Technician Selling Is a Hot Button
One of the most interesting and talked about topics in the HVAC trade is technician selling. The question is: Should an HVAC technician be trained to sell HVAC equipment and supplies?
That question has sparked debate among the trade for many years. The result is that there is no definitive right or wrong answer to the question. It is based on the preference of the business owner and manager. Tech selling works for some and not for others.
The question was once again put to an array of HVAC contractors across the United States and their answers, sometimes very passionate, are included in this article. For a full text of all replies, visit the Extra Edition at www.achrnews.com.
The most compelling arguments for tech selling include the fact that technicians often know more about the equipment they service than anyone else and are the most qualified to sell it. They also establish a trusting bond with customers that is very important in the sales process. The most compelling arguments against tech selling include the fact that the selling process takes technicians away from what they are trained to do - fix equipment. Sales opportunities among techs can also be seen as extra income opportunities that often lead to unnecessary equipment replacement - leading to distrust among customers.
And then there is the area “in between” where technicians may be allowed to sell add-on equipment such as air filters and humidifiers, as well as service agreements, but not the complete HVAC system. Technicians can also be encouraged to generate sales leads and are often rewarded with a commission for leads closed on by salespeople.
“Tech selling for accessories is critical to the success of the business,” said Dave Dombrowski, NEWS consultant and manager at Metro Services/ARS, Raleigh, N.C. “However, with the new mechanical code, using selling techs to size and install equipment is a code violation waiting to happen. All jobs must have a heat load run and this either requires an investment of a computer for each tech or eliminating a one-stop sale.”
Linda Couch, COO and vice president of sales for Parrish Services Inc., Manassas, Va., sees both sides of the issue. “In our company, there are appropriate situations for both tech selling and salespeople,” she said. “Clearly there are benefits to having a technician close a sale on the spot. However, rather than “tech selling,” we want our technicians to take on the role of “trusted advisor.” What’s the difference?
“To explain, we use the analogy of a veterinarian and how they work. First, veterinarians are not cheap. We pay a premium for their expert opinions. Second, veterinarians know that sometimes the most appropriate recommendation is to put a pet down, and they’re not afraid to tell us that is the best option. That’s what a tech needs to be able to do; he needs to use all his knowledge and experience to identify all appropriate recommendations, including replacing a system, and help the owners decide which alternative is best given their unique situation.”
THE CASE FOR TECH SELLING
There are many reasons why techs should sell HVAC systems and many support systems for doing it. HVAC contractors have several resources to send their techs to for training and rely on their own staff to provide support during the sales process.
But some contractors are content to turn over the entire selling process to their technicians. “I feel tech selling is very important to a company,” said Bill Bradley of Airtronic Heating, Redford, Mich. “The tech is the most trusted person the homeowner sees on a regular basis. I started as a tech selling products and did so well my boss at the time got rid of our salesman. I send my techs to classes at Lennox and have done a lot of coaching to get them started.”
In some cases, trust is the key word and a huge reason why techs can be successful salespeople. “Customers have an inherent distrust of salesmen,” said Dan Troyer of Danco Heating & Cooling, East Peoria, Ill. “A selling tech has a leg up on salesmen because people tend to trust their opinion more. I think it’s better to have the sales staff dress down, even to the point of wearing a service tech uniform.”
Selling equipment may not be the strong point of many techs, but selling air filters and service agreements are important and fall under the selling umbrella. One contractor has seen the process from different sides and has enjoyed success because his techs have practiced good selling skills.
“Everyone in our company is expected to sell,” said Bob Forty of Energy Services Air Conditioning and Heating Co., Naperville, Ill. “Several months ago, I heard rumors that three of my service techs wanted to begin selling,” he said. “I took each one of them privately into my office to try to talk them out of selling. They firmly told me they decided they wanted to sell and would do whatever was necessary to get the job done.
“Each one of them is doing well. My main guy actually conducts his own sales training meetings with the techs who want to learn more. When he comes up with a successful sales process, he loves to train the other guys and see them succeed as well.”
Tech selling can be the difference between good margins and no margins at all, according to trainer Dan Favata of Oklahoma City. “The only way to make any real profit is to utilize your service techs as emissaries for the company, to build trust from the customer so that when replacement of equipment is called for, they utilize your company,” he said.
“I teach classes weekly to technicians and although there are technical aspects, the bulk of the training is sales: equipment leads/sales, agreement sales, and add-on sales. If a tech cannot sell, it does not matter if he/she can repair any system in the world, they will not be seen as a valuable asset to the vast majority of service companies, and will be compensated and treated accordingly.”
Couch said she is one person whose mind has changed about tech selling since entering the HVAC industry. “I came to this industry after 20 years in a Fortune 500 IT company known for its excellent sales force,” she said. “Having managed both salespeople and technicians, I was very much in favor of leaving all selling to our salespeople. I believe sales involve both skill and process, and I didn’t think technicians should try to take on more than one role. After two years at Parrish, I’m a convert to tech selling.”
The word “selling” itself has some negative implications and one contractor likes to label the process differently - because he believes that techs should be able to sell equipment. “We make a concretive effort to sharpen the selling skills of our service techs through the use of outside consultants twice a year and a monthly tech meeting dedicated to the subject,” said John Waldorf of Estes Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Atlanta. “We just do not refer to it as selling; that word can sometimes have a negative connotation to techs, especially the more experienced ones,” he said. “We call it informing and educating. The goal is to inform the customer as to the options available and educate them as to what is in the customer’s best interest.”
And it is often in the customer’s best interest to sell them comfort as soon as possible, given some extreme situations. “Ideally we would prefer, and in fact highly encourage, our technicians to turn in tech leads versus them selling out of their truck,” said Robert W. Nelson, Jr. of Bud’s Heating & Air Conditioning, Yorktown, Va. “Ideally that means the homeowner has the means to wait for our comfort advisor to do a presentation.
“[But] when the temperatures are extreme, high or low, the sense of urgency on behalf of the consumer can be overwhelming and the ability to put them at ease has to be addressed. In that case, the technician will call in to the general manager and will be given appropriate measures, whether it is a system quote, installation of a loaner unit, or to call an available comfort advisor to be debriefed of the situation while in route.”
In some cases, contractors are simply too busy to invest a lot of time and money in training - and gladly encourage techs to sell. “I am way too busy to sell anything,” said Stephen Scott of Stacy Mechanical/Accu-Therm, Pitman, N.J. “So is everybody else here. My opinion on the techs selling is that it’s a good idea, but they have to have excellent resources to instantly access, in order to avoid the perception that they are selling. If they can make it appear as almost altruistically suggesting a remedy rather than making a sale, I think the results are likely better.”
THE CASE AGAINST TECH SELLING
The very nature of a tech’s job is to fix something, whether it is the equipment or the customer. That is usually done by repairing HVAC equipment and providing comfort and relief to the customer. There is little doubt that a tech must have mechanical aptitude to diagnose and repair systems - and contractors who responded to this topic preferred to keep techs in that mindset and not cross over into selling.
“We have a shortage of technicians in our industry,” said Fred Canady of Canady’s Precision Air Conditioning & Heating, Richmond Hill, Ga. “They work about 2,000 hours per year. We should be generating as much revenue as possible with this valuable resource. A service tech is a revenue generator, not a salesperson.
“Service techs have a different mindset and skill set than salespeople. The same is true for accountants, dispatchers, and installers. If we are going to allow service techs to sell, why don’t we just send our bookkeeper to perform a job set-up?”
One contractor said his company tried to get techs to sell but not everyone could do it well. “We have gone away from having our service techs sell equipment in the field,” said Dennis Muravez of McClelland Air Conditioning Inc., Chico, Calif. “In 1995, we developed a pricing cookbook for our service techs and they would sell the equipment when needed. We found that one tech excelled at this and the others had less success. Some of the techs did not want to sell, and we would miss sales.
“In 1998, we abandoned this program and made our best selling tech our salesperson. This increased our equipment sales because we closed more sales and our service sales increased because our techs spent more time on billable service. With the increased regulations from the building codes and tax credits, rebates, and financing, service techs do not have training to keep up.”
For some contractors the answers to tech selling or not is very black-and-white: there are job definitions for everyone, period.
“We are a firm believer that salesmen sell, installers install, and servicemen handle the service,” said Steve Hale of Hale’s Air Conditioning, St. Petersburg, Fla. “We do let our service techs give pricing for standard efficient systems. They do not have the time needed to properly educate a homeowner on high efficiency and duct modifications that are needed to make a proper working system.”
“Techs are trained to fix things not sell things,” said Tom Kohberger of Comfort Control Inc., Buford, Ga. “We have the techs sell the lead and our salesman takes it from there. The techs usually have a full day of service calls and don’t have the necessary time it takes to do a full presentation of all the options available. They also would need to be trained on the financing available and how to run a credit check. I have found that a professional salesperson will sell more upgraded equipment and accessories than a tech and do a much better job for the customer.”
There is a line between selling parts, gathering sales leads, and making equipment sales, and Matt Marsiglio of Flame Heating Cooling and Electrical, Warren, Mich., does not want that line crossed. “We do not have our technicians selling equipment; we do allow them to sell accessories and IAQ products such as duct cleaning, humidifiers, ultraviolet lights, etc.,” he said. “What we have done is invested a significant amount of time and money on communications training for our technicians, which has generated enormous results in the tech generating sales leads for our comfort consultants.
“In 2010 over 62 percent of our equipment sales have come from tech generated leads.”
“Can you really have a true technician that is also able to sell and still maintain a service schedule?” asked Paige Fisher Simpson of Simpson Air, Tampa, Fla. “In rare instances a tech will quote a condenser or air handler change out if warranted and to code. We are one of the a/c contractors in our area that does not hire service/sales technicians. We believe that when a company does this, they are (typically) paying them based on sales not repairs and this leads to replacement sales when they may not be necessary - and we all know what this may lead to.”
For one former tech, the answer is obvious. “So much money is being left on the table due to the time constraints on the tech,” said Jon Askew of Bud’s Heating & Air Conditioning, Yorktown, Va. “The tech is the frontline of any company, and they are the profit generators. With an average call day of five to six calls a day, they are in front of more customers than the salespeople. Therefore my stand is techs should not sell but turn over the proper lead the right way - and everyone will benefit.”
Publication date: 01/10/2011