Technical skills are only half the battle. For real profits, make sure your techs have the interpersonal skills to succeed.

A small Middle Eastern restaurant in my community recently closed. My wife and I were sorry to see it go. We enjoyed its distinctive cuisine and takeout service. But we could see it coming.

In fact, we saw it the first day we patronized the place. We were on our way to an outdoor music festival and stopped by to pick up a picnic dinner. It was around 5 p.m., and we were the only patrons. The young woman in charge of taking orders was busy changing the cash register tape, and having a hard time. As she fumbled around, she did not even acknowledge our presence with so much as a nod. After several minutes of waiting, I asked if we could place our order and pay after she got the cash register working again.

"No," was her stern reply. We thought of walking out, but were so stunned at this senseless breach of business etiquette that we just looked at each other and giggled instead. The cashier gave us a dirty look, thinking we were laughing at her mechanical ineptitude rather than her rudeness.

Finally, she got the register working and took our order. Nothing complicated, just salad, appetizer and a couple of main courses. Despite our being the only customers in the place, and three people behind the food-service counter, it took them about 15 minutes to get our order together. At about the 10-minute mark, we mumbled to each other about never going there again.

Perhaps overhearing us, the owner rushed out from the kitchen. He apologized for the delay and barked at the staff to expedite the order. He also pulled out some desserts from a display case, explaining what they were and practically shoving the free samples down our throats. They were delicious, and thanks to his crisis management, we ended up going back to the restaurant several more times. However, service never improved much, and they went out of business less than a year after opening.

Scary thought

So, what does this restaurant episode have to do with your business? A lot more than you might think.

The self-absorption of that cash register attendant resembles the attitude I have seen in many trade workers. Social graces never have been a high priority in the tough-and-gruff culture of construction work. Also, many skilled workers have a bit of an artistic temperament in that they want to be left alone to do their work, and don't have a lot of patience with outsiders who don't understand their jobs.

Unfortunately, construction has more than its share of intrusions. Jobsites frequently receive visits from customers, inspectors and other people who have a lot of influence over the success of your contracting business. Think about some of the personalities you employ who represent your company to these people. Scary.

Every business, from restaurants to construction contracting, is always struggling to find capable employees. The tendency is to hire any warm bodies that come along who are minimally capable of doing the work.

Because sheet metal demands a degree of technical proficiency that is hard to find, you can't be too fussy about an applicant's interpersonal skills. What you need to do, however, is make sure that the people who work for you are trained to act in a civil manner to the people they interact with on the job, whether that be crews from other trades, general contractors, inspectors, architects, engineers, suppliers and, especially, owners.

How many of you give any instruction at all to your field staff on how to conduct themselves in the presence of outsiders? How many times in your career have you - like the beleaguered owner of that restaurant - had to salvage a business relationship that was all but destroyed by a hard-headed or hot-tempered employee?

The good news is that this problem is not a difficult one to solve. All it takes is a commitment to deal with the issue of customer service with all field employees. Let them know you expect them to act in a civil and courteous manner with everyone they encounter on the job.

Emphasize how important it is to get along with clients and their representatives, and that you can never win an argument with a customer. Buy a few customer-service training videos and books, and make them part of your new-employee orientation.

A few hours of basic customer-service training is a small price to shape attitudes that can make or break your business.

(Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of SNIPS. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.)