Leading the Plumbing Industry — With a Service Heart

﷯How embracing your people skills will help you excel in a technical industry.

People that know me well are always intrigued to find out why I have the following quote as a part of my digital email signature: “The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Gandhi

Its roots lie in pure simplicity; No matter what your profession is, you must be a servant and have a service heart to your customers if you look to inspire and succeed, and you must keep working at it every day. Look at the events of the last recession for example. The design companies that led with customer service and personal attention to the people aspect of their clients came out as winners, and people that are just concerned with technical installations and competencies did not fare as well. The mistake the latter companies made was forgetting to take care of customers beyond the traditional methods of delivering a set of construction documents if they are in the design part of our industry.

I bring this up because we had some very charismatic people attend the 2016 ASPE Convention and Exposition in my hometown of Phoenix, and I was fortunate enough to attend the first ever Women of ASPE Leadership Forum. All the presenter’s main themes were about how to distinguish yourself as a leader. Deep down, it all can be summarized by how you empathize and sympathize with people, and those people are your clients. I want to personally thank all the individuals that presented at those sessions; they were all fantastic. By the end of that day, I made a lot of great connections I hope to continue to foster in the future.

We forget how attitude and people skills translate in our technical driven industries. I have worked with several engineering companies, big and small, and have made some interesting observations. The bigger companies sometimes find themselves losing to the smaller companies in client retention and overall satisfaction, because they almost take for granted the customer base they have. We put our heart and soul into our construction documents. We must from a legal and ethical standpoint (especially if you are the engineer of record), and as a personal point of pride. 

But what about putting an investment into personal commitment and great attitude to all our clients? It is easy to forget the element of human kindness or even what motivates and drives us to succeed as individuals on a psychological basis. The unfortunate thing about all of this is that managers of design firms often have no background in what psychologically motivates an individual. 

The old stereotypes of the field being “full of engineers” has its benefits and its pitfalls. Yes, I am a registered professional mechanical engineer who is also certified in plumbing design. From that initial label of my profession, some that might not know me may assume I am a traditional engineer and have I have no sense of compromise or how to deal with people. That is the wrong assumption to make, and if each of us learned how to lead with a service heart, maybe that consensus of what makes a “good engineer” may change. To me, you cannot truly be great if you cannot relate to people and find a way to motivate yourself as well as all of those around you.

By clients, we have several on a day-to-day business. If you report to a supervisor, even if it is not the people who “buy your product,” that person you deal with and report to are still clients. It is not just the users of your product that are your clients.

We need to execute our responsibilities and behave in such a matter of the utmost respect. It is almost as simple as using the golden rule, but you knock it up a notch. You treat others BETTER than you want to be treated. Why? Because inevitably you may fall short of a goal, and if you gave it a little more effort when you do, it is still impressive because you went above and beyond and still managed to surpass the norm. 

I come from a long line of gentlemen that have participated in the construction industry. My paternal grandfather was a registered architect that owned his own company in Ossining, New York. My maternal grandfather was a carpenter, who was hired as a superintendent and worked in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. It was the inspiration of both gentlemen that led me toward following my dreams to one day be in this same industry. What I do within the industry is “different,” but I saw how they led by example as I grew up, and it made a lasting impression. 

When I went to school at the University of Portland in Oregon, I chose to study engineering management. I knew I had strong leadership skills, and I knew with that major, I could study enough engineering fundamentals to have that strong foundation. I also had the chance to take business classes and learn about how to sell to people. I took an immediate interest in classes  that discussed how psychology influences peoples' spending and buying power. It also helped me connect the dots on how to motivate those around me and how to truly serve the needs of my clients on a personal level. I knew with that degree, I could go into the industry with either design or sales opportunities, but that I would let my service heart lead me in whatever direction I intended to go. Little did I know that those choices I made would lead me to plumbing design, and eventually I would even marry a client. Obviously, I know a thing or two about good customer service! 
It has never been an easy path to get this far, but I relate my struggle to the same struggles that our clients face in their lives, in their pasts and even in their day-to-day tasks. I see this on a daily basis, being married to an external client. The struggles we have are not unique; Our clients face those same struggles. If you are the kind of person that struggles with connecting with people, try to be the ultimate observer of how you treat someone who deals with you. If you can find a way to step outside of your personal interaction and rate yourself, it goes a long way. 

I give the following example that some people might be able to relate to within our industry. I have literally had supervisors in this industry call me a “fake” because I try to stay optimistic. Ask yourself, how did that supervisor motivate me by saying that? If he could become the ultimate observer of that conversation, maybe he won’t make that same mistake again. The problem was that it became a habit of that manager, and I decided to depart the company. Why? Because, at some point, you come to realize that peace of mind is more important than even money in the long run. If that is the impression that group gives its “internal clients,” can you imagine how they may be treating the clients that pay the revenue to the company for services rendered? You might have clients that treat you the same way my previous manager treated me. If that is the case, you must evaluate whether you want to keep them as clients. You are never going to impress everyone, even with all the kindness in the world. It becomes far easier to get rid of bad clients than it is to hire great people to replace people who leave your firm to perhaps escape those types of clients.

In the present world of negative news and divisive tactics, wouldn’t it be nice to encourage diversity, inclusivity, and promote peace and happiness, not only to our friends and family but even to our clients? Do something outside of what is considered normal: Write a thank you note. Ask a client to take a phone survey. Say something nice to someone who looks like he is having a bad day. When you answer the phone, ask them how they are doing first or try to have some common ground beyond the project in question. What a change we could make in our small corner of the world. 

It is a big reason why I have found such a home within the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, and I do all I can to foster those relationships. Education is a plus, but the real draw to me as a human being who likes to study personal interaction is to see a group of diverse and inclusive minded people that happen to share a common industry as their bond. I have seen other societies that do not go above and beyond with the service heart they show members, and they fail. We as ASPE succeed, but we can always do better. Again, every one of us will eventually fall short, but if you make up your mind to be a true servant of people and not just of what you are selling or drawing, what will your results be?

Melissa G. Bowers, PE, CPD is a registered mechanical engineer and plumbing project manager for the Chandler Arizona offices of DG Koch Associates LLC. (www.dgkoch.com). She attended the University of Portland (Oregon) and graduated in May 2004 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Management. Bowers has been heavily involved in the Phoenix Chapter of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers since March 2008 and has held various chapter offices, including that of a past president and currently as historian and AYP liaison. Melissa serves as a vice president on the Research Foundation of ASPE, and also serves as a member of the ASPE Society Nominating Committee. She can be reached directly at melissab@dgkoch, or at 702-221-5160.

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