Knowledge is power for front-line installers

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

George passed on suddenly a few months ago. If you hadn’t been a subber, a serviceman or an installer for certain companies in the New York/Connecticut/New Jersey area, you wouldn’t have known him, but I was assigned to work with him by various companies for which I subcontracted. Even after 10 years in the field I was stunned at how much he knew about every kind of equipment. He knew the National Electrical Code backwards. If you had a prevailing problem with a system, he could figure it out, given enough time and information, and sometimes he knew more than the tech support guys of the company whose systems we were installing. He had had his own firm for a while, “got sick and tired of all the paperwork,” as he put it, and went on to work for several national security providers.

I am telling you this because I think his immense knowledge of the front lines of the electronic security business, how he got it and how he was employed by the companies he worked for points to a major deficiency in our industry. Mike Sandman, a Chicago telephone systems expert, has been known to say that “the days of working as a journeyman are largely gone; get a work order, get in your truck and learn as you go.” And that’s about right for electronic security as well. We pay the price for that every day, and momentarily I’ll suggest why that’s the case.

George was the guy in the truck with the ladders strapped to the top rack. He showed up with his work order, did a museum-piece job and left. As we all recognize, he represented the most important of the front line of the security business. Who, after all, does the client see? The salesperson, the installer, the service person. These three are the ones who do the real work. The CEO’s golden parachute doesn’t concern the client. Does the system operate properly? If it does, the company gets good word of mouth. If not, that’s really all there is to it. Deliver information and the right support to the front line and your company does well.

The main reason why I’m writing this probably stems from George’s assignment for the last company employing him before we lost him. Placed in the service division, he ran around “putting out fires,” to use the slang of the day.

What I’d like to know is, why was George in the service department correcting other guys’ mistakes when he should have been working out of the office at least part time training the new hires? Had that been the case, I agree that the short-term effect would have been negligible but the long-term vastly improved.

Misguided priorities

But what is the corporate attitude toward long term, anyway? Exactly what it should not be: way down on the importance list, somewhere around whether there’s Pepsi or Coke in the coffee room machine. We all know that’s just how it is in every business: keep the stock price up and keep the salespeople out there bringing in the new contracts. Yes, account retention is slowly coming up on a lot of companies’ to-do lists but if you are out in the branch office you know the district manager still looks at the level of incoming business first. And given how the district office is probably not as deeply staffed any longer as it was - it’s the times we’re in - those may be all the figures the DM has time to see. And your office is in trouble for not bringing in the amount of new contracts expected. That the clients are heading out the back door as well is not as immediate a concern as it should be.

The weak link

So if the installer is the key employee, as I’ve said, training will solve most of our account retention problems. And not that much of this is news to anyone, but how many of us in the industry act on it to the level we should? True, manufacturers rolling out new product lines send the techies around to train your installers, but that often only covers the new stuff. NICET and NFPA and most local organizations reporting to the NBFAA have training, but much of that is on a voluntary basis. Unions still have training programs, but most shops are non-union. The weak link here is the contracting companies themselves: large, small, in-between, we’ll all have to offer more training to the installers and the service people. That’s the long and short.

Now let’s be realistic: it will take a while to fully implement this shift in emphasis if it we ever do it at all because of the prevailing business model’s flaws. I think an industry-wide fault in reasoning has it that it is easier to convince a client who has a system already to switch to another service provider than it is to talk a new prospect into purchasing a new system. So the existing customer base shuffles around from contractor to contractor, when with additional effort in training, we could be more quickly expanding the base. And the prospects who don’t invest in new systems can’t be blamed much when they see their acquaintances not getting excellent service from anybody in the industry.

Not in the manual

A perfect example of the advantages of good training: I had a situation a few summers ago with a multiplex system. One zone module was out of commission. I replaced it, but that one also failed to recognize the device it was connected to after about a day, so I had to go back again. I recalled something George had said some years previous: “You’d be surprised how much difference static electricity in the atmosphere makes on some of these multiplex systems, especially the ones which don’t require shielded cable on the loop.” It suddenly occurred to me that it had been overcast and humid for about a week. So I powered the entire system down, powered it back up again after 60 seconds and the new module began functioning again. Thanks to it raining later in the day, the fault didn’t come back.

Of course, this example is one of on-the-job training. But we all know that’s the only kind that really works and is really affordable. The implementation of what I’m talking about may well be as simple as this: send the old pro out to do a half day here and there with the new field personnel. Make it a solid policy.

The one client he does an excellent job for may not be as well served, but over time the go-backs will bottom out. I believe that’s what George would have thought a better use of his time, and I have to agree.

Ken Egbert is owner and operator of D.N.E. Security Communications, a commercial/residential installing company located in the Bronx, N.Y.