Rodger Smelcer, Vice President/Owner of United Service Technologies discusses with Sarah five ways that COVID-19 has brought clarity to his business and what changes he’s made as a result.
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Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro. I’m happy to welcome to the podcast today Rodger Smelcer, vice president and owner of United Service Technologies. Today we’re going to be talking with Rodger about five ways that the COVID-19 challenges have brought clarity to his business. Rodger, thank you so much for joining today. Welcome to the podcast.

So before we dive into the questions, can you just tell our listeners a bit about yourself and your background in the space and what United Service Technologies does?

Rodger Smelcer: Well, of course my name’s Rodger Smelcer and United Service Technology is a company me and my business partner, Bob Heidkamp, started in 1995, and the idea behind the business was to really provide a wide gamut of services for the grocery industry specifically. We both had a background in grocery, so that’s how we got started. And currently, we service about 2,000 grocery locations in the West Coast.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay, excellent. And you and I have spent some time together over the past handful of weeks in some different interactions. And in our chats, we’ve talked about this idea of some of the ways that our current challenging landscape has kind of brought clarity to yourself as a business leader and a lot of other folks as business leaders. So specific to you, we’ve outlined five different ways it’s impacted you, and I want to talk through each of those on today’s episode. So the first is that it’s brought clarity for you to the need to create a culture of kindness. And I know that you’ve told me this is something that has really always been important to you, but has just become even more emphasized as the last few months have unfolded. So tell us a bit about why it’s always been important to you, how the current circumstances have brought even greater clarity to that need, and maybe any advice you can share on how you’ve done this in your business and how others might do the same.

Rodger Smelcer: Sure. Well, I think we have done it for pretty much the entirety of our business. We’ve focused in. We always like to say we’re developing a culture of kindness because you never really get there all the way. So what we do is we really try to look for the evidence of a culture of kindness, and that’s part of developing it, right? First, you have to define what that looks like. And one of the ways we’ve been able to define that is just two words, respect and cooperation. So when we see those two things happening within a department or inside of a group, that’s our evidence that the culture of kindness is actually working there. And so we look at it that way. We’re looking for those two things all the time.

Rodger Smelcer: I would say during COVID, one of the big changes for us has been utilizing different pieces of software that we already had. We already had an HR software platform that had a community kind of a building section of it, and what that allowed us to do is create what we call positive impressions. And so peer to peer, they’re giving each other positive impressions in a multitude of categories, and that allows us to reward the desired behavior, right? And that’s a principle we always operate our business on is only reward desired behavior. And so we’re constantly reinforcing that through these positive impressions. And then of course, just through communication, casting the vision and making sure that people understand it.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So I have a question about that. So you said that respect and what was the other? Cooperation. I was going to say collaboration. So respect and cooperation are two ways that you know the culture of kindness is working. So if there’s an instance where one of the two of those things is lacking, then how do you determine the root cause of that lack? Meaning like how do you determine if it’s more of a personal employee issue versus a breakdown in that culture of kindness? Does that make sense?

Rodger Smelcer: Yes, and that’s a great question. And so that goes back to why do you… What are the criteria you hire people based on? And so we like to hire on what we call the three Cs, character, capability and chemistry. So we want them to have the character, to be a person of their word, to get to work on time, to do all those things. We want them to be capable of doing the job, but if they don’t know how to do something, they need to be a quick learner. In fact, we’ll tell a perspective employee that our business doesn’t afford us to learn slowly. There are a lot of businesses that do. Ours doesn’t. And so we give them a heads up, we’re looking for fast learners.

Rodger Smelcer: And then three, chemistry. Are they a team player? Do they work well with others? And what we find is when we’re dealing with someone, whether they’re not displaying the culture of kindness properly or virtually, any problem basically boils down to those three areas. It’s kind of like a tripod, right? And if it’s missing one of those legs, it just falls down and it’s not very useful.

Sarah Nicastro: That makes sense.

Rodger Smelcer: So when we call people in to talk to them and try to correct behavior, we’re usually dealing with one of those three things. And so, because we’re not dealing with the specific issue as much as we are these three things. So if they’re not showing up on time for example, we’re talking to them about their character. What does good character look like? How do we improve this? And we get to the specifics, but we try to deal with the root cause.

Sarah Nicastro: That makes sense. Yeah, this kindness topic is interesting because I think to a lot of people, it could sound a little bit fluffy or woo-woo or what have you, but I do think it’s really important, and I’ve actually been having a lot of conversations recently with folks about how before these current challenges started, kindness was appreciated to an extent, but also sometimes seen as weakness or potential for weakness or potential for being too soft or that sort of thing, and how the perception of kindness in leadership has changed to be perceived as such an important strength. It’s really interesting how facing these last few months collectively as a business, as a community, as a world, really has brought a lot of light to how truly important that kindness is. So I know that it’s something that for you has been important for your business for a very long time, but I think even other organizations that didn’t prioritize it so heavily before are really starting to look at how much of an important role it plays and how they can do a better job.

Rodger Smelcer: Well, a couple of things. So you do find yourself saying, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” quite a bit. And number two, in order to really attract and keep millennials and Gen Z these days are also known as zoomers, right? They’re demanding that culture of kindness. Really, even in all the turmoil you’re seeing now in the media, it all comes down to everyone just wants to see a culture of kindness, right? That’s what… Those protests are over that. All these things, so everybody wants to get to a culture of kindness. I think figuring out how to do that is the part that companies sometimes struggle with. I feel like we’ve been able to accomplish that to a large extent in our company. And of course, like I said before, you’re always working on it. It never ends. You’re finding new ways to make it more kind. We’re finding that game of finding things helps in that as well, and we do that in a lot of different areas and then training and other things.

Sarah Nicastro: I don’t want to get us too off track, but that is my specialty. And one thing you said, it just made me really curious. So what are some of the ways that those younger employees of yours, you said they’re demanding a culture of kindness. How do you see that presenting itself? What is the evidence of what they’re looking for that makes you need to level up in this way?

Rodger Smelcer: It’s the questions that they’re asking during the interviews, right? One of the questions millennials will ask is what is the culture like? Well, I never hear that from my boomers or my Gen X people coming in. And I hire across the whole gamut, but that’s a particular question from them. And so that prompts the question from our interviewer, well, what kind of culture are you looking for? Kindness comes up a lot. And I think that’s where we’ve been able to make some inroads because we’re listening to understand instead of listening to respond during those interview times. And I think that’s mistake a lot of companies make is they’re listening to the person, but they’re listening to respond with the next question or with the kind of the criteria that they’re really looking for in that moment.

Sarah Nicastro: Right, or even listening to respond with, “Yes, here’s how we can give you that,” versus thinking… Yeah, versus thinking, “Oh, maybe we should think about this. If this is coming up in these conversations, do we actually do this? Is this something we should consider?” That’s a really good point because it’s not the topic we’re talking about today, but this whole idea of how companies need to evolve to be more effective in their recruiting and hiring practices as the older workforce retires is a huge pain point for a lot of folks. So I really love that idea of listening to understand instead of listening to respond, because if you can glean insights from that where you can go back and change your, whatever it is, job descriptions, benefits, whatever, to make it more appealing and improve your success rates, that’s a really big deal.

Sarah Nicastro: Good. So the second area of clarity that we had discussed is the idea of how important a sense of community is. So I’ve heard you say a couple of times all ships rise with the tide, right? So tell us what you mean by that and how you feel about this importance of community.

Rodger Smelcer: Wow, I have a lot to say on that subject for sure. Well, I do believe all ships rise with the tide. As we share best practices as an industry, it lifts the whole industry, right? And I think one of the things that’s come out of this time during COVID and the pandemic is all these virtual happy hours, right? And so many people and companies have participated in these. And for our industry in particular, I think they’ve been very, very positive. We’re getting together casually, but we’re also giving updates on what’s happening in our specific region and maybe some of the solutions that we’ve brought into play or policies that we’ve put together to help us with COVID. And I’m proud of our industry for sharing a lot of that information, but also disappointed that our associations are not more actively surveying the whole group and then taking that information and putting it back out to the entire group.

Rodger Smelcer: I think those are the things… In a lot of ways, I think our associations and our groups that we all belong to, and there’s multitude of them, their response to this pandemic has been anemic at best. And we’ve been left on our own to figure it out, and one of the ways we’ve done that is through these virtual happy hours, right? So we get together, share a lot of the best practices, bring each other up to speed on what’s happening in our different regions of the country. And I think it’s been beneficial and I think all ships are rising with the tide during the pandemic.

Rodger Smelcer: And there are a lot more young people coming into the industry now, and we’re participating in that. I’m sure you are too. I’m seeing a lot of millennials and Gen Zs coming into the industry and they’re networked already. They’re communicating this way already. I think as companies, we’ve been a little bit slower or behind the curve matching that kind of communication, that kind of network, that they are already just kind of born with at this point because of the technology advances that they’ve experienced and they’re coming up.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think in my role of really trying hard to provide valuable insight to people and to make connections and to share best practices, I think the appetite for that has definitely increased. Since this started, I think that people really want to band together and feel as though… I mean, it’s a hard time. You don’t want to feel like you’re in it alone. You don’t want to feel like you’re on an island. And we can’t get together in person, but it’s really nice to be able to just talk with someone about a shared challenge or even just how you’re feeling or how they’re tackling x, y, or z. There’s a lot of value in that.

Sarah Nicastro: And I think that it’s a really good point. And hopefully, I hope that that sense of community sticks. I hope it sticks after things get back to some semblance of normal. And I think that the way that we’ve kind of bonded as humans, I hope that that is something that remains. I think so. For me, it will. And I think if anything, it’s just made me reflect on how lucky I am, how much I love what I do, how much I love the community that I serve. And because it’s easy when things are going great to take a lot of things for granted. In some ways, it’s human nature, right? So it really gives you a chance to think about what’s important and this is one of those things. So the third area is clarity around your leadership and the role you play as a leader and what that has looked like. So what are your comments in that area?

Rodger Smelcer: Yeah, I’m typically hard on myself when I’m introspective like that. I feel one of the areas I’ve improved in that was a weakness prior to the pandemic is just I felt like I was going too slow. And the evidence of that is we were touched early by the pandemic because one of our employees had a father that tested positive and was in the first 10 cases in the US. And so when we found out about it early, we were able to jump all over it and start creating policy and do a lot of different things. But what I saw was we were able to go at triple speed to get things done than we normally do.

Rodger Smelcer: And so could we sustain a higher speed on a lot of these projects if we were really focused? And I think that’s improved a lot. We’ve been moving all of our projects along much quicker post-COVID, and we’re not done with it obviously yet, but post the initial reaction to it. And I think that’s one area that as a leader and not just me, all of our leaders have grown in this particular area. Being quicker, having a higher sense of urgency as we attack these issues and problems. There are many changes and effects of this pandemic on every department in our companies.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, that is a good change and it’s a very important one. And I think that we did a podcast a week or two ago, and one of the things that came up was that increase in pace of change. And it was with DSL. And I think one of the things he said is just how proud he was of the ability to step up and do things faster and all of that stuff. And I think that’s… You don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re forced to really push it to the limits, and a lot of people are in that spot right now.

Rodger Smelcer: I’d say the other big area is just communication, right? It’s been my normal practice over the years to reach out personally to all our employees. I usually call two or three every other day and just try to connect with them. But during this pandemic, the dynamic has changed, right? Now we’re not just… It’s not, “Hey, how’s it going? Is there anything I can help you with? Or what do you need?” Now t’s health concerns. I have one employee that has 10 of his family members have tested positive for COVID.

Sarah Nicastro: It’s alarming.

Rodger Smelcer: And that’s a whole different conversation now, right? Because he’s worried about his family and what’s ultimately going to happen. And there’s a closeness that generates from that though too. It’s not a negative thing, it’s definitely a positive thing. And you start to get to understand their circumstances a little bit better and get closer as a company.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, those interactions have… Maybe before they were somewhat on a surface level and now they’ve really dug deep into real life stuff. I think it’s a good point though that when you were saying communication, I was thinking about the fact that if you as a leader are highly committed to creating this culture of kindness, that element of communication, and more importantly, personal communication. And I would even further qualify it as sincere personal communication. I don’t think you could have a culture of kindness without that.

Sarah Nicastro: I think that it’s one of those things that… And that’s why I was asking you some follow up questions on the kindness thing because I think it’s something that is easy for anyone to say like, “We have a great company culture. We have a culture of kindness and everyone loves it here,” or whatever, but when you really peel that back and start to look at what are those practices that make that claim a reality, doing something like being regimented with yourself of every other day, I’m going to contact two or three employees personally and show them that I genuinely care and really check in with them, that’s a practice that I think goes a long way in making good on that desire to have a culture like that.

Sarah Nicastro: So I just think that’s a really important point to touch on because it’s not just about coming up with some really great sounding company mission and putting it on the walls of the building, it’s about those daily practices and weekly practices that foster that type of environment. So, good. Good job. You’re doing a good job. That’s cool. All right, so the fourth area we talked about was clarity in business strategy. So talk to us about some of the things that have come to light about where the business is heading and what needs to happen with the strategy to be successful.

Rodger Smelcer: Well, I think everybody got into gear real quick as the pandemic turned on and we realized that this is bigger than we thought, right? Because in the news early, it didn’t seem like a huge thing and it may not come over here and all of that. But once it did, you start really taking a look at what’s important, what’s not and start really looking at your processes that are in place now. Of course, that you’re putting together your policies that are ever changing during this pandemic. Things get mandated and then pulled back and vice versa.

Rodger Smelcer: And so I think for us, the strategies that we used during this pandemic weather are twofold. So we looked at them department by department. What did we expect the new normal to look like? And so we started strategizing on what changes need to be made department by department. And we actually first started with sales and marketing, and what did we need to do to help our customer at this moment? What could we do to help them? And fortunately for us, because we’re in the grocery industry, only one of our customers actually shut down, bakery, deli and meat department.

Rodger Smelcer: And so we came up with the idea that we were going to offer a hibernation process to them. And we would do it during our normal plant maintenance cycle for them and help them put the machines in a way where when they came back and turned them on, they would work. We have a lot of experience in this because being in the grocery industry, we’ve experienced grocery strikes. And during those strikes, we saw the grocery chains come back to equipment that wouldn’t turn on. And so they blew up their whole maintenance budget coming back because everything was broken, frozen, not working.

Rodger Smelcer: And so that was one strategy we used from a sales and marketing side. And then of course, our plan two, I think in those moments, you’re deciding things that we do every day, are we going to continue to do? And what things are we going to eliminate so we can focus energy on more safety and acquiring more PPE or whatever it is. And I think for us, we decided because our industry wasn’t largely shutting down, we decided to keep most things going. And of course, the strategy was to move a lot of people home that weren’t home already. We’ve always had work at home people in our company. For last 15 years, we’ve had many of them and even prior to that. So we have a good ability to manage our people at home and coach them along in areas that are new to them because they’re at home.

Rodger Smelcer: And I think that’s a little bit how our strategies have changed. We’ve just really come up with a new normal for each department and I’m focusing in on that. Another way we do that is, I’m an outline taker, right? And so I was talking to you earlier about switching to kind of a mind map format and making things visual for our team. Not only for them, but so they’re able to convey it all the way down to our frontline technicians in the field. And that’s been a powerful change for us that has really helped us to be more focused on the things we need to be doing to help our customer along.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, you shared that with me. Is it Coggle? coggle.it, I believe, is a mind map software that Rodger uses. And him and I were talking on a call a week or so ago and he brought it up and we actually… He pulled it up and we did one together and it’s really cool. It’s a great way. I think especially with so many meetings happening virtually, it’s a really good way to take all of the thoughts that are bouncing around and put them up visually so that people can follow along on, you might be in an hour long meeting that takes 73 different turns and if you’re not taking good notes, you get out of that meeting and you’re like, “Wait, what were all the takeaways?” Or what have you.

Sarah Nicastro: And just in terms of brainstorming and innovating and organizing, it’s a really, really neat tool. So it’s definitely worth checking out. And I’d be curious how many people are doing that sort of thing. I know for me, I think it’ll be a great way to outline content and brainstorm different ideas going forward. So I appreciate you sharing that with me. Okay, so the fifth and final area of clarity is around the optimization of processes and technology use. So let’s talk a little bit about that.

Rodger Smelcer: Wow, that’s a big subject for us. We have implemented a lot of technology, partially for the areas it can help us help our customer, and partially because that attracts and retains millennials and Gen Z or zoomers. So we utilize it in many ways. So a few of them are we utilize an AI technology that allows us to triage the calls before we go and understand the parts needed, dynamically build inventories and things like that. We also use a mixed reality technology that allows us to support technicians in the field. And of course, COVID kind of changed that, so now we’re starting to support the customer in the field as well so that we’re not in close contact. That’s the ultimate distance, right?

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah.

Rodger Smelcer: And then the one I’m most excited about right now is we’re using a no-code application development platform that allows us to be more flexible for our customer. One of our customers said to me once years ago that the two most important qualities in a service company for them were flexibility and reliability. And we’ve kind of taken that and run with it. We want to be able to customize the application used by the technician in the field so that they’re basically walked through processes specific to that customer. And it’s really helping us do that and provide things like Uber style ETAs, and that’s a project we’re working on now, and other things like that. So that platform is exciting because we’re able to do it internally and develop our own application.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, so do you think COVID has ramped up your use of technology, or do you think it’s just allowed you to find different ways to utilize the systems that you had in place?

Rodger Smelcer: Well, I think we’re unique in that we’ve implemented many technologies in our industry at least, from the other companies that I’m talking to, but it has really just expanded the use of the technologies we were already developing. We haven’t really added any new technology as a result of the pandemic. However, we’ve made all of the technologies we’ve used more powerful as a result of the pandemic. And so they reach farther into now areas where we’re helping the customer. They also give us the ability to really focus in what we do on the current need of the customer, which is different now that COVID is here. And I think we have to have processes in place that are built into our workflow in the field real time. And as those changes are made, we need to be able to make them quickly and respond.

Rodger Smelcer: And I think that’s what the technologies have really given us the ability to do. I think our technicians, our management are all involved and working on those. We talked in… The last time you and I talked together, we talked about one of the ways that makes it easier to retain technicians is helping them develop their resumes, right? And we talked about the mindset of people like me, Gen Xer and baby boomers, that job security mindset versus that employability mindset that these new generations have. And we feel like if we can add all of these technologies to their resume, it adds value to them personally.

Rodger Smelcer: And they appreciate that. And you think that it would be counterintuitive, right? You’re building up their resume and they’ll just take it and go work somewhere else, but what we’re constantly reminding them is who is helping you build your resume? And who’s going to help you build it in the future? Are you going to continue to build it here, and you’ve seen the proof of that, or are you going to go somewhere else and hope that they’re going to help build your resume the same way we have?

Rodger Smelcer: And I think that’s a real key to retention for us.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, I think, Rodger, what I’m taking away from this podcast episode is that we should have you back at some point in the future and do an episode specifically talking about best practices around recruiting, hiring, and retention, because I think that you have some really good input on those areas. And like I said, it’s a topic we’ve covered in the past, not in a while because there’s been all of these urgent top of mind things, but I think that would be a really good idea. And it’s a very good point. So it’s good. Any other, I guess, comments or thoughts or lessons learned that you would want to share in closing?

Rodger Smelcer: Well, I think all the things we’ve talked about, many of them have lessons learned. And when we talk about that new normal that’s coming and really is already here, the lessons that we’ve really learned as a team, as a management team in our business, is that we needed to focus in on the structure of our department and our people and what they’re focused on. I think having a little bit more time, and really the pandemic allowed that, allowed us to have more time to really take a look at the business, right? And really decide… I think a lot of people decided they wanted to try to restructure a little bit to meet the need, but that caused them to take a look at the structure that they may have not normally done outside of a pandemic like we did, and really make great changes.

Rodger Smelcer: In fact, I’ll tell you during the pandemic, we’ve had the best three months in our company’s history. And I almost feel guilty saying that sometimes because a lot of times I’m talking to a lot of companies that are in the sit down restaurant industry or they’re in another industry that was severely impacted like hospitality. And those guys are just coming back. And recently, we opened restaurants or we’re planning to, and we ordered all the food and now we can’t open them. And so there’s a lot of struggle going on with all these things.

Rodger Smelcer: And trying to keep health at the top of the priority list has not been very difficult for us because we’re in an industry where you have food safety and all of those things. We do a lot more training with our customer now than we did pre-pandemic. So I think that’s an area where I think a lot of companies could improve and we certainly have during this time. So I’ll just leave you with that. Really customer training is a big piece of what we do as far as safety, equipment safety, food safety, and just our technician safety on the job.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, and we’ve talked a bit about how going forward, I think safety is going to be a bigger differentiator for service organizations than it maybe was in the past. In certain industries, it’s always been important, but it’s so critically top of mind for people right now. How are you going to keep us safe? How are you keeping your employees safe? Everything is going to be centered around the details of what those processes look like. And I think that that’s something that’s going to be a real important differentiator for quite a long time.

Rodger Smelcer: Well, many of our customers are asking for natural disaster planning, right? In fact, it’s included right in the RFPs from our customers. So, you have to be prepared. Every company should have a safety committee that meets on a regular basis and talks about safety issues and creates policy and modifies policy and all of those things. And certainly, we have ramped all of that up post-COVID and really made it even more of a top priority than it already was.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, good. And I liked the point you made about how this situation has given you a little opportunity to press pause and reflect as a business, right? I think that you get in the day to day busyness and craziness and a lot can just go by and time can go by. And you’re right. This has forced people to reflect and where it’s necessary, make some changes. And I think there’s some good aspects of the impact this will have for businesses for quite a while, just in terms of their openness to change and the, like you said earlier, the ability to be more agile and to move faster when you need to and that sort of stuff. So really good thoughts, Rodger, and I really appreciate you being here and sharing with us today. We’d love to have you back sometime in the future to talk a little bit more about hiring and retention.

Rodger Smelcer: Yeah, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it and I look forward to another one with you someday soon.

Sarah Nicastro: Awesome. That sounds good. You can find more insight on how companies are handling COVID complexity by visiting us at www.futureoffieldservice.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn and Twitter @TheFutureOfFS. The Future of Field Service Podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more about IFS Service Management by visiting www.ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.