As cases of coronavirus continue to spread across the United States, electrician Chris Walton worked quickly last week to come up with an operational plan for his electrical company and 18 technicians, taking every precautionary measure to keep his staff and customers safe, while still providing essential services to the community.
“(Last) Sunday was a rough night for me,” says Walton, owner of CW Electrical Services in Pittsburgh. “I didn’t know two things: 1. I didn’t know how my employees were going to react, whether they would want to be working, and 2. I didn’t know how the customers were going to react."
“Either way, I would have respected anyone’s decisions,” he adds. “But, I didn’t know what I was walking into Monday morning.”
Thankfully, his employees stepped up, immediately offering to take trucks and vans home to handle any calls — emergency or otherwise — remotely. By Thursday, only two customers had called to cancel, and one sent an email directing CW Electrical to come in, do the job and then leave — they would be social-distancing in a back room.
“Anxiety is building among the customers and consumers, for sure,” Walton says. “We’re very flexible and we’re happy to accommodate anyone’s concerns at the moment.”
“I’m a little uneasy about the weeks ahead.”
Chad Peterman of Peterman Heating, Cooling & Plumbing also adapted his residential heating and plumbing operations in Indianapolis, in light of the ever-changing COVID-19 developments.
“This week has been somewhat business as usual, from a sales and revenue perspective,” Peterman said Friday. “But, I’m a little uneasy about the weeks ahead. We’re just taking it day by day.”
Out of 137 total employees, only one or two remain working in the office. Everyone else is clocking in from home. Peterman’s techs already worked mostly remotely, but the office staff is now doing the same, using ServiceTitan.
“Thankfully with our phone system, they can just log into their computer and start taking calls, which is good,” Peterman says.
While HVAC calls are down (they’re typically a little slower at this time of year anyway), Peterman says his company just experienced one of the busiest plumbing weeks ever, especially as more people are working or caring for children at home.
“We had 37 cancellations this week. Some customers were like, ‘Hey, call me when this thing is over … call me in a few weeks’ kind of thing, which is understandable,” he says. “We’re just working with the guys to make sure they’re comfortable, make sure the customer is comfortable.”
The company is doing more vetting of customers over the phone to determine whether a technician coming into their home for an HVAC or plumbing service call could possibly be exposed to COVID-19, and making sure the techs wear masks and gloves for protection.
So far, none of his techs have expressed concerns about continuing to provide essential HVAC and plumbing services to Peterman’s customers.
“Obviously, we need to work and pay bills and all of that, but we also want you to be safe,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing. We haven’t had anyone come to us and say they feel uncomfortable...but, there again, that could change, moving forward.
“Seems like it changes every couple of hours,” Peterman adds.
Operating with a servant’s heart
After coming up with a plan to keep his electrical techs working remotely, Walton came home one night last week to find a letter in his mailbox from an elderly neighbor, thanking his wife for her offer to pick up food at the grocery store.
His wife told him it was just a simple gesture of kindness made in a time of need. Walton thought, “That’s a great idea,” especially as fears continue to mount over the spread of COVID-19 and people remain stuck at home.
“How can we do something in our business to help the elderly and people with medical conditions?” Walton wondered. “We’re just electricians, but there’s got to be something we can do.”
On Friday, Walton launched a virtual technician service on the company’s website to help customers try to address small, residential electrical safety concerns online.
CW Electrical also wants to extend an offer to help any customers in need.
“On our way to a call, or if a customer calls and we’re in their area, we’ll go to the store for them and drop off whatever they need by the end of the day,” Walton says. “If people take us up on it, we would be happy to do any and all of this.”
With the coronavirus pandemic impacting millions and forcing nonessential business to close all over the country, Walton felt lucky on Friday to still be operating with his full electrical team.
“But that could change overnight. That’s what we’re seeing in other parts of the country,” he says. “We have our guys take their iPads home every day now, just in the event we won’t be coming in to work tomorrow.”
The virtual tech for now, and the future
For now, Walton views the virtual technician service as a way for customers to communicate with his electrical techs if they aren’t able to respond right away to a service call or the customer expresses concern about allowing electrical workers in their home.
“They may have a safety issue or something … our thought is we can at least get it to a safe state, by seeing what the issue is and directing them to turn off power, or not use something,” he says.
“We’re not thinking it will have a huge impact, but as people continue being in their homes and using them every single day, things will start breaking. We just want to be available.”
CW Electrical also cut profit from every single job, working only to pay wages and overhead to stay in operation.
“We don’t have to make money right now, that’s not our goal. Our goal is just to stay alive,” Walton says. “If the worst-case scenario happens, how long can we do this? We don’t know. I don’t know that anyone would.
“The goal is, well, if we can’t work, what can we do? It may not result in a monetary gain, but we’re hoping customers see that we’re trying to help if it’s needed,” he says.
When the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, Walton says the virtual tech might be a great tool for estimating an electrical job without ever entering a customer’s home. He offers an optimistic outlook for what comes after the coronavirus.
“There’s going to be a lot of innovation that comes from this … a lot of really good ideas that just weren’t thought about before,” he says. “This could really change how we do things in society.”
Lead with calm and support local businesses
As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, Peterman says he worries about changing public sentiment regarding the need to allow home service workers into people’s homes.
“Is there more panic and anxiety? As people see this go on a little bit longer, is there pullback?” he asked. “I feel like we’re still very early into it, whereas is the worst still yet to come? And what does that look like?”
Peterman says he and his wife have been trying to support local businesses by picking up carryout from local restaurants, and he encourages others to do the same. His ultimate fear is the government ordering CW Electrical Services to completely shut down, which many businesses have already had to do.
“What’s my contingency plan? That’s the piece that I don’t think anyone has the answer to,” he says. “Really, just taking it week by week is our best strategy right now.”
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