Sunday, April 18th, 2021

Shopper Client Stories


Team strength results in conscientious customer service

by Eric Hodies

Owner, Buddy Smith and Manager, Marc Sawyer

Owner, Buddy Smith and Manager, Marc Sawyer

For Buddy Smith, people not only make a difference, they are the difference. The President of Russell's Heating and Cooling knows anyone can sell and install equipment, so attracting the best people to the Russell's team is essential to success.

"Our customers frequently tell us they're surprised by our employees," Buddy says. "The stereotype of the HVAC technician as an uneducated guy who takes the first job he's offered does not apply at Russell's. Our employees are articulate, formally educated and they are clean and conscientious. We have many with college degrees in other fields so they tend to be well rounded."

Buddy knows that a great team comes together only when individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives work together. "Whether it's an installer, technician or customer service representative, the trait most important is a desire to make sure we understand what our client wants.  It's not our agenda- it's the customer's agenda," he attests.

"Our employees are articulate,
formally educated and they are
clean and conscientious.
We have many with
college degrees in other fields
so they tend to be well rounded."

- Buddy Smith

After 40 years in the heating and cooling industry, the company Buddy took over from his father remains committed to extraordinary service and genuine concern for the customer. "No matter the size of the job, from the first phone call to the end of the job, we treat everybody with respect," he states. "That means doing what we say, when we say it and how we say it. And good service has no relation to the cost and scope of the job."

"The focus is always on improving the customer service experience," Buddy adds. "Nearly every conversation I have with a customer includes me being told how nice our people are and how they treated them and their home or office."

All installers wear booties without fail, and leaving a customer's house as clean as it was upon entering is company policy. Cleanliness is part of any job – large or small – and it's importance was brought to light by a recent experience.

"My wife and I had the windows in our home cleaned, and when the workers were done, the glass sparkled," he shares. "Unfortunately, there were piles of dirt on the floor in front of each window and even some dirt on our furniture. Doing great work means nothing, if you don't take care of the entire job. We believe that cleaning up is just part of the job," Buddy affirms.

At Russell's, treating customers with respect and courtesy is sometimes referred to as the "Russell's experience." Because first impressions sometimes begin at the warehouse and office building on Business Park Drive, Buddy's office is the office closest to the front door. And his door is always open for visitors.

"People that stop here are always remarking how amazing this place is," Buddy explains. "If someone is here to fill out a job application, I'll invite them to sit on a bean bag chair, have a cup of coffee or hit a few golf balls on our indoor putting green. We also have TVs that stream upcoming events, employee birthdays, and other useful information."

Employees can also enjoy the "Russell's experience," with occasional company-sponsored trips. Each winter, installers appreciate a ski trip to Wintergreen resort, while 13 ladies will soon be heading to a beach house in Corolla, where they will dine on meals prepared by a private chef, while performing team building exercises. Other employees enjoyed a paid day off to shop in Williamsburg.

In April, Russell's entered 30 employees – about half the staff – in the 2017 Corporate Challenge sponsored by the Hampton Roads Sports Commission. The two-week sporting event encourages health and wellness within a company and inspires team building. Russell's took home several trophies.

"No matter the size of the job,
from the first phone call to the end of the job,
we treat everybody with respect."

- Buddy Smith

Technology in the industry is constantly evolving and Russell's has grown along with it. The heating and cooling specialists went paperless in 2006, with all processes and procedures online for instant access.

"I like using technology, and it helps us run very efficiently, but all the technology in the world won't guarantee a quality job," Buddy points out. "There's much more to it. Anyone can see what an air conditioning unit costs, but we design, install and back it up. It's important to remember that if you buy it, you own it."

Russell's has been installing heating and cooling equipment throughout Hampton Roads since 1977, when Russell and Audrey Smith started their own company out of their College Park home. By 1982, Russell's moved to Greenbrier with five employees on the payroll.
From those humble beginnings, Russell's has steadily grown and now occupies a 7,200-square-foot space. Buddy's future plans call for a building near 20,000 square feet that offers more parking.

"We're very careful to grow at a deliberate pace," he says. "We want to be big enough to have economy of scale, but not get too big where we don't know what's going on at any one time. We're at a great size right now."

For the past two years, Russell's is proud to be the heating and cooling specialist chosen by Costco to operate a kiosk within the Norfolk store.

With hot weather on the way, Buddy advises making decisions sooner rather than later. "When it's 95 degrees, one is under the gun, and one is not going to make the best decisions," the business owner explains. "Don't be caught unprepared. And if finances are a concern, we have 60 months with zero interest, which is pretty attractive. Also, rebates are going longer and deeper. Because we purchase so much equipment, we work directly with the manufacturer for the best incentives."

Buddy learned everything about the business from the ground up, when he began working for his Mom and Dad in 1992. He was the general manager by 1999, and took partial ownership in 2004 eventually buying out the busienss in 2009.

"It's been a challenge the whole way, but one I enjoy," he concludes. "I know if we stay aggressive on improvement and continue treating customers with respect, we will continue to grow."