By Frankie Costa, Jr.
When I first started out in the service technician world, I wanted to apply my business school knowledge to everything. I valued data deep dives, rapid response times, and perfecting protocols to get businesses to the next level.
However, the service technicians I work with have taught me something I could never learn in school: the value of slowing down, minimizing data, and ditching the formal process to arrive at better solutions. While their approach is contrary to my education, I realize these important business skills are instrumental to their success and can be applied to professionals from all backgrounds.
Here are four necessary skills you won’t learn in business school.
1. Being comfortable with ambiguity
When I worked in finance, technology, and law, I thought hard data was the golden standard for decision-making, but overreliance on facts and figures can be distracting in an ambiguous market.
For example, you can never know how many big projects are going to happen in a given year. There are big fish out there, like hospitals and apartment complexes, that may need hundreds of service technicians, but no amount of analysis can prove exactly when they’ll be hiring. Plus, you can’t be sure how many competitors will enter the market or how that might impact your margins.
The service technicians who have been in the business for a long time have a feel for how uncertain situations might shake out. They are comfortable with the ambiguity of their industry and don’t need complex software or KPIs to provide insights.
When I was working with my first partner in the service technician industry, I made a five-year projection based on population growth in the market, planned expansion into new territories, and acquisition of additional businesses. It was a textbook business school approach. I had a model built out in Excel and it included colorful charts.
However, the seasoned service techs used a bottom-up approach. They broke the industry down to a few key factors and used that information to intuit their growth as a business:
- This is an in-demand trade.
- We have an existing customer base.
- We know how busy each employee will be installing HVACs, plumbing, or electrical.
Based on this information, they could figure how many 40-hour-per-week technicians we needed, how much revenue we could expect, and what marketing would cost to reach new customers and provide new services.
I realized my high-level, top-down spreadsheet wasn’t the most effective way to manage the business. It took a ton of hard work and didn’t provide any more insight than this bottom-up approach could.
So I decided to trust the pros and their unique business skills. Using their “under-analysis,” we built out a new plumbing division and didn’t waste unnecessary time crunching numbers to get there. In fact, our numbers came out even better than what my complicated spreadsheet estimated we would earn.
2. Knowing when to think fast
Business school might teach us some important business skills, such as how to solve business problems, but it doesn’t teach us when to think fast and when to slow down to tackle issues. Other service technicians taught me it all comes down to urgency. We think fast to triage the most urgent symptoms of a problem, then we slow down to find the long-term solution.
When a massive snowstorm shut down Texas’s infrastructure in February 2021, it was urgent to get the state’s critical systems back online immediately. In one instance, a water tower had a catastrophic failure to its heating system. While we could have repaired the heating system piece by piece over a matter of days, people needed water that day. Thinking fast, we installed a rental heater to provide access to drinking water, buying us time to think slowly and install a more durable heating system.
Fast thinking is excellent for day-to-day emergencies, too. When an HVAC system breaks down in an apartment building, there might only be one chiller with damage. Given that there are usually multiple chillers in the system, a technician can run all the air through the functioning chillers while they repair the faulty one. This way, the quick-thinking solution to reroute the air solves the immediate cooling problem and affords the technician time to think methodically about repairs, preventive maintenance, and other ways to improve the system.
In all fields, catastrophic failures require fast thinking. We must learn to prioritize our most urgent issues before moving on to long-term solutions.
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In the instant information age, people expect quick answers and give up or get frustrated when they don’t get them. I saw this impatience all the way through business school—and I was often guilty of it myself. If an account is failing, we brazenly get in there and try to save it; if it’s more trouble than it’s worth, we cut our losses and search for a new account. In this environment, immediate solutions are valued over patient processes. But not in the service tech world.
Technicians might be on a 150-degree rooftop in Oklahoma, troubleshooting a dozen moving parts on an HVAC unit from sunup to sundown. It can take days for technicians to repair the unit because if they aren’t patient, thorough, or careful, they might be up on that roof again next week.
Patience is valuable in any business function because it’s expensive to solve the same problem twice. Plus, patience adds to a positive company culture as employees gain a sense of accomplishment from taking their time to optimize, instead of sweating bullets and cutting corners.
Many of us get frustrated without quick emails, quick answers, or quick computational power from Google, whereas technicians get frustrated if they don’t slow down. Their patience allows them to fix problems preventively, provide services under duress, and ensure their solutions are profitable and satisfactory.
A misconception about trade professions is that they are simple, “square peg in a round hole” professions, but I find they develop more creativity than the average MBA. While many of my MBA classmates were good at thinking outside the box, the more skilled technicians I’ve worked with display next-level creativity because the obvious solutions are rarely the most effective.
Imagine you need to install 10 HVAC units into 10 places on a rooftop, but you have to minimize crane usage to save costs. In one case, technicians stacked all the units together and lifted them by crane in one fell swoop. To get them into position without further assistance from the crane, the units were placed onto rollers in the center of the roof. From here, technicians could roll each unit into place without a crane.
In another case, a technician had to fasten a screw deep within a chiller, blocked by a number of unwieldly parts. Disassembling the entire unit to reach the screw would cost everyone time and money, so he whipped up a breakthrough strategy. By attaching some tape and a magnet to one side of a screwdriver, it would lock in place with the loose screw. Add a long wire and he was able to maneuver the tool through the maze of mechanics, like a cross between a reach extender and a fishing pole.
One additional tip I’ve learned from the service tech field is that the fastest solutions often require the most creative thinking. If you approach a problem with an emphasis on saving time, you might end up with a more efficient and clever method.
Business school doesn’t have all the answers
Service technicians have taught me valuable lessons and important business skills that are not congruent with a typical business school education. Through them, I have learned how to cultivate patience, creativity, and comfort with ambiguity. These skills have paid off in spades in my career, and I hope they will aid your career, too.
About the Author
Frankie J. Costa, Jr., is CEO of Orion Light HVAC, a private equity-backed group of HVAC and refrigeration businesses across the United States. He holds a JD from Yale Law School and an MBA from Harvard Business School.