Proof that investment in training is an investment in customer satisfaction

by Candance Moore

Customer experience. For most, this phrase evokes shopping, hotel stays, fine dining, or perhaps personal finance. But what about more technical services, such as heating and cooling? What if a climate control business brought real innovation to its customers while redefining service in its industry?

For anyone familiar with Russell's Heating & Cooling, it should be no surprise that this business is on the forefront of that movement.

Since 1977, Russell's has delivered knowledgeable installation and maintenance from a caring local team. Since proper performance of these systems can mean the difference between shivering at night or sleeping in comfort, founder Russell Smith emphasized genuine concern for each customer. Under the leadership of his son, Buddy Smith, those values have continued to grow the company.

Training is of great importance to the team at Russell's, and Buddy Smith makes sure his employees stay on the cutting edge of emerging technologies

Yet, as any leader quickly discovers, values aren't put in motion by accident. Even the best intentions fail without deliberate, organized execution, and that only happens when every level of an organization is empowered to do a great job. As Russell's expanded its staff beyond the core founding team, this vision grew more difficult.

For Buddy and General Manager Marc Sawyer, the challenge came down to two key points: excellence and consistency. They set standards far above industry norm in every department, and then they developed a plan to actively instill those standards in each team member.

Enter employee development. In a business era dominated by shrinking profits, cut corners, and evaporated benefits, Russell's stands out as a company still willing to invest in its talent. And that willingness has paid off - this business keeps defying the odds to grow year over year.

"It makes a huge difference in how our customers are treated," Buddy remarks. "We like to call it the Russell's experience."

Before customers even come into the scene, training at Russell's starts with a broad range of products that keep up with emergent technology. In fact, Russell's often seeks out products not yet available in Hampton Roads, and direct factory training ensures that local technicians are fully qualified to service them. By the time a product becomes available, Russell's already has experts on staff.

Russell's is able to repair or maintain most existing systems that are still functional - and they're glad to help customers on a budget get the most out of old systems before it's time for replacement. If a customer needs a new product, options range from conventional systems on a modest budget all the way up to geothermal technology for environmentally sensitive customers.

"Our field employees tend to
stay with us for a very long time.
Customers get used to seeing the same person
at their home to do their tune up, and they want
to continue to see them as they develop a relationship.
When we hire great people and take good
care of them, they stick around."

- Buddy Smith

Buddy feels strongly that money should not determine how well a customer is treated. He's made room in his product line for everyone, and training sessions make no distinctions based on price.

The customer experience begins with a phone call to discuss options. These service representatives receive substantial training on products, schedules, prices, and recommendations, so that a surprising number of questions are answered on the spot. Coaching from a third-party service team constantly improves the efficiency, friendliness, and compassion of each call.

Real customer interaction is captured and played back for analysis. Any customer calling for any reason, whether to schedule a low-cost maintenance visit or to inquire about green climate solutions, is expected to receive the same care, and all encounters are recorded and reviewed to ensure that the customer is being properly taken care of by Russell's staff.

If maintenance on an existing system is all that's needed, a visit can be scheduled right away. For customers who want to see new technology in action, Russell's company headquarters actually uses innovative systems on the property, and the public is welcome to schedule a tour. Since Russell's technicians observe these products in daily life, the knowledge to maintain them is more deeply ingrained, and recommendations are based on personal experience.

Digital communication ensures that a scheduled appointment will be kept and the technician will have access to that customer's entire account history. As for these technicians, rigorous factory training on the systems might seem impressive enough, but it's only the beginning. Many of Russell's technicians go through a three-day boot camp on service and ethics. Even on the point of safe driving skills in a company truck, Russell's invests in monthly training sessions.

For installers, the standard is higher still: required weekly sessions keep them focused on safety, precision, building code compliance, and best practices. The goal is for each new system to be installed perfectly the first time, and for any relevant notes about placement to be documented.

Technicians wear protective booties and have a policy of leaving an area cleaner than they found it. Tablet computers are used directly in the field to help technicians document notes before they leave a property. Should a return visit be needed, a detailed diary shares information across the whole team.

All in all, a typical Russell's employee arrives at a customer's property with some 160 hours of training per year. It might be easy to think of that as burdensome, but Buddy points out the tremendously positive impact it's had: five-star reviews abound online, and employee turnover has dropped to nearly zero.

"Our field employees tend to stay with us for a very long time. Customers get used to seeing the same person at their home to do their tune up, and they want to continue to see them as they develop a relationship," Buddy describes. "When we hire great people and take good care of them, they stick around."

Although it may seem like Russell's has succeeded in its mission, Marc and Buddy say they're not done yet. They aggressively seek out those rare complaints and analyze every angle for improvement potential. With climate technology developing more unconventional mechanisms, the need for rigorous training is greater than ever.

"Basically," Buddy sums up, "we treat customers' property with respect."

As his team of 57 employees continues to attract more customers, Buddy knows it will remain a challenge to advance those values - and it's a challenge he's excited to face.

From left: Jacob Killmon, Chad Tisdale, Katie Stevens, and Alex Rohr attended a 3-day training session in Philadelphia

Russell's Heating & Cooling

1100 Executive Blvd.
Chesapeake, VA 23320