Photo courtesy Pool Service America; graphic by Nick Orabovic
 

In our culture, service techs often are portrayed as lackadaisical surfer-types who slid into the job.

But some pool companies are making a real effort to redefine the position. James Hawkins, who owns Pool Service America in North Miami Beach, Fla., is trying to create a new trajectory for the average pool man.

“The challenge we run into is the self-esteem of the pool guy that’s out there — it’s the bottom of the barrel in some regards,” Hawkins says.

Buying the business from Essig Pools in 2006, Hawkins has helped build a new culture in the pool service field by introducing high-level programs at the office. First, he developed a management training course to provide a career opportunity for entry-level workers. Hawkins also created a number of technologically driven strategies to regulate his staff. Finally, Pool Service America has implemented a simple code to improve the professional image of both the company and the service sector.

With this multi-pronged approach, the company is trying to change the attitude of both skeptical homeowners and disaffected service techs.

Management training

Pool Service America has an in-depth training program, complete with a training center and competency exam for entry-level techs. However, it’s the management track that truly sets the company apart.

Hawkins originally modeled the idea after Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where democracy and hard work allow for plenty of vertical movement within the company. Many of the trainees come from larger corporations with established programs in management development, and Hawkins aims to duplicate that success.

“From the counter, everyone [at Enterprise] has a shot,” he says. “They’re able to hire a much higher-caliber person than they would otherwise get because [the employees] want their chance.”

Working with four to five trainees simultaneously, Hawkins alternates their time between field management and business theory.

“It’s getting into the active mindset of realizing that anything you do, there might be a better way,” he explains. “Not everyone is going to make it, but we want to see if they can lead and learn those aspects of the business.”

One strategy Hawkins has employed takes ideas from classic business books and applies them directly to Pool Service America. For example, using Kenneth Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager, (HarperCollins, 1982) Hawkins challenges his trainees to understand how the book’s recommendations can better the company.

“There are 20 modules and a short essay-type questionnaire where you apply those theories to our business,” Hawkins explains. “It’s specific to the art and science of leading people.”

Managers are encouraged to pass this philosophy down to the entry-level techs, continuing the culture of professionalism.

Regulating efficiency

Part of the success of Pool Service America is the accountability it demands from every employee, and Hawkins ensures all his workers stay on task.

Within weeks of purchasing the company, he employed GPS systems to monitor routes and take control of the highway-bound vehicles.

“When we first turned that on, we had small, fully-loaded trucks going 90 mph, and that’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” he says.

Now, when a truck reaches speeds about 70 mph, an email is sent to the tech’s supervisor. If someone exceeds 75 mph, a text is sent straight to Hawkins’ cell phone.

The system is working.

“For several months now, 80 percent of the time, the weekly reports that show all the alerts have been totally blank,” Hawkins says.

This measure not only keeps employees in check, but reduces fuel consumption by an estimated 5- to 15 percent.

Hawkins also monitors where the trucks are when they’re in operation. Although employees are allowed to take their vehicles home, they incur a hefty charge if the trucks are used for personal trips.

“We also have alerts if someone starts a certain time at night or before a certain time in the morning, or on a Sunday,” Hawkins notes. “Sometimes those alerts will come up for valid reasons, but it does come up and we can think about it.”

Furthermore, the GPS systems can alert managers to idle trucks during normal business hours. If a truck is at a house for longer than an hour for routine service, an alert is again sent to management. This provides an extra motivation for techs to be in and out of the backyard in an efficient manner.

While some may consider the measure a bit “Big Brother,” the system has actually been used to defend the company more often than to catch a careless employee.

For example, a customer may call with a complaint that a service tech just came by with a door hanger and didn’t take the time to clean the pool. In most cases, the GPS system shows the tech was not only there for service, but spent more time than the company would have liked. This kind of ironclad proof protects the company against increasingly demanding homeowners looking for a free credit.

Policies to professionalism

Ultimately, Pool Service America is trying to raise the profile of pool service firms.

The company demands tucked-in shirts, clean uniforms, organized trucks and a friendly demeanor. Hawkins stresses the acronym ARC, which stands for attitude, reliability and competency.

“People really appreciate the fact the equipment looks good and we wash our trucks every week,” he says.

However, appearances aren’t everything.

“If people were to view the criminal backgrounds of some of the people working in their backyard, they would be stunned,” Hawkins says.

That’s why Pool Service America conducts thorough background checks for all prospective employees. Furthermore, employees are drug-tested to again raise the standards of the company’s staff.

The company also strives to increase its profile with technical know-how. This starts with the training center, which features a variety of fully functioning models from all major equipment manufacturers.

“When they press a button…the actuator valves will actually change,” Hawkins says.

After spending time in the training center, employees can be confident of a repair before going out in the field.

Pool Service America also has become a warranty service center for many of the major equipment manufacturers, including Pentair , Hayward and Jandy .

“You get guys who live under bridges coming out and doing the work, they bring the whole industry down,” Hawkins says. “Trying to bring all that up is what we’re trying to do.”