It's All About Employee Attraction & Retention

April 1, 2003
by Mark Matteson The HVAC contracting companies Ive had the privilege to visit and work with during the past 12 years have shared many ideas about what

by Mark Matteson

The HVAC contracting companies I’ve had the privilege to visit and work with during the past 12 years have shared many ideas about what they do to attract and retain great people. These companies have high levels of productivity and low turnover, both internally and externally. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

I have observed some common denominators of success. Five of the key common denominators include:

  • Hire hard and train easy
  • The window and the mirror
  • Train animals; educate people
  • Do the right thing and always go the extra mile
  • Reward behavior you want repeated.

Hire Hard, Train Easy

The organizations that enjoy low turnover do things in a certain way. Finding great people is a team effort that starts at the top and works its way down. One of my clients is constantly looking for great people everywhere he goes. “Hire for attitude, train for skill,” he says over and over again like a mantra.

He looks for great attitudes and potential in the most unlikely places: restaurants, retail stores, auto garages. He talks to college students, high school students, overnight delivery truck drivers, and so on. He asks two questions when he meets someone with a great attitude:

  • Are you making enough money where you are?
  • Are they treating you as well as you deserve?

He ends his mini-recruiting session with a business card and a simple statement that serves as a rock in their shoe; “If you’re ever unhappy enough to make a change, and would like to discuss a great career in an exciting industry, give me call. We’ll have lunch and talk.”

He follows up with a thank-you note saying something like, “It was refreshing meeting someone with such a great attitude.” Another business card goes in the note. That person goes into his tickler file and he plans another face-to-face meeting in six months.

“It’s what I used to do in sales for years,” he says. “Now I sell my company and this great industry.”

You can tell a great deal from a resume. Unfortunately, they are only words. Dr. Albert Morabian conducted a famous communication study 25 years ago at UCLA. He and his team concluded that 55% of all communication’s meaning is non-verbal, 38% is extra-verbal, and only 7% are the words. However, if you’re impressed with the 7% the resume represents, then ask yourself, these questions:

  • How is the quality of their written word or language? (It may only mean they write well.)
  • What is the quality of the paper and how is the information laid out?
  • How long did they work for each employer and why did they leave? (This information is rarely given, and must be asked in person.)
  • Why are they looking for a new job? What are their five-year plans? Do they have those plans written down? Can you see them?

When it comes to interviewing, the following list of 13 key attitudinal qualities of the successful employee can help. As you listen to candidates talk during the initial interview process, look for these attributes:
enthusiasm, optimism, resiliency, team player, courageous, smart,
athletic, curious, empathetic, industrious, creative, focused, confident.

Will the candidate fit into your organization’s culture? If the answer is yes, it’s time to move to the interview questions.

The following is a list of some of the best questions I’ve found to get to know a prospective employee. If these questions are combined with active listening skills and a sharp eye on body language, you can usually determine in the first visit if you have a keeper.

  1. Why do you want this job?
  2. Why should a company hire you?
  3. What professional accomplishments are you most proud of? Personal?
  4. What skills do you bring to the table?
    a) Strengths?
    b) Areas to improve?
  5. How much do you expect to earn your first year? Second? Third?
  6. Describe your ideal job.
  7. What would you like to be doing in five years?
  8. How did you get started in the last business you were in?
  9. What did/do your parents do?
  10. In the last 90 days:
    a) What books have you read?
    b) What seminars have you attended?
    c) What educational/professional audio-cassettes have you listened to?
  11. Walk me through a typical day in your current/last job?
  12. Who are/were your clients?
  13. What was most important to them? (That is, from your job or perspective).
  14. Why did they continue to do business with you?
  15. What do customers want or need?
  16. How thoroughly maintained is your Rolodex/Outlook Express?
  17. What are you the most proud of?
  18. Tell me about your biggest mistake, most embarrassing, or costly business lesson.
  19. What is most important to you? (Top five values is what you’re looking for).
  20. What do you hope to learn here?
  21. What can or will you teach us?
  22. Before you retire, what do you hope to accomplish?
  23. If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would you invite? If we were to contact former employers, what would they say are your top three:
    a) Strengths?
    b) Liabilities?
  24. What three things would you like to accomplish this year?
  25. What else would you like to offer, add to our discussion or want us to know about you?

The Window and the Mirror

Become the right kind of leader to attract the people you need to grow. In Jim Collins’ new business bestseller, “Good To Great,” he attributes successful leadership to a concept he coined, “The Window and the Mirror.”

The best leaders look out the window to apportion the credit to factors outside themselves when things go well. (If they can’t find a specific person, they credit luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck or the people they serve when things go poorly.

You Train Animals, You Educate People

Poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “You train animals, you educate people.” Education comes from the Latin word “Educo” which means to “draw from or pull out.”

“Education is an investment,” Robbo Newcomb told me over lunch. Newcomb’s contracting firm, Newcomb and Co., is located in Raleigh, NC. Under the leadership of Vice President of Service Alan Davis, Newcomb developed a 10-book series home study course that was later adopted by both the State of North Carolina as an apprenticeship certification program and by Thermo Industries (Carrier’s educational arm). It covers everything from basic electricity to industrial HVAC.

The education doesn’t stop there.

Every Friday morning, the technicians come in one half-hour early on their own time (the company pays the second half-hour) to discuss standards and consistent performance. Expectations of tasks and responsibilities are reviewed and reinforced. On Monday nights, a voluntary educational program is offered from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. It’s available to all employees. The curriculum is based on an internal needs survey.

Newcomb and Co. views education as an investment and they enjoy a very large return. Turnover is very low and morale high — is it any wonder?

Do the Right Thing, Always Go the Extra Mile

The best companies think and act in longer terms. They want internal and external customers for life. You hear them say things like, “We want you to be happy and to remain a part of our team for a long time. What do you need? What will it take to make you happy?”

This is a simple way to remind each of us to think and act in the long term.

Don Rasberry, president of Air Con Energy, Sacramento, CA, told me a story about doing what’s right for the customer by standing behind Air Con’s work. A former client, who worked with Air Con when it was owned by a large consolidator, called Rasberry with a problem. The wing of the building had been vacant for some time, and upon leasing it to a tenant, airflow and comfort issues arose. The original work had been done five years previously.

This customer was unhappy. Rasberry said, “We stand behind our work. What will it take to make you happy?” The answer was $15,000 worth of improvements.


A year later, Air Con was asked to be the only bidder on a $5.4 million project with the same customer.

Reward the Behavior You Want Repeated

Leaders of the best companies understand this simple principle in all aspects of their business. Rasberry himself is an example of someone rewarded for repeatedly doing the right things. He began his career 10 years ago as a technician and rose through the ranks to a management position because of his passion for learning, reading, and a willingness to change.

Rasberry says it’s about serving the people who have entrusted him to lead. He’ll ride around one day per week in his technicians’ trucks, carrying their tools, trying to get closer to both internal and external customers.

“It’s a new day,” he says. “They watch what you do and they learn from it. Rewarding right behavior begins with practicing right behavior. It’s literally practicing what you preach,” Rasberry concludes.

Remember, you can observe a lot by watching.

Mark Matteson is President of Pinnacle Service Group. With more than 26 years in the HVAC Industry, Matteson today is an educator, lecturer, and speaker. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Contracting Business. Matteson is the author of the book "Freedom From Fear." It is available at He can be reached at 877/672-2001; email: [email protected].