Operating 24/7/365 can take a toll.

Where do you draw the line? That’s easy if you’re a one-person shop. Telephone rings; it’s 2:30 a.m. The clock face comes into focus as you reach for the phone.

“My faucet is dripping and the noise is keeping me awake. How soon can you be here?”(Seriously?)

“How long has it been dripping?”

“For three weeks, but I can’t take it anymore.”

“I have several first-thing calls, but I’ll get to you by early afternoon.”

“What? You mean you won’t come out now? I’ll call someone else.”

Good luck and goodnight. The problem now is we’re both wide-awake and a good night’s sleep will not be had. Early on, I realized I needed to set boundaries. If not, crazy folks like that would drive me nuts. Then there were the folks who called at 5 a.m. to say: “I wanted to make sure we would be a first-thing call today.” Those calls warranted an aggravation fee.

It never failed: Plan an evening out for a nice dinner, attend a play or go to see a movie and there would be an emergency call that truly was an emergency. One elderly customer, a retired piano teacher, called during a night out with my wife. She had managed to break off the ballcock valve in her toilet and, according to her; the water stream hit the ceiling! She had replaced the tank lid and placed a full water pitcher on top of the lid to hold it firmly in place.

Upon arrival, I hustled up to her front door and rang the bell. I could hear the grand piano being played. No answer, so I rang the doorbell several times and pounded on the door. No answer. A large front porch window revealed she was seated at the piano playing songs. I knew she was deaf as a post, so I tried shining my flashlight through the window — no reaction. Next, I began banging on her window. Bear in mind this was long before cellphones. I tried the front door, but it was locked. The next-door neighbor became curious about all the noise and poked his head out the door. He agreed to call her and she did answer the phone. Coming to the door, she wanted to know what took me so long!

She had broken off the ballcock where it entered the wall-hung toilet tank and, of course, there was no shutoff valve. Rush to the basement and turn off the water to the home! When I asked her how that happened, she said she thought the toilet was running and tried to bend the ballcock to make it stop!

As my company grew and employees were added, I continued to handle all the after-hours, weekend and holiday calls. When I purchased F. W. Behler with its eight employees, I continued handling those calls. Being on-call 24/7/365 began to take its toll after a few years passed, and I scheduled an employee meeting to discuss our options. Customers absolutely expected 24/7 services, so dropping those after-hours emergency calls was not an option or we would lose customers. Everyone agreed to take a turn “in the barrel” as the employees called being on-call.

Setting boundaries

  • We needed to set limits for what constituted a real emergency. We discussed at length calls that were not really emergencies so that everyone was on the same page;
  • My employees were empowered to make-the-judgment-call and I assured them I would take any heat from a customer who complained if they declined to respond;
  • If an employee was called out on a paid holiday, they received the hourly pay for the holiday plus time-and-a-half. In effect, they were receiving 2.5 times their hourly rate. Eventually, we made it double-time for a holiday call. Did we lose money on those calls? Sure did, but it was worth every penny because, after all, they were sacrificing family time to take care of a customer;
  • We restricted after-hours calls to previous customers who did not have outstanding debt. Our employees were empowered to decide if a new customer would be accepted. What we learned, over many years, was new customers, especially ones who stated they didn’t care how much it costs, often tried to get out of paying for the overtime service call. More than a few played dial-a-plumber and whichever mechanical contractor arrived first got the work. Our answering service screened the calls by asking if they were a previous customer. The other thing that led to this restriction was having loyal customers not receiving a rapid response to legitimate emergencies because the on-call technician was tied up with a first-time customer;
  • Compensation. Being on-call places a burden on employees. Family life is altered, no alcohol consumed and the added stress that comes with being on-call. I knew I’d be grateful if I were compensated, so we all agreed to a set amount. Even if no after-hours calls happened, the on-call employee received the cash;
  • Holidays were tackled by assigning an employee to one of the annual holidays that landed on a weekday. Employees could choose which one of the paid holidays they wanted to take;
  • Trading off with other employees for their on-call rotation was fine by me, but I needed to know who was doing the on-call because so many of our customers would call me at home. They self-regulated the schedule and traded back by taking the other employee’s rotation;
  • Black Friday presented a different challenge because it wasn’t really a holiday, and as the years went by, supply houses began closing on that day. Customers continued to call as they believed it was business as usual. Most of our employees were deer hunters and headed to the mountains with their friends. We resolved the problem by asking for two volunteers to work on Black Friday while being paid overtime rates plus a paid day off of their choosing; and
  • Back up the on-call technician. Everyone agreed that whoever was on-call could call up others, myself included, to assist as needed. From my perspective, the employee on call was empowered to make that judgment. We only get one back and one life and, let’s be honest, our work as mechanical contractors is often dangerous and physically exhausting.

Some of the proudest moments, for me, were discovered on Monday morning that all employees had stepped up to assist the on-call tech during exceptionally heavy volumes of emergency calls. In some cases, primarily emergency replacements of steam boilers, we would work around the clock to get the heat back on the next day. Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business (and you).

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