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Customer Service

Tips From Former Home Depot CTO on Creating Exceptional Customer Experiences

Originally published
Originally published: 12/1/2023

In my previous role as CTO of Home Depot, I was honored to work alongside the great Frank Blake, former CEO and president. Under his leadership, I learned many valuable lessons – most notably around the area of customer service, especially between small business owners/contractors and their customers.  

Today, my company works with thousands of HVACR small business owners across the country. One common thread I discovered is how much they value and want to continue their company’s exceptional customer service. Yet, most feel constrained by how many hats they wear and not enough time each day. 

Whether you manage these customer interactions yourself, have a full-time receptionist, or use a third-party answering service, making sure you meet customer expectations will ensure your business is set up for success long-term. 

The Prep Work  

Before you make that first interaction with customers, the groundwork must be set for positive engagement. This is true whether you are just starting the business, or you are overhauling a customer service department. How do you do that? 

First, know your FAQs and have your answers prepared. The companies with the best customer interactions will be the ones who are ready and decisive when a customer reaches out. You can’t delegate what you haven’t documented.

Common questions to address in a FAQs List: 

    1.    Can I schedule same-day or next-day service? While some businesses can get by with a patchwork system of a notebook, post-it notes, and incoherent scribbles, you may want to consider using an online scheduling system to manage your availability. The benefits are that you can have consistency and visibility across multiple employees, with analytics to help you prepare for seasonal scheduling needs, and automatic reminders for employees and customers to reduce no-shows. 

    2.    Which specific services do you offer? If you can’t provide a definitive answer over the phone, you have a high likelihood that the customer calling will call a competitor who can offer them a more concrete answer. Customers like the assurance that the person they are calling can help them with their specific needs. Have a detailed list of all the services available in an online shared document, so anytime you expand offerings, everyone answering calls, emails, and chats has the latest information.

    3.    How much will it cost to have my heating/cooling system installed/repaired? As you know, there’s no easy way to put an average cost on HVACR installs or repairs. There are so many variables, from the existing systems and parts (if any) to a customer’s needs and budget. Make sure that whoever answers the phone or responds to your customers, knows the specific questions to ask to arrive at a more accurate price range or help the technician prepare for an onsite estimate. Anyone answering customer questions should also understand how you charge, such as if you charge hourly or by the job, which often depends on the type of work. 

    4.    Is my unit under warranty? Heating and cooling system repairs can be costly, so many customers will ask about the status of their warranty or service plan when they need an issue fixed. If you are the one who sold them the system, it should be easy to explain whether they’ve still got time on their warranty as well as the type of existing coverage. Make sure anyone answering customer inquiries can guide them to find their serial number, which is required for most warranty lookups. An online help document in a shared knowledge base can be useful to them, and it’s also a handy link to share with customers who text, chat, or email their questions. 

24/7 Wind, Sleet, or Rain

Now that you have all this information prepared, make sure that your team is available to respond to customers 24/7 through your website, via text, and by phone. In the heating and cooling world, things can – and often do – go wrong at inconvenient times. A customer’s home A/C unit breaks down over a record-hot July 4th weekend. A refrigeration system at a hospital fails in the middle of the night. There are countless stories we could all tell. Whatever the situation, your business will always be judged on your level the perceived level of urgency based on your response.  

You don’t want to be the person fielding those customer calls 24/7, so it’s a good practice to conduct an audit of your business to see what system you have in place to ensure that someone is available to respond to emergencies. Maybe you have your team switch off responsibilities each week, or you outsource to a third party – whatever you decide, make sure that your system for 24/7 coverage is foolproof. I cannot tell you how many of my customers thought their call systems were working well only to see calls and customers fall through the cracks. Reputations that took years to build up can be lost in an instant with panicked customers needing a reply. And when they don’t get it, it only takes a few one-star Google reviews to affect your business.

The First Contact 

The most critical thing you can do to foster positive customer experiences is to practice emotional intelligence. Remember that some people will be emotionally distraught when they call you, and in those moments, the best thing you can offer is empathy. They may be frustrated that their relatively new system is malfunctioning, nervous about the financial toll this repair may cause, anxious about how their elderly parents, young children, and pets are faring, or something entirely unrelated to the HVACR issue at all. 

Demonstrate empathy when navigating those challenging conversations. Show them that you understand their concerns and frustrations and have sympathy for their situation. If necessary, turn the conversation back to the issue at hand and how you can fix it. That way, you can keep the situation productive while still demonstrating that you care. 

In all interactions, but especially ones where customers may be feeling stressed, be transparent about the services you offer and the cost of those services. People prefer a business that they find reliable and trustworthy. Even if you cannot give an exact answer, a ballpark estimate followed by an explanation of how you arrived at that number, can help build trust. You should also be definitive about timing when speaking with any customer – give them a clear understanding of when you can arrive to help. 

Finally, log every interaction, including that very first call, in your system of record. This is important so you can track referral sources to thank, customer sentiment, and other key data points over the customer’s “lifetime.” Recalling those smaller details demonstrates that you care and are willing to take the extra step to show appreciation. It also makes sure that whoever is dispatched to address the issue has the full context of what the customer needs and can anticipate their state of mind. After all, compassion matters just as much for your employees as your customers.

During the appointment & After Service is Complete 

Many of the same tenets of effective customer service apply during the appointment. Be empathetic, communicative, and transparent about the work you are doing and how much it will cost. 

Arrive on time and opt to over-educate your customers so they understand the scope of a problem and how you arrive at an exact cost of service. Through all these interactions, make sure you use language that is easy for them to understand. These customers rely on you because you have years of HVACR experience and training. But keep in mind, that their knowledge level of these systems will be nowhere near yours. 

Furthermore, continue the customer service onsite with professional attire standards. It doesn’t need to be fancy branded uniforms, but attire should demonstrate attention to detail, cleanliness, and consideration for the customer’s home or office space. Nobody wants to deal with muddy floors after their HVACR service appointment or unclean professionals in their home. Train your staff to operate under a “leave no trace” policy.

Now that the service is complete and your customer’s problem is fixed, make sure you continue the conversation. Show your commitment to your work with a follow-up asking your customer to complete a satisfaction survey. These can provide you with valuable feedback for when you are engaging with future customers, and you’ll identify your best referral sources from happy customers. 

If the interaction went well (which it most often does) encourage reviews with online services – they go a long way in building trust and sourcing new customers. With their permission, enroll customers in a newsletter and keep them informed of company updates. Heating and cooling customers have products from you that need long-term maintenance, upgrades, and replacements. You can even offer your customers an incentivized referral program. 

The HVACR industry is competitive, but satisfied customers are more likely to return for future services and recommend your business to others. Exceptional customer service builds trust and a positive reputation for your HVACR business. By understanding what each part of the customer cycle entails, you and your staff can anticipate and exceed expectations every time. 

Aaron Lee is the CEO and co-founder of Smith.ai, the 24/7 customer engagement platform for businesses that combines the best of human agents and AI tools. Formerly CTO of The Home Depot and co-founder of Redbeacon, he also played a pivotal role in Google Video’s inception.

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