Every day, we encounter both good and bad customer service. If you fly at all, you already know that most airlines have forgotten what the words “customer service” mean. You are met by a surly gate agent who is upset about having to assist you. You board the plane and are greeted by a flight attendant who is disgruntled because the company keeps reducing benefits and salaries. And the news is full of all the ways the airlines are “nickel-and-diming” the passenger.

But if you have ever traveled Southwest Airlines, you know the opposite is true. The company understands customer service and tries to make every flight enjoyable. Until mid-October, it was the only airline making a profit. What does this say to you? It is a reminder that, regardless of the slow economic times we are in, providing great service will get customers and keep them coming.

Customer service in the fire alarm systems business means keeping a system operational, meeting the deadlines that the customer requests, being ready for the acceptance test when the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) shows up, and responding to and fixing false alarm issues. Customer service is having the part in stock to avoid downtime on an important life safety system. It’s also making sure your technicians are well trained technically and believe in the customer service culture.

While I listen to many contractors today bemoan the fact that their workload is slowing down, I hear from others who are starting new projects every day. This second group looks at times like these as opportunities to train technicians and devise innovative solutions for its customer base to ensure all of their life safety systems are code-compliant and working reliably.

You already have a customer base where you have installed fire alarm systems. If you did not yet offer these customers an annual test and maintenance contract, now is the time to do so. Another way to set yourself apart and keep your technicians busy is to offer to review and evaluate older installations to see what would be needed to bring them into compliance with the current code. At the same time you are offering this service, you could offer to retrain the owner’s personnel on the operation of the system. Likely, the owner has had personnel changes and would welcome the opportunity to bring the new people up to speed during a slow period in operations.

Even in this slow economy, it appears difficult to fill positions in the skilled trades. In fact, Manpower Inc. recently reported that skilled trades are the third toughest jobs to fill in 2008. That being the case, now is the time to search for those individuals who have an interest in the specialty skills of fire alarm and communications systems installations as well as serving in the electrical trade. It also is a good time to train your current work force in the new code requirements and fire alarm system equipment installation requirements. Much of this training is available free of charge from the manufacturers and simply needs coordination on your part. Look first to your current supplier for help in this area.

And, of course, a good look in the mirror wouldn’t hurt either. As Harvey Mackay, the author of “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” recently wrote, “Your reputation is your greatest asset … it’s not product, price or service. Everything flows from your reputation—customer loyalty, referrals and more.”

Your reputation is built on your actions and the knowledge you have developed on doing the job right. Many times that single issue—doing the job right the first time—is what keeps customers coming back and referring you to their friends who need reliable and cost-efficient fire alarm system installations.

So now is the time for you to expand your knowledge of the National Fire Alarm Code and the National Electrical Code to maintain your ability to direct your employees in the right direction when code issues arise.

Another gem from Harvey Mackay is to “[p]osition yourself as a consultant. The mark of a good salesperson is that his customer doesn’t regard him as a salesperson at all, but a trusted and indispensable adviser …”.

In the fire alarm business, becoming a positive source for code and quality installation techniques for the local authority having jurisdiction will always be a benefit to you and will create additional business opportunities that your competition may never hear about.

Become a leader in your business by being the most knowledgeable and reliable go-to person in the fire alarm arena. Set yourself apart from the rest, and prosper regardless of the economy’s success.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.