Strategy & Leadership

Why Your Techs Complain—and Why That’s a Good Thing

Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. Below, he explains what service managers can learn from their field employees’ grumblings. Stephens will be a featured speaker at Field Service Fall (Sept. 12-14, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) about how to keep technicians engaged through new technology advances. 

If you’ve been a field service manager for any length of time, it won’t be a revelation that service techs have occasion to complain. In my more than 30-year career as a service rep, I’ve witnessed more than a few managers slam their fists on the table out of frustration because their techs were whining about a new process, a company program, or the weather they had to venture into. I’ve even had one manager begin a meeting by declaring, “I have a new process to tell you guys about, and I don’t want to hear any complaints or reasons why it won’t work. Just do it!”

Although there’s a tantalizing temptation to introduce all new processes and programs in this manner, I would advise against it. Griping is an intricate part of the troubleshooter personality that all techs have. Denying this guilty pleasure may help you get through a meeting quicker, but it will do nothing to encourage engagement with a new program.

The Difficult Business of Managing Change

Change is difficult. Change is scary. Change is one of the last things your techs want, but not just for the first two reasons I gave. Field service techs are lone-wolf workers. They go into the field alone, work alone and eat alone. Combine this with a job that is never the same day twice — even if it is the same customers, the problems are rarely the same — and you get employees flickr:Kevin Spencerwho not only develop strong individual habits, but they begin to look to those habits as a grounding anchor to the chaos that is their day. Institute a new process, with a “trivial” change like keeping a mileage log between accounts, and you loosen that anchor and the ship begins to drift.

When one of your techs calls you to ask, “Why, after 15 years of reporting overall business miles, do we need to keep a log sheet? Are you crazy?” he or she doesn’t really want an answer. It’s just a way of venting and asking for a little time to reset the anchor. “Yeah, I know it’s a pain. Do the best you can and we’ll sort it all out at the end of the month,” will get you more buy-in than replying, “Just do it! It’s not like I’m asking you to pay us back for those trips to Starbucks every morning.”

A Complaint’s Productive Side

Field service techs approach everything new that comes down the pike with the same thoughtful attitude: What’s wrong with this program, and how might it disrupt my day? The latter is about change, but the former is about making it work. The challenge for the manager is to distinguish between the practical criticism and the gripe, because they both come out in the form of a complaint.

Griping is an intricate part of the troubleshooter personality that all techs have. Denying this guilty pleasure may help you get through a meeting quicker, but it will do nothing to encourage engagement with a new program.

Consider the mileage log example. A tech might complain, “This is stupid. Sometimes I have to drive to get a part or a tool first. If this is to track how many miles we average between service calls, how can it be accurate when I might double the mileage by doing either? And what about my going a few miles out of the way to run by Starbucks?”

The tech has pointed out factors that might not have been incorporated in the metric (along with expressing a fear of losing the ability to get a decent cup of coffee). It’s a technician’s job to uncover flaws, and they are very good at doing so. Unfortunately, what they are deficient in is tact, so you end up with constructive criticism mixed in with protests. The instinctive response to an objection is to ignore it or be defensive, but you might be ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ if you don’t attempt to dissect the gripe.

Don’t Make Promises You’re Not Willing to Keep

Another mistake I’ve seen managers make is to offer platitudes like, “I’ll look into that,” “You have a good point there,” or “I never thought of that. Maybe we can incorporate your idea,” when they have no intention of giving it another thought. If you never follow up on the idea, you guarantee that everyone who heard the constructive gripe will take the new program less seriously. They will also be less likely to vocalize suggestions when the next program comes along. Make a note of the proposal and if it can’t be incorporated into the plan, let your team know that you tried but it didn’t work out.

The key to sanity in field service management with a team of complainers is to expect that technicians will moan, whine and give all the reasons why the new program is ‘destined to fail’ whenever change is thrust upon them. But once the gripe session is over, you’ll have a few good suggestions to improve the new program — and a team that is willing to do what they can to make it a success.

Donald B. Stephens will be a featured speaker at Field Service Fall (Sept. 12-14, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).

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