Even for the famously entrepreneurial and highly creative Howard Schultz, it was a radical idea. Tough times needed tough measures, though. On Feb. 26, 2008, at precisely 5:30 p.m., Schultz—who re-entered Starbucks as chief executive officer that year to revitalize it—instructed staff to politely escort every one of its (millions of) customers out of the stores. Then, all 7,000 Starbucks’ U.S. locations simultaneously closed early.

With all public entrances locked, Starbucks privately retrained its entire work force on how to make espresso. Not intended as a gigantic retraining session for brewing pricey coffee drinks, Schultz’s radical move was meant to do much more: to reorient and redirect every staff member to the winning ways of Starbucks’ original success in capturing a fiercely loyal customer base.

By 2008, this base had begun to slip away, and Starbucks’ “systems” had broken down. This year, it has become the No. 3 restaurant chain in the nation, surpassing Wendy’s and Burger King, according to Technomic’s 2011 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, giving the coffee giant 57.2 percent share in the coffee and other beverage category.

While the connection between the worldwide retail chain and the electrical contracting business may not readily be apparent—except for the fact that they both involve coffee breaks—there are some parallels.
To benefit from the success of having a “sustainable” service operation, we have advocated that electrical contractors (that are capable of doing so) shift the main focus of their business to service work, ultimately serving their customers in more ways. That change in strategy does not call for closing doors, but it calls for serious decisions and strategies of conversion. This conversion is where Starbucks’ recent success story offers insight.

Each electrical service call also has a story with a beginning, middle and end. Most electrical contractors have a complete understanding of what to do in the middle. That’s where the action, the implementation and the fieldwork happens. But electrical contractors’ understanding of how to handle the first and last parts is most often unclear. How electrical contractors manage the beginning and the end, establishing a complete system, of the service experience is crucial to making it sustainable.

When it comes to the word “systems,” many people think of computers. In the vocabulary of sustainable service, we define systems broadly in terms of both technological and human resources. A full-fledged service operation cannot run effectively without software. Technology makes the system truly scalable.

But, human factors are just as important to service success. Service managers and their staffs must be fully prepared to handle the problems—and the opportunities—that unexpectedly unfold in front of them every day. Field service electricians have to be trained in advance for quotidian technical challenges, as a basic set of skills. Even more importantly, service electricians have to be equipped with soft skills, where customer relationships and techniques can carry the largest long-term risk.

In their recent book, “Construction Supervision,” Jerald Rounds and Robert Segner make this point very clear with an entire chapter on oral communication. For them, communication is defined as “the process of passing information and understanding from one person to another; more importantly, the purpose of communication is to pass understanding; without understanding, the communication process is incomplete.”

Sustainable service cannot be left to technology or individual talents alone. An electrical contractor that intends to maximize service capabilities, thereby ensuring sustainability, has to create the right systems by investing in staff training that integrates technology and ensures education through proper communication. These are known as “soft skills.”

Brent Darnell, in his book on soft skills training, “The People-Profit Connection,” argues similar points and focuses on soft skills that are lacking for the construction industry. Empathy, among others, is one example of a skill that could improve understanding and communication with the stakeholders of a project in our industry. Again, without understanding, the communication process is incomplete.

The sagas of large, site-based construction projects have always contained a theme of “productivity.” Their beginning, middle and end can be summed up as planning properly for getting in, getting done and getting out, often with an epilogue of successfully getting paid.

By contrast, a success story about electrical service work has the electrical contractor integrated in the plot line forever, creating favorable results through a continued customer relationship. Success in customer service is gauged through those customers who continue to return to their business, like Starbucks, where the epilogue simply continues, and possibly reformulates, future payment. Furthermore, the real heroes in that story are the individual service electricians, like the Starbucks baristas, who are more responsible than anyone else in the electrical contractor’s organization for forming enduring connections with customers. In order to continue to accomplish such heroic feats time after time in a sustainable way, service electricians have to function with the benefit of well-conceived support systems that are agile and scalable, while also continually preparing for the myriad types of technologies and customers. Excellent communication offers a key.

In “Sustainable Service,” (ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, February 2011), we stress the requirement for a service organization to be a separate business unit within an electrical contracting firm to ensure its success. Later, we dwelled on the importance of staffing the service group with the right people. Here we have touched on the “sine qua non,” indespensible action, of the systems—inclusive of both technology and customer skills—that must be in place. So, now we have rounded all three bases en route to a homerun in sustainable service: structure, staffing and systems. In combination, these three components provide an electrical contractor with the capability of building an ever-growing customer base.

Howard Schultz believes in that concept. In his book, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul,” he proudly recounts receiving a message from a barista who had put her newly rejuvenated customer relations and beverage-preparation skills to work and, in one memorable instance, felt that she had “gained a customer for life.” A customer for life! We think of that as the ultimate objective in successful sales efforts for both cappuccino and contracting.

Stay tuned. Our future columns will explore more details in the structure, staffing and systems available to electrical contractors in achieving the goal of sustainable service.


MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.