Preserving Customer Relationships

Organizations, particularly contracting businesses, tend to fade from history rather quickly. So, whenever we encounter a great old company such as Harrington Electric Co. in Cleveland, which is about to celebrate its 110th year of continuous operation, we have to ask how it has managed to hang around so long. What is the secret to such extraordinary longevity? In that vein, how has it fared in the realm of service work?

Tom Morgan, president of Harrington Electric, provided answers about his company’s multifaceted, service-driven activities based on lessons learned from failures and successes experienced over many decades.

As you know, our column is devoted to exploring subjects that will benefit our readers in their pursuit of opportunities that are available to electrical contractors in service work. Can you share with us some of the lessons your organization has learned?

This calls for a definition of “service.” What do you consider “service work” to be? It’s not always easy to define. But let me offer a practical definition that has emerged out of our experience: Service work is that which is based on a relationship with a customer.

Is that another way of saying that service work is what follows after a contractor has successfully produced a great customer experience that has led to being called back again and again as a preferred provider?

Absolutely! It is relationship-based. Virtually all the time it comes via a contract directly with a facility owner, versus a general contractor or another intermediary. It is predicated on the fact that the customer likes you. The customer trusts you. They have had a good experience each time they have dealt with you.

Personal connections between individuals in the EC’s organization and their counterparts in the customer’s organization are key to the success of this kind of ongoing relationship, are they not?

They are vital to success. The president of my company or, for that matter, any other contracting business, cannot be personally responsible for all of the intercompany ties with customers’ representatives. We have to depend on others to keep up these connections. Occasionally, that can lead to problems. In one instance, we had a foreman who became totally frustrated with a new kind of budgeting and cost-tracking system that a long-time customer wanted to begin using. When he reached his limit, our foreman—in a fit of frustration—just quit and walked out in the middle of the job.

In the eyes of a customer, that kind of behavior can be unforgivable. It can be taken as a reflection on your company. It can often lead to losing an account. What came of it?

A great lesson learned! We moved quickly to repair the damage. I personally led a visit to the customer’s office to make amends. We immediately installed a new foreman. Fast action saved the day.

So, you might say that, to stay in business for a century, you have to preserve customer relationships over many years, which sometimes requires you to move within minutes of a problem occurring to keep those valuable ties in place.

From time to time, that kind of lightning speed is necessary to rescue a relationship. But on a day-to-day basis in far less dramatic circumstances, you have to be responsive to your customers’ requirements—both large and small—to preserve your relationships. Assign service electricians whose demeanor fits with customers’ people. Pay attention to all those little details like the quality of documentation that may seem petty but are somehow important to the customers’ administrative procedures. Sometimes it’s those little things that make all the difference in maintaining a year-in, year-out relationship.

As you look back on situations in which you have taken positive steps to preserve a customer relationship and have been successful, does any one in particular stand out?

One of my favorites has to do with the construction of a major facility in which nothing seemed to go right. Name any aspect of this project and I can tell you about a horrendous problem that came up. But we worked hard at preserving relations with the customer. The reward for our efforts: we have performed all of the service work on this large facility since it opened, and we expect to continue to do so for a long time to come.

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Andrew McCoy is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and Department Head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu.

About the Author

Fred Sargent

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Fred Sargent is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com.

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