What it Takes to Create The Perfect Service Manager

April 1, 2007
Successful HVAC contractors share what they look for when filling this key position.
Let's face it: there's really no such thing as the perfect service manager (despite what your own service manager may tell you). However, there are certain qualities, traits, and skills that can help make a service manager very effective in the role. Contracting Business spoke with the presidents of two of our Contractors of the Year (one residential, one commercial) and their service managers to get an in-the-trenches perspective on what it takes to be successful in this vital position.

Ray Isaac, president, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., Rochester, NY, Contracting Business' 2002 Residential Contractor of the Year. Many companies make the mistake of taking their best service technician out of the field, giving him or her some power, and thinking he or she will be a great service manager. Then when the person fails in the role, it's a quadruple whammy: he or she is embarrassed, leaves to go to your competition, you've lost your best tech, and you've lost your service manager. It's one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

That doesn't mean, however, that there's no opportunity for someone in the service department to step up into the service manager's role. It just means that person isn't necessarily going to be the person with the most technical expertise.

You need someone who has the mentality of a business person.

To be successful as a service manager, a person must understand financial management. A knowledge of how a business makes money, and how to set prices, is crucial. Technical expertise is an important part of the job, but that's really secondary to having a good mind for business.

Another important factor is leadership. The service manager must be a strong leader. Keep in mind that leadership is different than management. Management is a science, but leadership is an art. Leadership is the focus on the individual, the ability to communicate and motivate. Management is the what of an endeavor, whereas leadership is the how. You need to look for a little of both in your service manager.

A piece of advice from an owner's perspective: we don't believe in a bonus as part of our service manager's compensation package. We want that person to always be focused on doing the right thing for the customer. We don't want to provide any incentive or temptation to make short-term decisions that may potentially benefit the service manager, but that might negatively affect the company's relationship with its customers. That isn't how you build a strong operation. On the other hand, a service manager who is focused on the customers is in a great position to help you build and maintain a strong company.

Eric Knaak, vice president of service, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. One of the key traits a good service manager needs is vision — the ability to see that big picture, to visualize how he or she wants the department to be in five years, and to be aware that to get there will take patience and persistence. Change can come slowly, but a good service manager will be consistent. Every time he or she makes a change, brings a person in, lets someone go, or creates a new policy, it's a small step in the direction of that bigger vision.

A service manager definitely needs good communications skills, across all levels. He or she must be able to communicate with the technicians, coworkers, office staff, managers of other departments, and — most importantly — the customers. My previous "management" experience, before I joined Isaac, was in the Marine Corps. There, it wasn't a case of discussing something, it was, "Here's what you need to do, get it done." And that was it. But things don't work that way in the civilian world.

It took me a while to soften my approach, but, fortunately, the management here at Isaac has been very supportive by sending me to management and leadership seminars, and coaching sessions. I even have a personal coach. I have learned how important it is to communicate effectively, and I still constantly work on those skills.

Being organized is very important, as are decent math skills. You need to be able to set up a budget, to read a profitand-loss (P&L) statement, to understand what your costs and expenses are, so you can price correctly to make a solid gross margin.

It's also important to be calm, see things clearly, and not get frazzled. People look to a leader during the most stressful times, and that's when it's most important to keep everyone calm.

Finally, a good service manager is able to remove himself or herself from the analytical part of the job and look at the human side of the job with empathy and compassion. This applies to both coworkers and customers. You have to try to see things from the perspective of everyone involved. That's not always easy.

Randy Seaman, president, Seaman's Heating, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, Contracting Business' 2006 Commercial Contractor of the Year. The first thing you need to identify in a service manager is if he or she has the same core values as the company. At Seaman's our core values are honesty, integrity, fairness, and treating people with respect. Beyond any technical or business skills a person may have, if he or she doesn't share those core values, they're not a good fit, especially for a management role.

Once you've found a person with the right core values, the important elements of the service manager's role include taking ownership of the department and leading the team.

As far as taking ownership, the service manager must understand that he's literally responsible for many people's lives. Families depend on him for their income, and employees' family lives can depend on how they go home at night — if they're happy with their jobs and happy with the company they work for. It's a lot of responsibility.

As far as leading the team, the service manager must hire, train, coach, and help the team be successful; help them learn new things and capitalize on new opportunities; keep them busy and help them grow. He or she needs to be a "big picture" type of person. While it's important to have some technical knowledge, we don't want the service manager spending all day answering questions from techs in the field; it's more important to remain focused on the idea of leading a team of professionals. We want the service manager working "on" the department, not "in" the department.

Overall, being a service manager is a lot like being a CEO. His job is to make his people successful. Meanwhile, my job is to make him successful, and give him the tools, training, and budget he needs.

Dave Galbreath, service manager, Seaman's Heating, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, Inc. The main thing I've learned as service manager is that you're always learning. The day I stop learning will probably be the day I retire or die, I'm not sure which. Another important thing I've learned is you have to look at everything from both sides. You always have to be able to put yourself in the customers' shoes, and the service technicians' shoes, and always try to come up with reasonable solutions to the various challenges that are a part of the business.

When I say you always have to do this, that's exactly what I mean. The glass always has to be half-full. You can't be grumpy and biting people's heads off one day, and then positive and supportive the next. That's not the mark of a leader. You have to be willing and able to look at situations fairly and reasonably every time, without making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.

You also have to have an understanding of financials. It took me a while to understand how the dynamics of making money work: profits and losses, where a business makes its money and where it doesn't. You need to know how to do job costing. If you don't, your department either won't be competitive in the marketplace, or won't make any money.

As far as technical knowledge, I think you need enough that the service technicians respect you and know they can turn to you for help when they need it. I'm not the best technical guy at this company, but I know enough that I can usually help them solve a problem. The technicians also know they can't con me on the rare occasions that they do make a mistake and we have to absorb some costs to make things right with a customer.

In fact, I don't want the technicians to try to con me. One of the things that I'm proudest of is that all the people who work with me know they can tell me anything, anytime, without fear of repercussions. My door is open, and if someone is having a problem, or has made a mistake, they all know they can talk to me about it. It takes a big load off their shoulders to know that's the case, and they won't end up in the doghouse.

Finally, one thing I would tell anyone who is interested in being a service manager is that it's not the kind of job you can just leave behind at the end of the day. Knowing that people who you care about are depending on you to run a good department, so they can have jobs and provide for their families, is a huge responsibility. It's always on your mind. You're always thinking about ways you can improve the department to make things better for the employees, the customers, and the company. It can be very stressful, but I can't imagine any job I'd rather be doing.