Heating season can be crazy busy after the lull of the summer and fall—and if you don't have the systems in place to handle the deluge of calls, you could miss out on new customers (who could become recurring customers).
We talked with field service business owners to share tips on whether you should hire temporary staff, where to find them, and how keep your employees from burning out.
Bonus: If you're struggling along with a paper-based scheduling system, but aren't quite ready to go digital, we have something for you: A free job status spreadsheet that can help you organise and track your jobs when the busy season hits. Download it here.
How can I hire, retain, and manage engineers during the busy season?
Here are our top tips that will help you (an your engineers) sail through the busy season:
- Use your data to predict busy times so you can prepare.
- Encourage customers to call for regular service during slow periods.
- Automate as many tasks as you can.
- Turn customers away. Better to have fewer, happier customers than more, dissatisfied ones.
- Rethink temporary hires; instead, train the engineers you already have to handle the extra work.
- If you do have to hire, look to former employees who have retired from the business.
- Motivate your engineers to work fast.
- Schedule time for fun to keep engineers from burning out.
- Automate your job scheduling so engineers spend less time on the road and more time doing jobs.
Now let's take a look at each of these steps in detail.
Make the busy time less busy.
Before going crazy prepping for the busy season, look for ways to ease up on the crush of work. Here are some tips.
Use your data to predict busy times.
Yes, you know when your busiest season is; but do you know exactly how busy you'll be? And can you predict other times of the year where you might be swamped with customer calls?
Somewhere in your business you probably have a ton of data you can mine to figure out how many jobs you'll have when, so you can prepare for them. For example:
- Marketing data will show you that certain types of promotions inspire customers to flood your business with calls.
- Use insights from sales data to see if certain holiday weekends tend to be busier than normal.
- Combine sales data with historical weather data to figure out if less-obvious weather events create a rush.
- Accounting data will let you know what your most profitable time of year is. (This may not necessarily be your busiest time if you're hiring on extra workers or missing jobs due to the rush!)
Of course, if you can't access your data because it's on paper forms scattered all over your office, it won't help you predict and profit from busy times. Going paperless by using a digital job management system can help you keep all your key data organised, and share that data between departments.
Encourage customers to call for regular service during the slow periods.
One way to keep your engineers from burning out and quitting during the rush season is to...make it less of a rush.
For example, "train" customers with incentives, service agreements, and reminders to call you for their boiler servicing in the summer instead of waiting until the cold hits. It's not just about offering discounts, though; this article offers good tips on how to smooth out the peaks and troughs throughout your year.
Delete as many tasks as you can.
You've probably heard of triage in a healthcare context: It's making sure the most critical cases in the emergency room are handled first. In the same way, business triage is taking care of the most important work when you're in a crunch period. Decide what's most important—Hint: It's probably serving your customers—and put everything else you can on autopilot.
You can do some of this with automation. For example, schedule your email newsletters and blog posts in advance, use automated service reminders, and set up a digital invoicing and payment system so you don't need to manually send invoices.
We recommend some useful apps in this article that can help you streamline your business for the busy winter season.
Turn customers away (seriously!).
We know, it's hard to turn down work; after all, the more jobs you do the more money you make...right?
Not really. If you're taking on so many jobs that your recall rates are soaring and jobs are slipping through the cracks, you'll lose money in the long run as customers stop calling and the negative reviews start spreading.
Instead of taking on every customer who calls, be selective. 'The best advice is to not sacrifice your employees or customers in order to try to meet the demand,' says Strilcic. 'Growth within reason is more sustainable long-term than the effects of hiring and laying off employees and poor customer experiences.
Hire, schedule, and manage engineers the right way.
Now that you've taken some steps to figure out exactly how busy you'll be, and how to keep the craziness in check, you can more effectively decide:
- How many engineers you'll need.
- Whether you need to hire temporary engineers.
- How to best manage and motivate your engineers during the busy period.
- How to schedule engineers so they don't burn out.
Here are the next steps.
Rethink temporary hires.
Instead of hiring temporary engineers, some field service businesses focus on training their current engineers in how to handle rush periods. 'We put a lot of time in planning capacity and predicting demand for specific services based on our historical production,' says Brad Thorstenson, CEO and owner of Interstate Pest Management in the Pacific Northwest U.S. 'Our technicians are trained to be able to handle a variety of pests, which cuts back on the risk that we’d need to hire a specialist during the busy season.'
JPS Furnace & Air Conditioning in Calgary, AB, is another field service business that avoids hiring temporary staff. 'We do our best to hire the right people for the job with both a mix of skills and the right fit for our company culture,' says owner James Strilcic. 'The effort and time it takes to find great staff would be all for nothing if we had to let them go a few months later. In this industry most people know that seasonal work has highs and lows, and preparing your staff makes the spikes more bearable.'
If you do have to hire, hire right.
If you have to hire temp help for the busy season, Construction Executive magazine suggests starting your recruiting a month before, since new engineers will need training. To cut down on the learning curve, you can also ask former employees who have retired from the business to come back just for the season; some retired people are itching for something to do, or they may want to earn some extra money for the holidays.
Then, be sure to train and incentivise those temp engineers. 'It's tough to find reliable people when you’re not offering them a steady, ongoing position,' says Thorenston. 'One way we’ve tried to combat this is by incentivising them with a potential bonus at the end of the summer, based on performance. When there’s a clear end time, people start to slack off as they get close, but a bonus can keep them motivated to perform well until the end.'
Thorenston also sometimes offers his most successful temporary hires the opportunity to be considered for full-time work, or to come back the following summer. (Summer is the busiest period for pest control businesses in his area.)
Motivate your engineers to work fast.
Ever notice how, when you have a tightly packed schedule, jobs suddenly start taking longer than you had anticipated?
'Depending on your route, you might have five or six houses on a normal day, and eight to ten on a busy one,' says Thorstenson. 'But if you run into a problem that demands some extra attention, or a house where you can’t easily access what you need to to solve the problem, it can put you behind.' Then you have to frantically try to reshuffle the schedule to make up for the lost time.
Thorstenson gets around this problem by turning the rush season into a game. 'We try to motivate the team to stick with it and work quickly and effectively by making it into a competition, using production and customer reviews to measure performance,' he says.
You might offer prizes or other incentives inspire your engineers to work quickly, and to tough out those times during the busy season when the schedule suddenly gets packed. Many of FitSmallBusiness's ideas for employee appreciation incentives work well for field service engineers, too. (We like the idea of offering secret, surprise bonuses. Word will get around!)
Schedule time for fun.
You know what they say about all work and no play. During the busiest times of the year, sometimes working overtime can't be avoided, so you need to take measures to avoid burnout in your employees.
When your engineers are running from job to job without a break, they can start to feel isolated. That's why it's key to add time off into the schedule. 'This is quite difficult as every day can bring new challenges, and usually our staff are aware ahead of the busy season of what to expect with longer days,' says Strilcic. 'Trying to give the guys a day off after a hard week is difficult but sometimes schedules are rearranged for this to happen.'
Thorstenson makes sure to take time for team bonding and fun during the busy season. 'A few years ago, our company donated and installed equipment for a community disc golf course—and now we go out there as a team and play,' he says. 'Or we’ll take the afternoon off to donate our time as a group. Last fall, we did pro bono work for a nonprofit that helps women and children out of high-risk abuse situations, installing vapor barriers in their crawl spaces.'
Automate your job scheduling.
What makes a busy time even busier? When your engineers are wasting time on the road due to inefficient scheduling. To make sure your engineers are spending as much time as possible actually serving customers, look into plumbing scheduling software that with an intelligent scheduling feature, which will automatically choose the closest available engineer with the right skills for each job.
Not ready to invest in scheduling automation? Download the free Excel job status sheet we created just for small to medium-sized field service businesses. Click the banner below and you'll be just seconds away from a free, simple tool that works better than a paper-based system.