The outgoing message is clear: “All calls will be returned in two- to four hours; and any calls received after 5 p.m. are returned the next business day.”
The voice belongs to Bryan Chrissan, owner of Clear Valley Pool & Spa in Temecula, Calif., and it’s an uncommon guarantee for a service tech.
“It does paint me into a bit of a corner sometimes, but I get them done,” Chrissan says. “My big thing is perceived value — one way or another [the customer’s] going to get that callback. And they always thank me for it.”
As in any service-related business, communication with clients is critical for pool techs. Customers tend to weigh response time heavily when forming perceptions about business owners and their companies.
But is it advisable for service techs to assure callers they’ll respond within a certain timeframe? Do they run the risk of making a promise they can’t keep when, say, finding themselves knee deep in a complex project, or simply in an area with bad cell phone coverage?
Here, a number of service business owners share tips on how they’ve established effective customer communications.
Ken Sanders recalls one customer for whom all service had to be precisely on schedule: “She was very uptight,” says the owner of Pool Pro’s in Tucson, Ariz.
One day he was running behind on his route, and called ahead to notify her of the delay.
She proceeded to leave multiple messages on his voicemail. And when he responded to her 15 minutes later to say he’d be there within minutes, she said she’d already contacted another company.
“There’s always going to be some bad apples,” Sanders says, adding that he ultimately cut ties with the aforementioned one. “I tried to communicate with her, but there are some people you just can’t please.”
Most service techs agree that for new or prospective clients, a quick response is particularly crucial. Some say you must answer a call within an hour or two of receiving the message. Others believe 30 minutes is the cut-off.
Wait much longer, they say, and the homeowner likely has already contacted someone else. After all, most potential customers don’t want to have to interview two or three different service techs, says Tom Horning, owner of Tom’s Pool Care in La Habra, Calif.
“If I don’t recognize a number (as one of my existing customers) but I think it’s business-related, I’ll stop what I’m doing and call them back immediately,” he says. “So responding quickly is important, because otherwise I haven’t indicated a whole lot of interest.”
Even if two messages come in simultaneously — one from a regular client and the other from a prospect — many techs, like Justin Dougherty, don’t hesitate to explore the unknown.
“I would call the new guy back first, especially if that fast response is going to make a difference and give me a leg up in landing the customer,” says the co-owner of Gator Pools in Las Vegas.
When Mike Stinson is with a customer and a call comes in, the push of a button on his mobile phone sends it straight to voicemail. Once there, customers are asked to leave a message.
Or, for faster service, they are instructed to visit his Website and submit a message or question online.
“That gets sent straight to my BlackBerry, and I get an instant notification when it arrives,” says the owner of Mike the Poolman in Folsom, Calif.
“I actually like it when the phone rings a bunch of times and I’m with a customer,” he adds. “They know they’re my primary interest and focus at the moment, but it also lets them know that others are interested in my service.”
Riverside County, Calif., is among the nation’s more competitive pool service markets, which is why Al Mangin insists on going the extra mile for customers, even if it involves returning calls into the night, perhaps to remind someone how to set a valve.
He tries to contain the work to traditional business hours, but often responds to client concerns well past 5 or 6 p.m.
“That’s always been the knock on pool guys: that we never return calls,” says the owner of Dependable Pool Service in Temecula, Calif. “So this is one of the ways you can separate yourself from the run-of-the-mill service companies.”
While most insist boundaries are important, many admit to picking up the business line as late as 9 or 10 p.m. if they recognize the number and it’s a good customer. Call it the price of a trusted business relationship.
But by and large service professionals vary on how much access should be granted to customers. While some readily give out cell phone or BlackBerry numbers, others prefer to handle incoming messages through more traditional channels.
At Cabana Aquatech Pools in Houston, owner Tom Driscoll strongly prefers clients call the business line that rings to his company’s headquarters. Once received, a call is logged and given to the service manager, who then copies and passes it to the tech.
It’s as much an issue of ensuring productivity as anything else, which is why Driscoll rarely gives customers his mobile number, or those of his techs.
“I don’t want my service guys on the phone all day,” he says. “And I don’t want to pull a tech off the job to answer the phone. It’s disruptive — you can spend all day on the cell and not get anything done.
“Plus we can always have the tech get back to the client,” he adds. “We’re very customer-oriented, but there have to be guidelines.”
Each of Randy Smith’s four employees carries cell phones. But only two of those phones’ numbers are given to customers. And while Smith’s direct number is one of them, there is a catch.
“We averaged about 400 to 500 calls per month this past swim season. And when you get that many calls, it’s a lot of interruptions,” says the owner of All Clear Pool Service in Rockwall, Texas. “So if it’s getting busy or they’re hounding you all day, I’ll just forward the phone to the office line.”
Manning that office line, beginning in fall 2009, is an answering service. The service records each message — or contacts Smith if they feel it could be an emergency, allowing him to decide whether a call should be patched directly through. The service may also send Smith a text message with the customer’s information and concern.
At the end of each day, Smith is e-mailed a call sheet listing, and briefly describing, every message that was received.
“This way we never feel like we have to get the phone if we’re upside-down, or right in the middle of something,” he says.
Though he doesn’t hesitate to give his customers extensive access, Mangin understands the door swings both ways.
He notes a fine line between building a solid rapport and becoming indispensable — someone the client can’t live without.
“You don’t want to develop that too much, because then you’ve coddled them to the point where they don’t ever want to deal with anyone else,” he says. “They may refuse to transfer to a new guy if you decide to sell your route one day.”
But Mangin has no plans to leave his customers in another’s hands. In fact, he recently obtained a BlackBerry to help him better manage his communications while in the field.
“These things are amazing — they’re way smarter than I’ll ever be,” he jokes. “Seriously though, it’s a great business tool.”
Mangin is in the process of sending customers a questionnaire that asks, among other things, the manner in which they prefer to be contacted, including text or e-mail. In addition to empowering the client, he feels it’s a more reliable, 21st century means of reminding them to check things like pH or circulation.
On his own BlackBerry, Chrissan loves the slydial application, which directly connects callers to the recipient’s voicemail without the caller’s number ever showing up. It’s useful, he says, when he’s short on time but still wants to leave a message. And it’s more personal than texting.
Another application highlights a caller’s number, and periodically reminds the user how much time has elapsed since their call came in — allowing pros like Chrissan to make sure they’re calling back within the promised timeframe.
But with all the technology at his fingertips, Chrissan still finds himself replying to clients into the wee hours.
“My phone is on and with me right up until I go to sleep,” he says. “Hey, if it’s important enough for them to call me at that time, it’s important enough for me to respond.”