Fear

Jackson woke with a start. He looked around his bedroom, disoriented in the darkness, but gripped by irrational fear. He could see the soft glowing lights of his alarm clock. It was just after 2:00 a.m. His wife stirred as he quietly slipped out of bed. There was no sleeping now.

His sense of foreboding beat on him. He couldn’t put a finger on the source. He went down a checklist in his mind. He made payroll Friday, though not by much. Still, it was progressing. He even paid himself.

The thought about payroll shifted immediately to his 941s. These were the IRS forms for payroll taxes. His heart skipped a beat, then started racing. He thought his bookkeeper paid these but did she? He had heard from other electrical contractors that this was one of the places where embezzlement took place and the IRS not only didn’t care if you weren’t the thief, you as the company owner were expected to personally make the government whole.

Crap. He couldn’t remember signing the check.

He raced upstairs to his home computer and checked Quickbooks. Whew, there was the entry. He leaned back reassured, then sat bolt upright with a start. What if Sally forged the entry, he thought with panic. I need to check the bank account.

Jackson tried to remember the password to his business account. The bank made him change it every three months and he couldn’t remember what it was. What if Sally changed it, he thought? What if she drained the account?

After he calmed for a second, he remembered the password. Jackson logged in and checked the check registry. There it was. Thank goodness. He felt better before feeling guilty and a sense of shame for his uncalled-for suspicions about Sally. The woman had never given him any reason to doubt her.

Crisis averted, Jackson still couldn’t figure out why he was uneasy. He tried reading but found it hard to concentrate. It was now Sunday morning, so Jackson thought he should turn to the Bible. He thumbed open his Bible at random and saw that he selected the 23rd Psalm, one of the most well-known in the Good Book. He didn’t need to read it. He knew it by heart.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” he recalled from the King James Version. With a chuckle, he also recalled the version his unit used in the service before the possibility of engaging the enemy. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for I am the baddest mother fu…, uh, baddest mother in the valley.”

Why, he wondered, could he tamp down his fear when facing people who wanted to kill him, but not when facing the daily challenges of running a small business?

He opened his phone and started reading the latest news. Big mistake. There was bad news on every front. It seemed like the world was about to fall apart. The economy was teetering. Prices were up. Crime was out of control. The border was out of control. War was looming, including people openly talking about nuclear war. Seriously? The news just made him feel worse.

He finally gave up and tried to go back to sleep, but just stared at the ceiling until his wife’s alarm went off, signaling it was time to rouse the kids and get ready for church.

***

Jackson was distracted in his adult Sunday School class. He couldn’t quite engage. David Solomon, another small business owner in his class, picked up on Jackson’s distraction. “Something the matter?” he asked simply.

Jackson shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m not cut out for business.”

“I thought things were improving?”

“Oh, they are. The problem is the more things improve, the more I worry. The more I’m afraid of blowing it. It’s killing me. I guess I’m not like you. I don’t know how you do it,” said Jackson.

David looked at Jackson for a second. He turned to his wife Barb. “Hey Barb, you mind if I pull Jackson from the service to help me with a prayer request?”

Jackson’s wife looked halfway relieved that he was being asked to get involved with a prayer request. “Of course, David.”

David turned to his wife, “Okay with you, Hun?”

“Sure, and why don’t we all go for lunch afterward?”

***

Sitting in a corner of the church coffee bar, Jackson asked David if he felt guilty lying about a prayer request.

“I didn’t lie,” David said. “I prayed that I’d be able to help you just before I said that. This is part of my prayer request. So tell me, what’s up?”

Jackson sighed. “It seems like the more successful I become – and I’m not that successful, just keeping my head above water – well, it seems like I’ve got more to lose. I mean, I could lose it all! I could lose everything I’ve worked on for years, everything I’ve sacrificed for.”

David chuckled. “You don’t think every small business owner’s been where you are at one point in time or another? Come on. You’re not the first person to struggle under the burden of risk.”

“Oh sure, like you’ve had problems.”

“Brother, I’ve had more than my share of worries. For example, I had someone embezzle at least a hundred grand over a couple of years. This was someone I trusted. She created a false vendor account and paid her husband’s fake business’ fake invoices every month for two years.”

“What? How did you catch her?”

“She got a bad case of the flu and I wouldn’t let her snotty, infectious nose into the office. Made her go home. Otherwise, we might never have discovered her scheme. Stuff like this happens more than anyone wants to admit. We don’t talk about it because we’re all embarrassed to admit we’ve been such dupes.”

“But you made up for it?”

“Not easily. We also discovered we were behind with a key supplier. In fact, they cut me off and I lost our main line of products. I had to switch brands. Man, I was terrified no one would buy what I considered a lesser brand of products from us.”

“What happened,” asked Jackson.

“No one noticed. The only brand that mattered to our customers was our brand. I’d worked myself into a frenzy for nothing. Most of our worries as small business owners never come to fruition, unless we do something to help them along. Business ownership carries a burden and that burden never truly goes away no matter how successful you become.”

“I don’t know,” blurted Jackson. “There’s so much risk. So much responsibility. I mean, I’ve got eight families that depend on my company financially. That means they depend on me. I never asked for this.”

“Yes you did,” scolded David. “You asked for this the second you decided you weren’t going to be a single truck operator, which was the right decision, by the way. If you were the company, what would happen if you got in an accident and couldn’t work?”

“I didn’t think like that.”

“Yeah, most small guys don’t. What they don’t consider is the risk to their family. One truck contractors don’t consider how selfish they are. That’s part of the reason you build a company that can run without you. It can provide an income stream for your family if you wake up one day with a heart attack and can’t work for months following a quadruple bypass.”

“Isn’t that what happened to you?”

“Yes. And thank the Lord I put my company in a position to continue to operate while I was in a hospital bed.”

“Okay,” said Jackson. “How did you handle it when you were my size? How did you manage the pressure?”

“Now you’re asking the right question. How do you think I handled it?”

“I don’t know. Faith? Well, maybe my faith isn’t as strong as yours. I read Job and the lesson I get is the guy had to go through a lot of pain.”

“And yet, he kept his faith and emerged from the pain. Aren’t you going through that now? A lot of pain?”

“Yeah,” Jackson practically shouted. “I think of everything that can go wrong. Even when I can’t pinpoint anything, I feel uneasy. It’s killing me. I can’t sleep. One of my guys can get in a wreck and kill someone so the attorneys take everything I own. I think of one of my guys touching the wrong wire at the wrong time and killing himself. I think about the work drying up.”

Jackson continued “I can’t bear the thought of losing everything I’ve worked for. I can’t bear the thought of letting my employees down, letting my family down. It’s too much.”

“No, Jackson. It’s not. If you want to work for a paycheck, go ahead. Walk away. If you were a single truck guy who didn’t want to grow, I’d tell you to do exactly that, but you aren’t. You’re building a business that’s more than a job. Give up at this point and you will always regret it. Yes, it’s risky to own a business, but without the risk, there wouldn’t be the rewards. Most people choose safe paths. Less risk. Less reward. You wanted more. As a result, you risk more. It’s something you have to accept and learn to live with.”

“But the responsibility,” complained Jackson.

“Yes sir. You are responsible for the livelihood of other people. It’s a burden that comes with the territory. Man up.”

“What?”

David took a deep breath. “Do you read science fiction?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Okay, well there’s a writer, Frank Herbert. He wrote the Dune books.”

“Like the movie?”

“Yeah, like the movie.”

“It’s a crappy movie.”

“Okay, but it’s a good book. Anyway, Herbert used this line, ‘Fear is the mind-killer.’ What do you think he meant?”

Jackson thought for a second. “When you’re afraid, you don’t think. Your mind stops working.”

“Exactly. Now, have you heard of Zig Ziglar?”

“The motivational guy. Sure.”

“Ziglar said fear stands for false expectations appearing real. In other words, most of the things we worry about won’t happen. There are all kinds of research studies supporting this.”

“Okay, David. I might even be able to accept that. It doesn’t do anything for me waking up in the middle of the night with a panic attack.”

“So let’s work it out. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your business?”

“Easy. Bankruptcy.”

“Then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“What would happen? What would your employees do?”

“They’d find new jobs, I guess.”

“And how long would that take them in today’s labor market?”

“I don’t know. A nanosecond.”

“Boom!” David practically shouted. “Everyone would get jobs. So they’d be okay. What about your family? What would you do?”

“I’d get a job somewhere or I’d start over.”

“Let me ask you something. If you were approached by a licensed electrician who had run his own business and failed, would you hire him?”

“Absolutely!”

“Why?”

“Because he’d understand the economics of running a business better than most guys and know how hard it is so he’d be less likely to leave… Okay, I see what you’ve done there.”

David smiled. “Yeah, you would be a more attractive employee. You might be embarrassed about the business failure, but an employer would see your experience as an asset. The point is that the worst thing you can imagine would be survivable, right? Right?”

“I suppose.”

“No, you don’t suppose. You just said so. And if you can handle the worst case, you can handle anything else. It might not be fun, but you can handle it. So, why worry?”

“Okay, I get that.”

“There’s a more important point. Have you heard about Earl Nightingale?”

“No.”

“He was the first person to create a gold record based on the spoken word. It was called, ‘The Strangest Secret” and the strangest secret is you become what you think about. Denis Waitley, a psychologist who worked with Olympians and the space program. He said we all have a robot subconscious that we program and that it can’t tell the difference between what we want and don’t want. It just zeroes in on what we’re focused on. If you focus on what you want, your self-conscious goes to work to help you. If you focus on failure, it works the same way. Right now, my friend, you are focusing on failure. Stop it.”

“Stop it?”

“Stop it. Change your focus. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. Write down what you want. Visualize it. Focus on it.”

“That easy, huh?”

“No, it’s not easy. Listen Jackson, I’ve been there. So have other people. They’ve been in worse places than you. Once, at an industry conference I attended, I talked with a guy who took over his father’s air conditioning company. As he took the keys from his father, his dad said to put it in bankruptcy.”

“That sucks.”

“Not as bad as the crash Stan oversaw. He saw this company, this family legacy, go from operations in three cities and over a hundred trucks to two.”

“Whoa. How did he manage that?”

“Perspective. His daughter had cancer as a child. For more than a decade he was in and out of hospitals with his child. He told me the business wasn’t hard. Watching his daughter go through cancer was hard. Watching a child die in the hospital elevator while he was on it was hard. He said I had no idea what was hard. He did and it wasn’t business. A dead business can be rebuilt. A dead child is gone. Stan’s message hit me hard. His message was to get some perspective. There were times when I needed it. You need it now.”

Jackson felt small hearing about David’s friend, Stan. He thought about his own daughter. Yeah, what he was worried about was nothing compared to what Stan faced.

“There’s another technique I use to deal with fear. You want to hear it,” asked David.

“Of course.”

“Schedule a time to worry.”

“Huh?”

“Plan a couple of 15-minute segments where you are going to worry yourself sick. Put them on your calendar. Don’t let anyone interrupt you while you think about everything that can go wrong.  Don’t hold back. Worry, worry, worry. Then, when you start to worry or get afraid tell yourself that it’s not time for that. You have to wait until the scheduled time.”

“Fifteen minutes isn’t enough.”

“You think? I’ve found that I can’t fill 15 minutes without recycling the same worry. I can’t do it. But if I don’t guard myself, I can fill an entire day with the same five minutes of worry. Just try it.”

“Okay, what else?”

“Release the sense that you’re in control. Turn it over to God. You can only do what you can do. Quit trying to shoulder it all yourself. Frankly, I’d tell you the same thing if you were a Buddist or any other religion. Turn it over to a higher power. Stop trying to control everything yourself.”

***

Jackson followed David Solomon’s advice. It turned out Solomon was pretty wise. Go figure. As he focused on what he wanted in life and business, Jackson got control of his fear. Magically, it seemed to bring success his way. It wasn’t easy, but things were moving in the right direction. He started sleeping through the night. When he could recall the dreams he had during that brief period between sleep and waking, they were no longer terror-ridden, but success-focused. The more he focused on success and the less he focused on fear, the more he received the former and the less he worried about the latter.

In his journal, the day after having coffee with David Solomon, Jackson wrote:

1.    I asked for the risk and responsibility that accompanies business ownership.

2.    Fear is the mind-killer.

3.    Fear is False Expectations Appearing Real. Most fears never materialize.

4.    I can live with the worst case, so everything else is easier.

5.    Focus on what I want. Think about what I want.

6.    Keep perspective.

7.    Turn it over to God.

8.    Schedule time to worry.

___________________________________________

If you enjoy Comanche Marketing and would like to see it continue, drop a note to Matt Michel. 

Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

Everybody Sells

Jim adjourned the weekly service meeting and watched as his technicians gathered in the parking lot for the unofficial service meeting.  This is where the grumblers grumbled, the gripers griped, the gossipers gossiped, and the no-drama guys pushed through it to focus on getting their jobs done.

Mountain Air, Jim’s company had recently embraced a “connected home” strategy, where customers could buy thermostats, water alarms, water shut off valves, cameras, light switches, door and window sensors, door locks, and garage door openers that were all integrated through an app the company white labeled.  By integrating the connected home monitoring with the company’s standard air conditioning service agreement, Mountain Air could offer an integrated service to its customers that would prevent breakdowns, stop some home disasters like floods, and increase peace of mind.  For Mountain Air, it securely tied customers to the company, added to the product offering, differentiated the company from competitors, and created a recurring revenue stream that would give the company a secure future against the private equity owned contractors.  The problem was his techs were simply not offering it.

All he wanted was for the guys to hand the homeowner some literature and answer questions, but he wasn’t getting any traction.  Was it a problem of understanding the products and the consumer benefits?  He didn’t think so.

Bennie, the service manager walked into Jim’s office.  Jim looked at him, “Any idea what the buzz is?”

“I think it’s a couple of things,” said Bennie.

“Like what?”

“First, they just aren’t comfortable talking about it, so they don’t.  If one of them took the lead, the others might follow.”

“And?”

“And you’re asking them to sell.  That’s a four-letter word for technicians.”

“Damn it,” said Jim.  “I’m not asking them to sell.  I’m just asking them to talk about it.”

“They see it as selling.  They like the kits you gave them for their homes, but they’re still reluctant to talk about it.”

“Who do you think I’ve got the best chance of breaking through to?”

“Believe it or not, I think Tony’s your best shot.”

“Tony?  He’s the hardest case of all of them.”

“And if we can get Tony to come around, the rest of them will too.”

“Alright.  Tell him to come see me tomorrow morning.”

***

Near the end of the day after his last service call, Tony stuck his head in Jim’s office.  “You wanted to see me, Boss?” he asked.

Jim waved him in.  Tony was a good-looking young man.  He was clean cut and presented himself well.   He usually wore a smile and was the type of person other people warmed up to.  Jim wished the rest of his techs looked as good as Tony.  He realized Bennie was right to pick Tony for multiple reasons.  If Tony only tried halfway to talk about the connected home products, people would enroll in the program left and right.

“Have a seat, Tony.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No, it’s not that you’ve done anything wrong.  It’s what you aren’t doing.  Why don’t you talk to customers about the connected home products.”

Tony shifted uncomfortably and broke eye contact.  “Boss, I’m a technician.  I don’t sell stuff.  It doesn’t feel right.”

“You never sell?”

“Never!”

Jim thought for a second.  “Tony, you just got married a couple of years ago, right?”

“Yessir.”

“And you’ve got a new baby?”

“Maddie’s just turned six months,” said Tony with pride.

“Your wife’s Susan, right?  How did you ever get her to go out on a date with you?”

Tony laughed.  “Well, it wasn’t easy.  She’s a manager at a convenience store.  I started buying coffee there every morning.  I had to persuade her to go to a Zac Brown concert with me.”

“Persuade her?”

“She didn’t want to go out with a customer.  It wasn’t easy.  Zac Brown tickets helped.”

“So you persuaded her, huh.”

“Yeah.”

“You mean, you sold her on the benefits of a date with you.  I thought you said you never sell.”

“Aw Boss, that’s not the same thing.”

“It’s not?  Sounds like selling to me.  Look, Tony, everyone sells.  You just wait until your little girl grows up and y’all are standing in the line of a store and she sees something she wants and tries to get you to buy it for her.  I’ll bet she’ll be a really good salesperson.”

“Probably,” conceded Tony, thinking about how hard it would be for him to say no to his little girl.

“The problem, Tony, is you think sales is something you do ‘to people.’  It’s not.  It’s something you do ‘for people.’  Did you know that Tom McCart, the first salesperson in our industry to sell a million dollars a year, way back in the 70s, had ‘Assistant Buyer’ printed on his business cards?  When someone asked him about it, he said his job was to help his customers buy the best comfort system for their circumstances.”

“Okay, but I’m not a salesperson.  I don’t want to be one.  I’m a technician.  If a system is really old and the repair is really expensive, I turn it over to Chuck or Todd, just like I’m supposed to.”

“I know.  And Chuck and Todd appreciate the leads.  But that’s beside the point.  I want you to help people.”

“I do help people,” said Tony a little defensively.  “I like helping people.”

“I know you do.  That’s why I’d like you to let people know about our connected home products.  Heck, all you have to do is hand them the literature we give you at the start of a service call and answer questions if they ask.  You can even say, ‘They make me give you this’ when you hand them the literature.”

“It doesn’t feel right.  It’s like we’re trying to trick them of something.”

Jim leaned back and thought for a second.  He felt his phone buzz and touched a button on the side to silence it, then looked up at Tony.  “Man, I love this phone.  I remember when it was time to get a new one.  I went online and read all of these reviews on tech sites.  I asked people about their phones.  I knew that whatever I got, I would probably be stuck with it for a few years, and I didn’t want to make a mistake.”

“Yeah,” said Tony.  “I know what you mean.  It gets really confusing.”

“You know what I finally did?”

“Asked Barb?”

Jim laughed out loud.  Barb was his wife and it was well known around the company that Jim pretty much did whatever she wanted.  “I did actually.  She wasn’t any help.  I ended up going to the phone store.”

“Ugh.”

“I walked in and asked for the guy who’d been there the longest.  Turned out the ‘guy’ was a young woman named Jill.  I asked her to explain the pros and cons of each phone.  Do you know what she did?”

“No.  What?”

“She started asking me questions.”

“Like what?”

“She asked me what I did for a living.  Then, she asked how I used my phone, where I used it, and how much I used it.  She asked me what type of computer I used.  She asked me what apps I used.  She asked me about my budget.  Only then, she started showing me the phones.”

“She was selling you.”

“Yes, in a way.  I asked for the most experienced person because I wanted the person with the most knowledge.  Jill knew her stuff.  What she was really doing was helping me find the right phone for me, for my circumstances.  I didn’t really think of her selling me as much as helping me.”

“Okay, but you walked into that.  You were asking for it.  Nobody is asking us about the connected home crap.”

Crap, thought Jim to himself.  Man, this kid has an attitude.  He said, “Well you know why no one asks about it?”

“No.”

“Because no one knows we offer it.”

“Because we’re a heating and air company, not a connected home company.”

“Actually, we’re both.  And who is better than us to talk with our customers about connected home products?  Do you think some kid with a few hours of training, going door-to-door cold calling, knows anything about the comfort system?  Thermostats are part of almost every connected home solution.  How many times have you run into a screwed-up system because one of the connected home yahoos didn’t understand HVAC controls?”

“A few,” admitted Tony.

“That’s one of the reasons we should be letting our customers know about what we can do.”

“I’m just putting myself in the customer’s shoes, Boss.  I wouldn’t want someone pushing these things on me, so I’m not pushing them on anyone else.  You know, the Golden Rule.  Do unto others and all of that stuff.”

“The Golden Rule works great until you run into a masochist,” quipped Jim.

“A maso-what?”

“Masochist.  Someone who seems to enjoy pain and suffering.  You know, a Lions fan.”

Tony chuckled, thinking about Bennie, the company service manager and a major Lions fan who went through agony every football season.

Jim said, “The Golden Rule is to treat people like you want to be treated.  The problem is everyone’s not you.”

“The world would be a better place if they were,” answered Tony deadpan.

Jim laughed.  “Oh yeah.  I can just imagine a world of Tonys.”

Tony couldn’t hold it and chuckled with Jim.  “Okay, maybe the world’s not ready for that much Tony-ness.”

“So instead of the Golden Rule, why not practice the Platinum rule” asked Jim.

“What’s the Platinum Rule?”

“Treat people the way they want to be treated.”

“Well, just how do I know how people want to be treated?”

“Ask them.  Why do you think I ask everyone in the company to make a vision board,” asked Jim, referring to the individual vision boards along one hall of the company.  Each vision board contains images of things or experiences the employee wants.

Jim could see Tony was thinking.  “The vision boards help me know how to help everyone achieve the things they want through the company.”

Jim paused before continuing.  “I want to add something else, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“What?” asked Tony a little defensively.

“Remember Francis, the tech I fired?”

“What about him?”

“What did he do?”

“He sold people stuff they didn’t need, like when he talked that old woman into replacing a two-year-old heat pump.  This is exactly what I’m talking about.  This is why techs should never sell.”

“Are you saying all techs are like Francis?”

“No.  I’m not anything like that SOB.”

“I agree.  You aren’t like him, which is why he’s not here and you are.  The old woman just wanted to be comfortable.  The problem was inadequate return air.  Francis knew that.  I know he knew that, yet he never discussed it with her.  The only choice he gave her was a new heat pump or nothing.  What do you call that?”

“Dishonest.  Unethical.  Crooked,” said Tony.

“How about arrogant?”

“Yeah, that too.”

Jim took a deep breath.  “You know, you’re just as arrogant.”

“Me?  What are you talking about?”

“Are you sure you can take it?”

“Yeah!  I want to know how I’m arrogant.”

“You’re just as arrogant as Francis, but in a different way.  You act like you know better than our customers what they will want or don’t want and what they need or don’t need, so you never let them know what their options are, and what’s available.  That’s making a decision for them.  That’s arrogance.”

Jim watched Tony fume.  This was touchy.  If he handled this the wrong way, Tony would quit.  That might not be a bad thing if Tony was influencing other techs the wrong way.  Still, it was hard to find techs.  Jim much preferred keeping Tony.

After letting Tony stew for a minute, Jim said, “I know you’re mad.  I just want you to think about it.  And, have I ever asked you to do something unethical?”

“No, Boss.”

“So go home and think about what we talked about. Okay?”

“Okay, Boss.”

***

Tony was mad.  He wasn’t quite steaming mad, but he was close.  He thought about quitting.  It would be easy to get a job with another company.  But, he wondered, would it be any better?

Rudy left a year ago, telling everyone about all of the money he was going to make.  Reality differed.  He didn’t make much more than he did at Mountain Air.  Plus, he worked his butt off.  Rudy complained about the constant pressure to boost his average ticket.  To a point, Tony understood the need.  It cost a lot of money to position a fully stocked truck with a highly trained technician at a customer’s house.  Every extra dollar generated on a service call was important.  But pressuring people wasn’t something most techs wanted to do or were any good at.

When he got home, Tony greeted Susan, his wife, and went to check on his daughter, Maddie.  She was in her playpen, batting at a mobile.  Tony felt himself calm a little after watching his daughter.  She was so cute!

Apparently, he didn’t calm enough for Susan.  At dinner, she asked, “So what’s up?  Is something going on at work?”

Wives, he thought.  It was like she could read his mind.  “They’re just pissing me off,” he said.

“How?”

“Jim wants me to push the connected home crap on customers?”

“What do you mean, ‘push?’”

Tony sighed.  “They want us to hand out literature and talk to customers about it.”

“Why not?  It’s awesome.  At least, the stuff Jim had installed here is.  Whenever someone rings the doorbell and I’m at work, I can talk with the person through my phone.  The thermostat automatically turns up when we both leave the geofence and turns down when one of us returns.  That’s saving us a lot of money on the power bill.  Plus, I love the extra indoor camera because it helps me keep an eye on Maddie after I pick her up from daycare.”

Tony just stared at his wife.  When Jim unveiled the connected home program, he had a rep work with every tech to install a basic package on another employee’s home.  The guys in apartments or rentals got a more limited package.  Jim did the same thing with service agreements.  Everyone in the company who owned a home had a service agreement, but techs weren’t allowed to maintain their own systems because, as Jim says, they would never do it.  Left to themselves, techs have the most poorly maintained comfort systems in town.

“Hello,” said Susan, snapping Tony out of his thoughts.  “Earth to Tony.”

“We had setback thermostats before.  I don’t see how that saves us money.”

“Pffft,” said Susan.  “We may have had them.  We sure didn’t use them.  I don’t think they were ever programmed.”

Susan cocked her head at her husband.  “Hey, wait a second.  You haven’t even opened the app, have you?”

“Sure I have.”

“Hand me your phone.”

“I’m not going to hand you my phone,” said Tony, reaching for it.

Susan was too fast.  She grabbed his phone and knowing his password, unlocked it.  She looked up after fiddling with it for a few minutes and handed it back.  “There, I’ve set it up so you get notifications on the app.  You’ll know when the doors opens, when the doorbell rings, and when there’s activity on the cameras.”

***

The next day Tony heard a click on his phone when he was at a stoplight.  He thumbed down the notice.  The door to the garage had opened.  Apparently, Susan was on the day to daycare with Maddie.  About a half hour later he checked the app again and saw that after Susan left the geofence, the setpoint changed 82 degrees.

Throughout the day, Tony watched the app as a package was delivered.  When Susan returned home with Maddie, he was able to watch his daughter crawl around on the floor.  Grudgingly, he had to admit it was cool.

The next morning, Tony gathered his paperwork before approaching a home on his first service call.  He stopped for a second and as an afterthought, grabbed the connected home flyer, which he handed to the homeowner.

After the work was complete and Tony was collecting payment, his customer, Mrs. Teal asked him about the connected home.  “Can you tell me about this?”

“It’s some new stuff the company is offering.  You know, cameras and sensors and switches and stuff.  So, you can follow what’s going on in your home.”

“Does it work?”

“Yeah.  I’ve got it at my home.  Here, you can see where a guy dropped off a package yesterday,” said Tony, showing Mrs. Teal the recorded video on his phone.

“What else can it do?”

“Well, we can put a sensor on your doors, so that you get a notification whenever they’re opened.”

“Any door?”

“Sure.”

“My liquor cabinet door?  I mean, I have a teenage son and believe in ‘trust but verify’ when it comes to teenagers.”

Tony laughed, “Sure.  We can do that.”

***

Despite himself, three of Tony’s customers bought connected home packages that week.  Mrs. Teal was already a service agreement customer and it was just added to her existing service agreement.  The other two bought the connected home/service agreement bundle.

When Jim saw Tony at the shop on Friday, he could hardly contain himself.  “Tony!,” he shouted, “My man.  Getting some connected home spiffs this week.  Tell me what happened.”

Tony knew this was coming.  “Aw Boss.  It was like this.  I hadn’t really used the stuff, but Susan had and she loves it.  She kinda sold me on using it and the product sort of sold itself after that.  So I admit, it is pretty cool and pretty useful.”

“Susan, huh,” said Jim.  “Well, I guess it is true.  Everybody sells.”

“Whatever you say, Boss.”

***

Jim went back to his office.  He tried to recall the conversation he had with Tony that seemed to go better than he thought.  He wrote…

  • Sales are not something you do to people.  It’s something you do for people.
  • Everybody sells.
  • Fundamentally sales are helping people.
  • The platinum rule is to treat people the way they want to be treated.
  • Withholding information and options from customers is arrogant.
  • Ultimately, sales is the transference of belief and you must own a product to believe in it.

___________________________________________

If you enjoy Comanche Marketing and would like to see it continue, drop a note to Matt Michel. 

Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

The Start of Plumbing Season

The plumbers of Lombardi Plumbing crowded into the training room. It was early. Most of the public was still asleep or just starting to rise for the day. This was life for the plumbers. They were at the shop by 7:00 a.m. to attend a service meeting and get their trucks restocked.

Danny Jameson sat down next to Buddy Baker. Buddy was one of the old hands and Danny was one of the newbies, assigned to work with Buddy.

Vinnie Lombardi walked in holding a pipe wrench, which he set on a table. Buddy groaned a little. “Here we go again.”

“What?” asked Danny.

“He does the same thing every year,” said Buddy.

Vinnie interrupted Buddy, saying, “Buddy, why don’t you get us started.”

“Yes sir,” said Buddy. “Everyone let’s face the flag. Join me in the Pledge of Allegiance.”

The room rose to their feet in unison. Everyone put their right hand over their heart and joined Buddy, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

“Thank you Buddy,” said Vinnie. He liked to start every service meeting with the Pledge. Vinnie was patriotic and like many in the service trades, a military veteran. He liked to remind his team that they were fortunate to live in the United States.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Vinnie had everyone recite the company’s mission statement together. They said in unison, “At Lombardi Plumbing we put our team first so they can put the customers first and protect the health and sanitation of our community.”

After they finished, Vinnie held up the pipe wrench. “Gentlemen, and Lady,” he said with a nod to Jen Franks, the company’s female plumber, “this is a pipe wrench.” Most of the plumbers in the room joined in, finishing the sentence.

“Alright,” laughed Vinnie, “You’ve heard it before. Well, you’re going to hear it again because our business is built on good fundamentals.”

“So, is this a technical class?” whispered Danny to Buddy.

“Nah, just wait.”

“All of you are good mechanics, even though experience levels differ. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be here. The problem is every service call involves broken plumbing and a broken customer. If you don’t take care of the customer, you’ve only made half of a repair.”

Vinnie continued, “What this means is we need to make the people feel comfortable when we arrive, assured they called the right plumber and delighted when we depart. This starts with our appearance. You guys know we belong to the Service Nation Alliance. Every other year, they survey the customers of Alliance members, including ours. That’s a lot of customers. Anyone guess what the most frequently mentioned concern about plumbers for our customers and the continent as a whole is?”

“Showing up late,” shouted Danny.

“That’s a good one and it sure is important, but it’s not the most frequently mentioned, especially by our customers. Does anyone know why showing up late is less of an issue for us than the country as a whole?”

“We’re fast drivers,” said one of the plumbers.

“Better not be,” cautioned Vinnie. “Remember, if you speed I get an alert from GPS. The reason we show up on time isn’t due to your efforts. It’s due to our dispatchers. Take the time to thank them from time to time because, without their skill, you would show up late more often. And what’s it like when you show up late?”

Buddy jumped in. “The customer is irritated and cranky.”

“And we all know how much Buddy likes cranky customers,” said Vinnie, eliciting laughter all around. “But back to the most frequent concern. Any ideas?”

Vinnie looked around the room. “It’s poor grooming.”

“Grooming?” asked one of the plumbers.

“Grooming. Tell me, what is the stereotype for a plumber?”

“Three hundred pounds, shirt untucked, greasy hair under a dirty cap, and a buttcrack,” offered Jen, the company’s female plumber.

“Exactly. Customers are letting you into their homes. Their home!  When you show up neat, clean, and professional, you are sending the customer a sign of respect. It’s respect for the customer and it’s self-respect for yourself.”

“Some of our customers need a little self-respect,” said one of the plumbers.

“Remember the lady who wouldn’t throw anything away?” asked another with a shudder.

Vinnie took control back. “That’s true, but even if a customer lacks self-respect the customer deserves our respect. These are the people who keep the lights on here and who allow us to feed our families. So, every morning, I want you to shower, shave, except for you Jen, tuck in your shirts, and show pride in your appearance. Every person here represents the entire customer when you are out there.”

“When you show up looking sharp, the stereotype goes out the window and the customer says to herself, ‘Wow, these Lombardi guys are different.’ So, what else matters?”

“Parking,” said Buddy. “Park at the end of the drive so the truck doesn’t obstruct traffic, but get permission from the customer to leave the truck there and move if asked.”

“Yes sir,” said Vinnie. “And when you park at the end of the drive, perpendicular to traffic, you maximize the exposure of our beautiful vehicle wraps to more people.”

Vinnie looked at Danny. “What do we do next?”

“Um,” said Danny, shifting in his chair. “Uh, breath spray?”

“Nailed it,” said Vinnie to a beaming Danny. “We want to look sharp and we want to emit no odors whatsoever.”

“Aw come on,” said Jen when the plumber next to her loudly passed gas, causing everybody else to crack up. “Don’t tell me you’ve been saving that up.”

“Who? Me?” the guilty party replied innocently.

“Okay, smart guy,” said Vinnie, “Or, should I say fart guy? What’s important in how we interact with the customer?”

The plumber rolled his eyes but knew the company processes down cold. He said, “We want to respect anyone with a concern about the virus by keeping our distance and asking if the customers want us to mask up, even though dispatch had already told us. We want to make eye contact, smile, and nod to acknowledge the things the customer tells us and repeat them back to make sure we got it right.”

“And,” added Vinnie, “We always want to thank the customer for the opportunity to be of service. Remember, the customer pays for everything around here. The customer pays your paycheck and mine. She pays for your trucks, tools, insurance, and training. The more ways we can serve the customer, the more the customer pays us. How can we do that?”

Danny’s arm shot up. He said, “We ask questions and present options. We never decide for a customer. We let customers choose to repair a problem, replace a product, or upgrade.”

Vinnie held up an invoice. “What do we call this?”

“Paperwork,” was the shouted answer.

“Do we ask the customer to sign the paperwork?”

“No,” said one of the plumbers. “We ask them for their approval or authorization.”

“Excellent,” said Vinnie. “We want to use soft language and avoid terms like paperwork, signatures, and signing. And, we always want to conclude every call by asking if there is any other way we can be of service, thanking them for their business, reminding them of the importance of referrals, and finally, as a personal favor, because your boss measures you on this, ask them to scan the QR code to provide a review.”

Vinnie wrote on the board…

SOFT SKILL FUNDAMENTALS

1.    Neat and Clean

2.    Odor Free

3.    Park at the End of the Driveway With Permission

4.    Respect Customer Health Concerns

5.    Make Eye Contact

6.    Smile

7.    Actively Listen

8.    Confirm Understanding

9.    Ask Questions

10. Present Options

11. Never Decide For the Customer

12. Use Soft Language

13. Thank the Customer

14. Ask for a Review

“Now,” said Vinnie. “Let’s get outta here and go serve some customers!”

___________________________________________

Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

Why

Willie McGarn looked forward to the monthly local association meeting of his fellow contractors. He thought the programs could use a little spicing up, but they were just icing on the cake for him. This was a chance to discern how other contractors in the area were doing. For himself, Willie wasn’t doing well. He was close to hanging it up and shutting the doors.

When he arrived at the hotel where the meeting was held, he headed to the bar. Sure enough, other contractors had already arrived. As he approached the bar he heard the unmistakable drawl of big Sam Henderson. “Well if it ain’t Willie McGarn! How you doing, Willie?”

“Hi Sam,” said Willie, purposefully dodging Sam’s question. “How are you?”

“Why if I was doing any better, it would be illegal,” said Sam jovially.

“I certainly see enough of your trucks around town. If you don’t mind my asking, how do you do it? No matter what the weather or economy, you seem to truck along.”

“Well,” said Sam, “Why don’t you drop by one day and I’ll show you my operation.”

Willie couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sam Henderson was one of the most successful contractors in the area, heck, in the state! And he was willing to let one of his competitors see his operation from the inside? No way. Willie decided to call him on his bluff. “I’d love to see your shop.”

Sam pulled out his phone and began scrolling on it. “How about Friday morning? I usually head out to the deer lease on Thursday, but Wilma’s got me going to some performing arts thing Friday night and threatened me good if I tried to skip out.”

“Uh, sure,” gasped Willie. “How about 9:00 a.m.?”

“See you then, brother. Now, what kind of program are they having tonight? I hope it’s something more interesting than that guy from the city permitting office we had last month.”

***

Sam pulled into the Comfort Commander lot and parked in one of the spaces marked for visitors. He wondered what people would think seeing his gleaming white McGarn Air truck in front of half a dozen of Sam’s green and black Comfort Commander trucks. Probably think I’m getting purchased, he thought to himself.

He entered a small foyer and pressed a button next to an intercom. “I’m here for an appointment with Sam Henderson,” he said to no one he could see.

“Well come on in,” a woman’s voice answered through the intercom and the door buzzed.

Willie pulled it open and walked through. What he saw was amazing. The large, open office was buzzing with activity. Lots of people with headsets were facing large computer screens, talking with customers. The screens danced with schedules and time blocks. Others were looking at different data entry or accounting screens. Willie wasn’t sure which. Large LCD screens on the walls displayed company key performance indicators, salesperson rankings, technician rankings, and so on. One screen cycled through customer reviews.

A woman rose from one of the desks to greet him. “Hi. You must be Willie McGarn. I’m Patty, the office manager. I was told to expect you.”

“I am,” said Willie. “Thanks.”

“Follow me and I’ll take you to Sam.”

Sam was seated in a glassed-in office at the very end of the hall. The office was paneled in Oak, boasting a well-appointed bar, conference table, and battleship desk where Sam sat. Several hunting and fishing trophies were mounted on the walls.

“Hello Willie,” said Sam coming around his desk and motioning to the conference table. “Have a seat. Want coffee?”

“No thank you. I’m fine.”

“Let’s chat for a few minutes, then I’ll take you on a tour.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Willie.

While they were talking, Sam essentially told Willie everything about his company. He shared his sales, margins, profitability, average service ticket, average installation, and on and on. Sam couldn’t believe he was being so open. On the tour, he showed Willie his training room, technician lounge, meeting rooms, warehouse, including his stocking system, and let him listen to a call between one of his service managers and a technician who was on the job. Willie was fascinated with all of it.

As they headed back to the office, Sam stopped at a large printer and said, “Hey, look at this. This is my new toy. It prints vehicle wraps.”

“You mean, you print your own wraps?” asked Willie, in awe.

“Yeah, why not? Buying the printer is easy to cost justify and we’ve got enough trucks. I switched to our wrap design a few years ago. It was hard to swallow the cost at the time. I realize now it wasn’t a cost at all, but one of the best investments I’ve made. Comfort Commander trucks pop. They are distinctive. Because of our trucks, we’ve got the best brand awareness of any HVAC company in the area. You should wrap your trucks. No offense, but one white truck pretty much looks like another white truck. It’ll make a big difference in your business, I promise.”

“I’ll think about it,” remarked Willie, who hadn’t really thought about it before.

“Heck,” said Sam. “With this thing, I’m thinking about wrapping furnaces and maybe even condensing unit caps. I can make mine look different and maybe even charge more. If I ever get into plumbing, I’m sure as heck going to wrap water heaters and disposers.”

***

“So what do you think?” asked Sam when they returned to his office. “What are your questions?”

“Wow, well I’m a little overwhelmed. I mean, you’ve opened up some possibilities I never considered. You know they don’t teach this at the trade school.”

“Don’t I know it. Too many guys in the trade know more about turning a wrench than turning a profit. It’s why they price so stinking low. And ‘cause they price so stinking low, they can only afford to provide a stinking level of service.”

“I might be one of those stinking guys.”

“Well heck, son. Change. It ain’t hard. What are you charging? Wait, no, don’t tell me. For some reason, it’s illegal for us to compare prices. But we can talk in generalities. I can give you my pricing calculator. Punch in your numbers and it’ll tell you what you should charge. Low pricing is the single most common problem in the trade. It’s also the easiest to fix.”

“I don’t get it,” blurted Willie. “Why are you sharing all of this with me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m your competitor,” said Willie, before stopping as he saw a blank look on Sam’s face.

Sam stared at Willie for a second, then burst into laughter. “Son, you’re not my competition.”

“I’m not?”

“For starters, which one of my satisfied customers are you going to take from me? None of them. The only way one of my customers would ever consider your company was if I screwed up. If I did a crappy job and then blew the service recovery, I might piss ‘em off so bad that they would look for someone else, at which point they would no longer be my customer.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“And take someone who’s a prospect-at-large. Do you know who my competition is for that guy?”

“Other air conditioning contractors.”

“Nope. Given the price of a new system these days, my competition is anyone who offers something more compelling in the same general price range. My customer is the spa guy or the 4-wheeler guy or the river cruise vacation guy. They all want the same $15 to $25 thousand I want and their offering is a heckuva lot sexier than mine.”

Willie had never thought of it that way before, but he could see that Sam was right. “But,” he interjected, “No one can live without air conditioning, right?”

Sam grinned. “Right. So, while my competition might win this year or the next, there’s a finite limit to how long we can keep an old system working. Sooner or later the customer will be mine and I’ll make his life better, not for a few months a year or for a week, but for years and years.”

“Makes sense.”

“But let’s get back to you. How are you doing?”

“Not well,” Willie confessed. “Maybe it’s me. It just all seems so hard.”

“Then do something else.”

“What?” asked Willie. Of all of the things Sam could say, this was the last thing he expected.

“You spend most of your waking hours at work. Life’s too short to spend most of the time doing something you hate. Do something else.”

“I don’t know anything else.”

“Why did you get into air conditioning.”

“Dad was a refrigeration mechanic. He told me air conditioning was where it is at and I should go to trade school, so I did.”

“That’s why you started. Why are you still in it?”

“Like I said, I don’t know anything else,” said Willie. He was feeling a little defensive. Was this why Sam asked him here, so he could talk him out of the business and reduce the number of contractors?

“Let me tell you why I’m in it,” said Sam. “I’m older than you are. I grew up in the south in a big old, historic house that was constructed in the twenties. It didn’t have air conditioning. My parents were proud of the house, but either didn’t have the money to retrofit it or weren’t willing to spend it. Three rooms had window units. One was my parents’ room. I shared a room with my brother. When he got asthma, we got a window unit for our room but were only allowed to use it at night. The third was in our TV room. Guess where we spent all of the time?”

“The TV room,” Willie answered.

“Right. The TV room. In this big old house, we spent all of our time crammed into one of the smallest rooms because it was cool. The rest of the house was hot and muggy most of the year. The smell of mildew was everywhere.”

Sam continued, “You see for me, this business is more than a way to make money, though I do that. It’s like a calling. People are miserable when a Comfort Commander truck shows up at their house and comfortable when we leave. We keep people cool in the summer and warm in the winter. We represent a good night’s sleep. We contribute to home safety because air conditioning makes it possible for people to close their windows and lock their doors. Most people literally could not live in this town without air conditioning. What we do is important and we’re darn good at it.”

Hearing Sam describe the industry, Willie felt better about himself and what he did. He could hear the passion in Sam’s voice and see it in his eyes.

Sam paused and said to Willie, “Sorry, I get a little carried away. But that’s only part of it for me. I’m also here because of my team. I love to see people develop and grow. Now, how about you?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Son, that’s your problem. It’s your biggest problem. Figure out why you’re in business and other things will start to fall into place.”

Willie thanked Sam and left. He had a lot to think about.

***

Willie asked himself, why was he in business? And why HVAC? The easy answer was to make money, but that seemed insufficient. He could make money in lots of ways besides HVAC. Given his total take-home, he could probably make the same or more working for someone else. Plus, he wouldn’t have the hassles of all of the government paperwork. So why was he doing what he was doing?

His train of thought was interrupted by the phone. “McGarn Air, Willie here.”

It was Sheila, his wife, dispatcher, and CSR. “Willie, we’ve got a no cool and Jim and Dave are both tied up. The customer sounds like she’s up there in years. Can you take it?”

“Sure,” said Willie. “Text me the address.”

***

Willie rang the doorbell, stepped back, and put on his game face smile. A short woman with gray hair pulled back into a tight bun answered the door. Perspiration was dripping off her face as she fanned herself with a hand fan. “Oh, thank the Lord you’re here. I think I’m going to die of a heat stroke. Come on in. Come in.”

“Yes ma’am. Can you tell me what the problem is?”

“Lord, I don’t know. It just won’t get cool. I think I’m going to die of heat stroke.”

“Okay, let me take a look. Don’t worry,” reassured Willie. “One way or the other, I’ll get you cool today.”

Willie started down his diagnostic process. It didn’t take him long to zero in on the problem. Ants in the contactor. He told the old woman what the problem was and recommended replacing the contactor.

“Do whatever you have to do,” said the woman. “My son and grandson will be here for a visit this afternoon. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t get the house cool. Thank you so much.”

When Willie gave the woman the invoice after he finished, she looked sort of startled. “Is something wrong,” he asked, certain that she was going to complain about the price. They all complained about the price.

“No, there’s nothing wrong,” she said, handing him a credit card. “Why don’t you add $20 to the bill as a tip.”

“You don’t have to do that ma’am.”

“No, I want to. You’ve saved my family’s visit and made such a difference.”

***

At dinner that night, Willie said to Sheila, “You know, I went by Comfort Commander today.”

“So you told me.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking.”

“Uh huh,” said his wife, eyeing him skeptically.

“Yeah, I know. It’s dangerous for me to think too much. But I’ve been thinking that maybe we need a price increase.”

“We’ve raised prices every time the manufacturers jacked up equipment pricing.”

“I’m not talking about that. Well, maybe I am. But, I was really thinking about raising the labor component of our service pricing. I guess I’d do the same for replacement prices.”

“How much are we talking about?” asked Sheila.

Willie told her and watched while she made mental calculations. “Do you really think we could get that?”

“Yeah, I think we’re probably underpriced. I mean, what we do is important. We make people’s homes cool in the summer. We ought to get rewarded for it.”

Sheila smiled. “Do you know what a difference this could make?” She opened the calculator app on her phone and punched in a few numbers. My gosh, Willie, “We could pay down our credit cards. By the end of the summer, we might even have enough to take a real vacation. It would be a short one, but it would be a start.”

***

The rest of the week was busy. In between running service calls and babysitting his techs, Willie didn’t have time to think about Sam Henderson’s challenge to him. Saturday morning, Willie woke around 4:00 a.m. with a start. He sat straight up in bed. That was it. The old woman said it. His wife said it.

He got out of bed, grabbed a notebook, and started writing. When he finished, he leaned back and smiled. He read the page…

The reason why I’m in business is to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I will make a positive difference in my customers’ lives through the work the company performs by improving the comfort and air quality of the buildings where people work and live. I will make a positive difference in my employees’ lives by giving them meaningful work, fair pay, and opportunities to grow and advance according to their desires. I will make a positive difference in my family’s lives through the profits the business generates so they can enjoy an elevated lifestyle with tangible rewards and rich, intangible experiences that help us enjoy fulfilling lives. I will make a positive difference to the best of my ability.

Yes, he thought to himself. This is why I do what I do. I can make a difference.

___________________________________________

Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

The Decision

Jim was feeling the pressure. He was getting it from his friends. He was getting from his parents. He was getting from his teachers. Everyone wanted to know where he wanted to go to school. His problem was he didn’t want to go anywhere. He had to decide what he was going to do.

Jim was a decent student. He did well on his SAT’s and he always figured he would go to college like everyone else. But lately, he was having second thoughts.

First, Jim overheard his sister and brother-in-law talking. He’d gone over to their apartment to swim in the pool. After he was done and toweling off, he went to their apartment to say goodbye. They didn’t hear him enter. He paused when he heard them in a pretty intense discussion in the kitchen.

“Kim, we just can’t afford it,” said Frank, his brother-in-law. “We can’t even afford a decent place to live.”

“But the government keeps pausing the loan repayment and there’s talk of the loan forgiveness.”

“Nothing’s been forgiven yet,” said Frank. “I don’t think we can hope for that. I mean, we do owe the money.”

“It’s just so unfair. I mean, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. We’ll never be able to pay our college loans back.”

“Now Kim. Don’t say never. It’s just going to take time.”

“Take time? We’re going to spend a decade or more paying back loans from four years of college. At this rate, we won’t be able to afford to start a family until we’re in our thirties.”

Jim heard his sister softly crying and quietly slipped out without interrupting the couple. What he heard was a shock. He knew college was expensive, but wow. And he knew his parents would help as much as they could, but they didn’t have that much money and Jim had two younger brothers.

If he went to college, he would have to take out his own set of loans. One of Jim’s better traits was his frugality. He didn’t want to go into debt, especially not big-time debt.

While the conversation he overheard from his sister was giving him second thoughts, one of his best friends gave him more to think about. Dale had already applied to Tech and been accepted. He wanted Jim to attend with him.

“C’mon Jim,” urged Dale the other day. “Get off your butt and get your application in. It’ll be great. We can room together and pledge my big brother’s fraternity.”

“I don’t know, man. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”

“It doesn’t matter. The classes are all bull anyway unless you want to major in engineering,” said Dale before making a retching sound. “My brother says the profs let you know what they want to hear and you just repeat it back for the grade.”

“What do you mean?”

“Except for the engineering professors and a few of the business professors, all they want is for you to give them some politically correct, woke crap on tests and you’ll ace everything. It’s just like Mrs. Warren’s government class. Argue and she beats you down. Agree and she passes you.”

“So what’s the point of going to college?” asked Jim.

“Par-tays,” replied Dale enthusiastically. “Mixers with sororities. Four freaking years of sowing our oats. It’ll be awesome.”

Jim just shook his head. It wasn’t that he didn’t like fun. He did. But shouldn’t he learn something? All he felt like he learned from Mrs. Warren was he hated politics. If that was the norm in college, why should he go into debt for four years of political indoctrination? Did he have to go into debt to meet girls? Well, maybe that was a dumb question. Did he have to go into a decade’s worth of debt?

His problem was he didn’t know what he wanted to do if he didn’t go to school. He had considered the military. When he talked with Mr. Simpson who lived next door, that died.

“Look Jim,” Mr. Simpson explains. “I’m the last guy to tell someone not to go into the military. It made me who I am. I mean, I flew fu-, uh, freaking jets off aircraft carriers. Do you want to know one of the scariest things in the world?”

“Yeah, I know,” said Jim. “It’s landing on an aircraft carrier at night in a storm.”

“Hmm. Guess I’ve told you about that.”

“Yeah,” said Jim. “And I get it. But I don’t have to fly jets. I might go into the Marines.”

“Do you know why the navy allows the marines on ships?” asked Mr. Simpson.

“Yeah, I know, so the sailors will have someone to dance with,” said Jim.

“Guess I’ve told you that one too.”

“Maybe once or twice,” said Jim. “But I still think the marines are bad-ass.”

“Let’s hope they still are,” said Mr. Simpson. “I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track with what’s going on in the service, but, and I say this with a little unease…”

“What?” demanded Jim.

“I’m worried about our fighting forces. The military seems more worried about politics than our ability to make war. I saw a navy training video recently where the entirety of the video was about the proper use of pronouns. Training should be about defeating the enemy, not fu-, uh, freaking pronouns.”

More politics, thought Jim. It was everywhere. “Okay, Mr. Simpson. I get you. I just have to figure something out.”

Jim went home. At dinner, his parents asked him about his college applications. “I don’t know if I want to go to college,” he answered.

“What?” asked his dad. “You are going to go to college.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s how you get ahead in this life.”

“You mean the way Kim and Frank are buried under their loans?” asked Jim.

“Hey,” said his father.

“I don’t want to be an engineer and I don’t want to tell professors what they want to hear simply to get grades.”

“Peace,” interjected Jim’s mom.

Needing to get in the last word, his dad added, “If you don’t go to college, you can’t expect to hang around here without paying your way. You need to get a job.”

“Fine,” said Jim.

“Fine,” said his dad.

After dinner, Jim started scrolling through the job ads on his phone. The first looked promising, but then he realized it was selling overpriced cutlery. That sucked.

The next after that was setting appointments for door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales. That sucked more.

Then, he saw one that seemed appealing. It stated, “Are you mechanically inclined? Are you a people person? Are you also money motivated? We’ll pay you $17 per hour for a training wage. Attend our academy, get paid to learn, earn more down the road, plus benefits. We offer careers in an essential industry that protects the health of the nation. Call King Plumbing at 555-1221 for more information.”

Jim was familiar with John King, the Plumbing King. His ads were everywhere. But plumbing? He didn’t want to be a plumber. How do you get girls when you’re a plumber? He kept scrolling. But one after another, he either didn’t qualify or the jobs sucked.

At school the next day, he kept thinking about the Plumbing King ad. It wouldn’t hurt to find out a little more. After school, he called the number. “It’s a great day at King Plumbing where we treat our customers like royalty. How can I serve you?” answered a cheerful person.

“Uh, hi,” said Jim. “I’m calling about the ad for the academy.”

“Oh terrific,” replied Miss Enthusiastic. “Let me connect you with our recruiter.”

Jim heard the phone ringing. “This is Stephanie,” answered a woman. “How can I serve you?”

“Hey Steph, I’ve got an inquiry about the academy on the line. I’ll hang up and you can take him.”

“Uh, hi,” said Jim. “My name is Jim Marshall and I’m sort of interested in the academy, but I’m still in school.”

“No worries,” said Stephanie. “We have another class starting mid-June. Will you be out by then?”

“I’d better be.”

“Okay, so you are aware, we require a personality test and mechanical aptitude test before we accept you into the academy. Should you pass those, we will conduct background checks and administer a drug test. There won’t be a problem will there?”

“Uh, no ma’am. But, well, it’s just that…”

“Yes.”

“Well, I don’t know if I want to be a plumber. I don’t know if that’s right for me.”

“I see,” said Stephanie. “Can I put you on hold for a second?”

“Sure,” said Jim. He wondered if he should just hang up. Maybe this wasn’t a great idea.

“Mr. Marshall,” said Stephanie returning to the line. “Would you be able to drop by our office later this afternoon? Mr. King would like to meet you and talk with you about the plumbing profession to assess if it indeed is right for you.”

“Mr. King? Like the guy on the ads? John King the Plumbing King?”

Stephanie laughed a little. “One and the same. Would 4:00 or 4:30 be better for you?”

“I guess 4:00.”

“Okay, are you calling from your mobile?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll text you the address.”

Just like that Jim found himself with an appointment to meet a guy who was somewhat of a local celebrity.

***

When the time came, Jim entered King Plumbing’s offices. There was a large reception area. “You must be Mr. Marshall,” said a peppy woman who sounded like the person Jim talked with on the phone. “Take a seat and I’ll ring Stephanie.”

Stephanie arrived and handed Jim a stack of forms. “This is a personality profile. Just answer it as honestly as you can. We use these to help ensure that we are putting people in the right seats. In other words, we know the type of personality types who do well in the different positions we offer. We won’t try to put you into a job you won’t like or succeed at. The next test is the mechanical aptitude test. This helps us assess whether you have the innate ability to do the work. Next, is our application, which you will need to complete. Finally, here are brochures on the academy and on the company.”

“Wow,” said Jim. He was a little overwhelmed. His stereotype of plumbers was that they were little more than knuckle draggers, but so far King Plumbing seemed like a professional, sophisticated organization.

“You can complete this and bring it by at your convenience. Just don’t wait too long, because June will be here before you know it and we generally fill all of our academy slots,” said Stephanie with a smile. “Now, let’s go meet Mr. King.”

Stephanie led Jim to a large, glassed-in office. He recognized John King from the ads. The man was large and somewhat heavyset with a jovial expression. He was pacing back and forth energetically while talking on the phone. He waved them into the office as he finished his call.

King immediately walked over to Jim, thrust out his right arm to shake Jim’s, and grabbed his forearm with his left for a two-handed shake. “You must be Jim. Come on in and take a seat. I’ve got it from here Steph,” he said dismissing his recruiter.

“Uh, yes sir,” said Jim.

Jim found that it was impossible not to like the man instantly. King smiled broadly and dove right in. “Do you know why you want to be a plumber?”

“Uh, why?”

“Because every mother wants her daughter to marry a doctor or a plumber.”

“What?”

“Think about it. Mothers want the best for their daughters. Both doctors and plumbers are useful. And both make good money. Well, both can make good money. A lot of plumbers don’t realize how important they are to the world, but I do. And, all of the plumbers at King Plumbing do.”

“What’s good money?”

“I’m glad you asked.” King nodded at the big window fronting his office. One of his plumbers was walking by. He was wearing khaki pants and a King Plumbing polo. “Take Jerod there. He’s 25 years old and he’s on track to break $100 thousand this year.”

Jim’s jaw nearly hit the floor. Was it really true? He had no idea that plumbing could be so lucrative.

King launched into the importance of plumbing to society and how there would always be a need for plumbers. He talked about the freedom and independence that comes from operating a service truck. He talked about the career opportunities that exist. Then, he talked about the academy and everything he would learn. Before Jim realized it, an hour had come and gone.

“There’s only one catch,” said King. “If we take you through the King Plumbing Academy, you agree to work for us for two years. We’re going to invest quite a bit of money teaching you the plumbing profession. If you quit before the two years are up, you’ll owe us for a portion of the training. If we decide you won’t cut it, no harm and no foul. You keep what you learned and won’t owe us a thing.”

“How many people wash out?” asked Jim.

“Oh, probably 30% of the class won’t make it to the end. And that’s okay. It just means that this wasn’t the right profession for them. It’s better to end the relationship sooner than later. So, what do you think?”

“I think I’ve got a lot to think about.”

“Well, let me give you something else to think about. Once you learn a trade, you can always fall back on the trade. You might decide you want to go to college down the road. Plumbing can help you pay for it. It’s how I paid for school. The old man wasn’t going to help.”

“You went to college?”

“Yes. I have a degree in finance. You see, I didn’t start King Plumbing. Dad did. I thought I wanted to get as far away from the trade as possible. I thought a finance degree was the ticket to a nice desk job in an air-conditioned office.”

“And?” asked Jim, fascinated with this turn in the conversation.

“And I made more money working for Dad as a plumber,” laughed King. “I didn’t like being broke, so I picked up my tools and asked Dad for a job. Over time, I bought the company from him and slowly began applying what I learned in school and what I learned from attending conferences and from an alliance of plumbing contractors. King Plumbing took off. Now my biggest challenge is growing my team, which is why I’m talking with you.”

***

Jim went home and reviewed all of the material Stephanie had given him. King Plumbing Academy sounded like an interesting opportunity. They would teach him how to troubleshoot and repair plumbing problems, how to interact with customers, and even how to manage his personal finances. It seemed to Jim that he would get more practical knowledge from KPA than from college. Plus, he wouldn’t have to deal with politics. He took the tests and filled out the application.

***

Two years later, his buddy Dale was home for Christmas. Jim drove over to see him on Saturday. “Duuude,” said Dale when Jim pulled up in front of his parent’s house. “Nice ride.”

Jim looked at his new F-150 King Ranch Edition truck, smiled, and shrugged. “I like it.”

“So what’s it like,” asked Dale, “plunging people’s toilets.”

“It’s not what you think. What I do is really important. Today, for example, I went to look at a water heater that kept turning off. It turned out that some idiot had blocked the vent. I’m pretty sure that I saved a life or two today.”

“What? How?”

“Well, the vent is supposed to remove carbon monoxide,” answered Jim. When he could see Dale still wasn’t getting it, he added, “You know, the clear, odorless gas that’s a byproduct of gas combustion and can kill you quickly?”

“I guess.”

“So what are you up to?”

“I just finished my finals, staying up all night studying stuff I’ll never use. I have to take calculus next semester,” Dale said as he rolled his eyes. “Can’t wait.”

“We have to use a fair amount of math in plumbing, though a lot of guys just use rules of thumb. Everything we use is practical. Since I’m mostly in service, I don’t do as much as the new construction plumbers and the commercial guys.”

Dale looked at him like he was an alien. “Hey, let’s go grab some beer. Tech is playing in a bowl game. Let’s kick back with a couple of brewskis and watch it.”

“Why don’t we go to my place,” asked Jim. “Your parent’s TV is kind of small. I’ve got a 72-inch with surround sound.”

Dale just stared at Jim. “What?” Jim asked. “I make pretty good money.”

Over Dale’s Christmas break, Jim spent less and less time with Dale. They were living in different worlds. It seemed to Jim that college was like a halfway house towards adulthood and Dale wasn’t growing up. Meanwhile, Jim had become a much more serious person.

As he thought about it, Jim realized that he had shouldered a lot of responsibility. He drove a company truck worth tens of thousands of dollars with around $8 thousand of inventory. While he reported in after every call, he was largely working on his own unless he ran into something he needed help with.

After graduating from King Plumbing Academy, Jim moved out of his parent’s house and was on his own. While he was spending money, he was also saving it. Yes, he was given a lot of responsibility and was acting responsible, but he was also independent and enjoyed a sense of freedom his friend Dale couldn’t comprehend.

Jim thought about the decision he made. His friend was in college, amassing a pile of debt, and it seemed, learning little practical knowledge. Jim had started a career, one that he found he really enjoyed and was learning a lot about his trade and life. Not only was he largely debt free, but he also had money in the bank. If he wanted, he could always go to college down the road. For now, the decision to join the plumbing profession seemed like the right one to Jim.

___________________________________________

Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.