now, but a sharp upturn is just around the corner.
“When it’s harder to find a customer, that’s not the time to pull back your efforts. It’s time to step them up,” he says.
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