The original location of my family’s plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical company was in Rockaway, Queens. My dad, Irving, and my uncle, Morty, started it out of my grandfather’s gas station.
When my two older brothers and I showed up full-time in the business, it was in the 1970s, and crime in the area was rampant. How rampant? People were constantly breaking into the building, and thieves crashed through our gates so many times we made them break-away so at least we didn’t have to replace them, we could just fix them. All the windows, doors and skylights had been gated or blocked off because they were used to break in. We hung in there though. That is until one night someone drove a truck through the side of the cinderblock wall. That was the end. We decided to sell the property and build something new on Long Island.
Why did we stay there so long? Inertia. After all, we’d been there almost 50 years by the 1990s. Want to talk about recruiting, hiring and retaining issues? We had to chauffeur a number of our office staff from home to work and back again. I kid you not.
Well, the decision to move came down and my brothers and I knew we had one chance to get this right, and so when we finally found a place that would be more centrally located to where our client base had moved from the wreckage of where we had been. We also heeded the great advice from our industry guru and great friend, Dan Holohan, when he suggested we use our building to showcase what we do and make it a destination other companies wanted to visit. People were blown away by our facility—including my good friend, Ellen Rohr, and her husband, Hot Rod, who had their own plumbing company in Utah at the time.
The place was spotless and bright and the envy of the industry. I stood in the doorway with Dan admiring our great work when he said, “Al, remember it’s easy to be great one day. The trick is to continue to stay great, day after day.”
What Dan meant was that I had to make maintaining that high standard a priority or it would deteriorate over time. And if it did, I’d have to have a way to get myself back on track, and that way for me was leveraging my systems and checklists. I’ve always remembered this conversation and have seen it play out over and over with my clients during the past 20 years.
A good example of this is my great client, Jim. When I showed up at their shop there was a lot of friction (aka butting heads) between the staff and management. We worked hard to get the manuals in place with never ending training and have everyone on the same page with regular meetings happening. Everyone was excited, and things were going great. Jim would actually frequently text me long after we had finished our work with things like, “So much less stress!” “Money’s rolling in!” “I love coming to work.”
So, when Covid hit in March of 2020, everyone started to work from home. Office staff worked from home and Techs were remotely dispatched more frequently. In July, I got a call from Jim. He said, “Al, it’s back to an ‘us vs. them’ culture.”
I asked him, “Has anything changed?” He said, “Well due to Covid we had to stop meeting…” I interrupted him. “Time out! Meetings are how you stay on the same page, how you figure out better, cheaper, and faster ways of doing things and keep the culture by working as a team. Not meeting daily, weekly and monthly per the structured meetings we put in place are the issues. I bet you have the ability to do this either with more meetings in smaller groups socially distancing, Zoom Video or even FaceTime. Use any and all of these to get these structured meetings going again.”
The thing is, once you have manuals for everyone at the company they have to be in a meeting once a week reading 1 to 2 pages aloud. They read, not you, and then they discuss if there’s a better, cheaper and/or faster way. This is how buy-in is accomplished and how it stays in the culture.
Anyway, he started the meetings back up, and about three weeks later he texts me, “Al, everyone’s back on board. Like SERVPRO® says, ‘Like it never even happened.'”
Having systems and processes in place is clutch… so if the wheels start to fall off… you can re-energize and recommit to what you know works without having to spend any extra energy reinventing the wheel.
Systems allow for that. Every time you put it back in you don’t drift as much. It’s so much easier to get things going again.
Here’s the dirty secret: Dan said you have to be great but the truth is if you can manage to just be good all the time, you’ll probably beat out all of your competitors. As another one of my clients, Mike, once said to me, “Less done all the time beats spectacular once in a while.”
One last tale to share about the Power of Inertia (aka Complacency). Another super successful client is Mark. He had negotiated with me the move from totally doing new construction only to residential service and installation. Anyway, I called him about a year after we had done this just to see how things were going. He said, “Great. I’m out of new construction, as you know, and I have all the techs I need.” When we touched base about 6 months later, however, I found out that not one, not two, but three of his great seven techs had left, all for legitimate reasons.
The problem was Mark had nobody in the pipeline to take their places! As he had stopped focusing on Staffing Power! Inertia!
Staffing Power! means always having Apprentices ready to go in the pipeline. They earn their way to “Apprentice to Junior Tech” training and later on as Junior Techs they earn their way to go to “Junior Tech to Senior Tech” training.
I said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go to your four remaining techs and say, ‘I recognize we’re down three guys now so I’m going to pull on-call shift with you. Hang in there with me. I’m going to fix this. We are going to fire up the training center and we’re going to have 20 techs and it will happen in about two years.'” Here’s the fantastic end to this story. It was two years later he was at 19 techs with more in the pipeline.
The enemy here is… inertia. You think you can stop and coast, but you can’t. Running a contracting business is like pushing a rock up a hill. And just about when you think you can rest for a minute it starts rolling down. You have to be continually climbing. Systems make that climb a whole lot easier. It’s easy to get back on track, you’ve already done it, you don’t have to do all of it yourself anymore.