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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 1 week ago

Focus on customer service, empathy are secrets behind company's multimillion dollar growth

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Cool Today President Jaime DiDomenico says he serves the company's 244 other employees.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

For most companies, it works like this: the CEO is at the top of the organizational structure, then come other executives and next, the rest of the employees.

But at Sarasota-based Cool Today, the organizational chart is inverted. Instead of leadership at the top, customers take the top spot. Then come the customer service employees and service technicians who support customers directly. At the bottom is the CEO. “I have to serve 244 other people,” says Cool Today President Jaime DiDomenico.

In 2004, DiDomenico bought the company — then known as N&M Heating and Cooling — for $400,000 with business friends. The consumer name shifted away from N&M, which DiDomenico says was a tongue twister, to Cool Today in 2007. The company now has a Plumbing Today division, added in 2008, and an Energy Today division, added in 2009.

Now with 245 employees, Cool Today is a on a growth spurt: revenues are up 28% since 2015, from $25 million $32 million in 2017. DiDomenico projects $38 million in 2018 revenue. 

As the majority owner, DiDomenico, who previously held management roles for Service America and other home warranty entities, has made some clear decisions, even in the inverted structure. For one? Relationships are a key value. In fact, relationships — with customers in particular — are one of the reasons behind the company’s growth, he says. It can also be attributed to a focus on service agreements, which have helped the company increase and strengthen its customer base.

Serve a Purpose

“Part of our mission statement is building lifelong relationships with our customers and employees,” says Nicole Olsen, customer service and quality assurance manager for Cool Today, Plumbing Today and Energy Today.

That boils down, most importantly, to treating customers with empathy, Olsen says. “Most people want to know that when they call in, the person on the other end is listening,” she says.

That ability to listen — and solve problems for customers — has paid off in more than one way, including referrals. “When you feel like you’re valued by the company you’re working with, you tend to refer them,” Olsen says. The company has gotten many referrals from happy customers who are then given a monetary reward for their referrals. Customers receive checks for referring new customers — $25 for service work and $125 for something like a new air conditioning unit. “We like to show our customers we appreciate them going that extra step for us, that they’re an advocate for us,” Olsen says.

The company’s quality assurance team handles the referrals and is also responsible for escalated customer issues. “We never run away from a problem,” DiDomenico says, adding one of his most important beliefs goes like this: “We’re just a company made up of a bunch of humans who have flaws. The important thing is how you respond to mistakes.”

Since employees key customer service, Cool Today invests big on training. DiDomenico says the company spends close to $200,000 a year on employee training that includes building soft skills and leadership skills as well as developing sales and call center employees. Every employee, he says, receives some training each year, at a rough cost of $500 to $700 per employee. It’s expensive, he says, but worth it.

“We’re just a company made up of a bunch of humans who have flaws. The important thing is how you respond to mistakes.” — Jaime DiDomenico, president, Cool Today

For customer service employees, training includes mock phone calls. “The biggest obstacle is having someone be able to effectively communicate with someone who is their exact opposite,” says Olsen. That could mean an employee who talks in a fast-paced style having a conversation with a customer who has a slower pace or an employee who is a “people person” talking to a more task-oriented customer. Olsen says the company has an employee who listens to actual phone calls with customers and evaluates them, providing scores and areas of focus so customer service employees can improve in those areas.

Tom Harmon, operations manager for Tampa, regularly reviews service calls from the day before, looking for areas where employees deserve praise as well as lost opportunities to make customers happy. “We value the customer more than we value the dollar,” he says. “We value the long-term relationship with the customer. The fact that we take time to build those relationships, inside and out, has made us a stronger organization.”  

The alternative — not prioritizing those relationships — can be dangerous. Harmon puts it bluntly: “If you’re not providing the right level of service, they’ll get rid of you.”

Reach an Agreement

When DiDomenico got involved with the company, service agreements — the other side of the growth surge — didn’t take center stage. “Now it’s the focus,” he says. “It supports everything about a business.”

The company has service agreements for Cool Today, Plumbing Today and Energy Today. Agreements range from $129 to $399 a year. The company offers a combination plan that includes air conditioning, plumbing and electrical; two different air conditioning plans; a plumbing plan; an electrical plan and a generator plan. Agreements include regular maintenance, preventative actions, discounts on repairs, discounts on parts and more.

Sharron Oakley, agreements manager for Cool Today, Plumbing Today and Energy Today, says the model works on filling a gap. “The best way to forge a relationship is to be available when someone needs you,” she says. That also fits into DiDomenico’s mission to build long-term relationships with customers, Oakley adds. “The service agreement is a way for him to do that.” As Harmon puts it: “The agreement is the backbone of the relationship.”

Service agreements are easier to sell, says DiDomenico — but more challenging to get customers to retain.

“What we have to do is make sure that we live up to our agreement,” Oakley says. “If we’re saying, ‘Okay, Mrs. Jones, if you have a problem, we’re going to be there for you, you’re going to get priority service,’ then we have to make sure we give her priority service.”

The company has increased its efforts to contact customers about renewing their agreements, Oakley says, reminding them through multiple methods, including emails, letters and phone calls.

Agreements have become a clear way to measure company growth from year to year. And if agreements are a growth indication, then the company is on a big upswing. It has 13,918 agreements in 2018, up 40.7% from 9,887 in 2017.  

Future Focus

With all of its growth, Cool Today, Plumbing Today and Energy Today are always looking for new employees. It hires about 45 people every year, mostly for in-the-field positions and some office jobs.   

The company has also expanded to the Tampa Bay market recently, making two acquisitions in the last two years: Ray Duncan Plumbing in Dunedin and Alert Air Conditioning in Tampa.

Expansion into Tampa was part of a 20-year growth plan DiDomenico established when he bought the company. Also in the plan? Expansion into Fort Myers and Naples, something he says the company will do by 2020. “We would have hit our plan on time or early,” DiDomenico says. “What set us back was the 2008 recession.”

There are possibly more acquisitions ahead for the company, too, if it moves into a new area, DiDomenico says. But mostly, the future will be about getting better, he says — improving internal processes, improving training methods and being more introspective. DiDomenico says, “Just getting a little bit better makes a big difference.”

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