Did He Really Say That?: Improving Technician Communication

March 11, 2010
“Why can’t she understand,” the tech thought to himself. He was frustrated. He was trying to explain a problem to the homeowner, but this lady didn’t get it.

“Why can’t she understand,” the tech thought to himself. He was frustrated. He was trying to explain a problem to the homeowner, but this lady didn’t get it.

The tech knew he wasn’t the world’s most eloquent person, but what more was there to say? He looked at his feet. The homeowner made him uncomfortable. And now she was getting angry… at him! He started to explain it again, but why bother. She wasn’t going to understand. His attempt to say more broke down into a mumble.

Didn’t she know that he had other calls to make? He couldn’t stand around all day repeating the same thing over and over again. Why couldn’t she understand?

Finally, out of sheer frustration he said, “I don’t know what else you want me to say. Look, I’ve got other calls. I’ve really got to get going so why don’t you get your husband and I’ll go over it with him?”

The moment he said it, he knew he did something else to tic her off. What, he wasn’t sure, but she practically started foaming at the mouth as she stormed off.

“Oh well,” he thought. “You just can’t figure some people.”

It was the last time anyone from the technician’s company set foot inside that house. Within a few weeks, after the incensed homeowner spread her experience through the neighborhood rumor mill. It became the last time anyone from the technician’s company set foot inside any of the houses on the entire street, and the street to the north, and the street to the south.

“You can’t believe how he treated me,” the homeowner reported to an audience at the Tuesday night neighborhood bunko game, “He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He kept muttering under his breath and then – you’re not going to believe this – and then he told me to get my husband because it was too complicated for a woman to understand!”

“Nooo,” says her bunko partner, “Did he really say that?”

“I swear!”

While the story is exaggerated and embellished, it’s how the homeowner remembers it. Each time she repeats it, she becomes more certain. Clearly, she misinterpreted the technician’s intentions and body language. Certainly, she’s being unfair. And without a doubt, the company’s reputation is beyond repair in that neighborhood and within the homeowner’s circle of influence. What a shame!

The technician never knew what he did wrong. He knew things weren’t going well, but was completely unaware of his own role. He didn’t know that when he looked to his feet the homeowner interpreted it as a sign of dishonesty. He didn’t know that his anxiety to get to the next call was seen as a desire to flee the scene of a crime.

He didn’t realize he was mumbling or that his uncertainty in communication was seen as a red flag of deceit. He never would have imagined that his attempt to try and find common grounds of communication with the woman’s husband would be interpreted as an insult.

He didn’t know during the call and he won’t know in the future. Sometime in the next five, ten, twenty, or hundred calls he will do the same thing all over again, poisoning yet another neighborhood for his employer.

To be fair, the technician would never claim to be a communicator. He’s not one. He’s a technician. He wants to work with his hands, not his voice. Yet, every service technician works with hands and voice. The job requires good communication skills because his job requires interact with people as well as parts.

More Than Words

Improving communication starts with awareness. It starts with understanding what goes wrong. UCLA psychology professor, Albert Mehrabian’s experiments indicate that only 7% of our communication with another person is the words we use, 35% is the tone or voice quality, and 58% is non-verbal.

Can it really be just 7%? Sure. Just look at email. Email is devoid of tone and body language. Email is typically words alone. Anyone who has sent or received much email has probably been party to a case of misunderstanding. Someone reads something into the email that wasn’t there and certainly wasn’t intended. This is how flame wars get started.

Zig Ziglar uses a simple technique for helping people to understand the power of tone and non-verbal communication. Let’s start with the following phrase:

I did not say he beat his dog.

Pretty straightforward, huh? Eight simple words. Add inflection to the highlighted words and the phrase changes meaning:

I did not say he beat his dog (Someone else said it).

I DID NOT say he beat his dog (Are you calling me a liar?).

I did not SAAAY he beat his dog (I did email a few people).

I did not say *HE* beat his dog (it was the next door neighbor)

I did not say he BEAT his dog (He slapped the mutt, but didn’t beat it).

I did not say he beat HIS dog (He beat the neighbor’s dog).

I did not say he beat his DOG (He beat his cat).

By changing the inflection of one or two words, an eight-word sentence has seven different meanings. Change the emphasis on combinations of words and even more meanings could be derived.

Body language offers even more ways to change the meaning of the same sentence. Consider the same phrase, but add the following body language:

  • Grin
  • Scowl
  • Fold you arms
  • Put your arms behind your back and pace
  • Hold your hands to the side and up
  • Hold your arms in front of you, palms facing out
  • Scratch your head
  • Wink
  • Raise your eyebrows

The message changes each time. Combine the body language with the inflections and there’s nearly an infinite variety of meanings.

Simple Communications Improvements

How can you help your technicians improve their communication skills? First, don’t expect miracles. Take small steps and take them slowly. Here are seven:

1. Look people in the eye.
Remember what your father said, “I don’t trust a man who won’t look me in the eye.” Dad’s not the only person with that view. It’s ironic too, because the first thing every con man learns is how to look you in the eye and lie sincerely.

2. Stand up straight. Right or wrong, people associate good posture with intelligence.

3. Smile. Smiles are disarming. People like people who smile.

4. Pay attention. When a customer is speaking, stop anything else you might be doing. Look at the customer attentively. Even if you can hear the customer perfectly well while you’re filling out the invoice, it seems as though you are not paying attention.

5. Repeat questions.
When the customer makes a statement or asks a question, repeat it back in your own words and get confirmation that you understand correctly.

6. Illustrate. When explaining something complex or difficult, it helps to illustrate what you’re saying. This could be pointing at a component while explaining its operation and importance. It could mean carrying a notepad so that you can make a quick sketch. Some people are auditory learners. Others are more visual.

7. Nod. Every now and then, nod while the other person is speaking and say, “Um hum” or something else to give feedback that you are following the customer.

It’s true that technicians aren’t communicators, but they still have to communicate. They may never become world-class communicators, but they can strive to improve. So can all of us.

Matt Michelis the CEO of the Service Roundtable, HVAC’s largest business alliance. The Service Roundtable helps give contractors faith in a positive future with highly effective business, sales, and marketing tools, peer-to-peer contractor support, and special discounts and rebates. For more of Matt’s writing, visit his blog at Comanche Marketing. To contact Matt about speaking for your organization, call toll free 877.262.3341, call him direct on his mobile at 214.995.8889, or email him at [email protected]. Connect with Matt on Facebook, Linked In, and Plaxo, become a Facebook Fan of the Service Roundtable and follow Matt’s Tweets on Twitter.
About the Author

Matt Michel | Chief Executive Officer

Matt Michel was a co-founder and CEO of the Service Roundtable (ServiceRoundtable.com). The Service Roundtable is an organization founded to help contractors improve their sales, marketing, operations, and profitability. The Service Nation Alliance is a part of this overall organization. Matt was inducted into the Contracting Business HVAC Hall of Fame in 2015. He is now an author and rancher.