Bridging the HVAC Communication Gaps

June 18, 2007
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It takes time to communicate accurately with customers. By sitting down and discussing realistic system and installation options, contractors can help their customers reach realistic expectations of their new comfort system’s performance. (Photo courtesy of Opportunity Interactive.)

With all of the improvements in today’s communication devices - Blackberries, Blue Tooth, etc. - it seems unpardonable that there are such wide communication gaps in the HVACR industry. In the layers between manufacturers, engineers, distributors, contractors, installers, servicers, and consumers, sometimes the most important messages are lost in translation, or worse, they simply weren’t given.

The NEWS stepped up to offer these key industry segments, plus representatives of the training and association strata, the opportunity to give their opinions on where the industry’s biggest communication gaps lie.

The problems with communications largely depend on your point of view. In reality, they originate from both the sender and the receiver.

Think of that gap as a river you must cross in order to get to your customers. Do you have the time to build a bridge? Are the instructions for building the bridge written in a language you can understand? Are portions of the instructions missing? Do your customers know what you are trying to get across?

LESS TIME TO TALK

“When it comes to manufacturers communicating with contractors, we experience the challenge of trying to relay information on new product innovations, promotions, training, etc.,” said Sean McCarthy, national sales manager for Aprilaire. “The problem is, contractors are completely strapped for time. They don’t have time to read e-mails, open their mail, or take phone calls.

“This is one of the reasons we have a dedicated field sales force.”

He continued: “Overall, it’s more difficult to get quality time with contractors and sometimes the contractors are trying to juggle multiple items. Many times when we’re trying to cover issues, their Nextel is going off from a tech in the field with a question.”

From the contractor’s perspective, “Most of our suppliers want to sell their boxes and at any cost,” said Fred Kobie, owner of Kobie Kooling, Ft. Myers, Fla. With one or two exceptions, “My territory managers don’t normally ask what I need; they show me the gadget of the week.”

REGULATING INSTALLATIONS

Communication is a requirement of all HVACR professionals, according to Wesley R. Davis, manager of Technical Services, Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). “When I joined the Army, and they made me an officer, they said I was now a professional soldier and I needed to act like one. … As a professional I sought to do more than the minimum. Soldiers who did not excel were relieved from duty. I think contractors need to be professional, too,” he said.

“We are a contractor association and we can help, but it starts with the contractor. Standards are the bar by which any professional is measured.”

Certifying contractors and technicians is one way to help the industry’s image with consumers, but it can be costly. Kobie suggested that associations improve their training and certification outreach by making its renewal less expensive.

“The longer I stay in this business, the more expensive it is to keep the association memberships and credentials I have earned. … I think the associations should keep the renewals cost to a minimum to encourage continued involvement and dialog,” he said. “Membership activity suffers when you have to spend thousands of dollars to belong to a group after proving your worth through certificate programs.”

Jim Herritage, CEM and president of Energy Auditors Inc., Mount Pleasant, S.C., noted a need for HVAC contractors to communicate better with city and county building inspection authorities, “to stress the importance of requiring load calculations on new homes as required by the International Residential Code.

“Load calculations are like flossing,” he said. “Everyone agrees it is important to do, but far too few people do it. Most of the country today uses the International Residential Code, which requires load calculations on new homes.” However, “most building inspection offices around the country don’t yet enforce this part of the code.”

CUSTOMER COMMUNICATION

The communication gap between residential end users and contractors is one of the worst, said Andy Armstrong, director of marketing, Johnson Controls - Unitary Products. “Considering that most homeowners buy less than two comfort systems in their lives, it’s a significant challenge to keep them educated about the value of a premium comfort system and the latest advances our industry has made. The Internet is helping a great deal, but there is still much room for improvement.”

“Some of the best dealers do a great job of educating homeowners in their sales calls,” Armstrong said. “Many others have not made education a priority.”

“The communication problem is most associated with contractors that don’t walk the walk (meeting expectations with performance) and hence, can’t talk-the-talk (extol the virtues of the specific value they bring),” said Glenn Hourahan, vp of Research and Technology, ACCA.

“To the customer, it is all sameness - vague contractor promises of satisfaction against few quantifiable objectives,” he said. “In the end, customers are more likely to select an HVAC contractor based on the personality of the salesman than on the knowledge and capabilities of the technicians.”

Being honest is part of walking the walk. “You have to be bluntly honest and let a consumer make the choice they want, not the one you talked them into,” said contractor Kobie. “I had a technician tell me that he feels bad putting $600 into a 25-year-old machine. It’s not for him to decide; it’s for him to report and let the customer decide.”

TECH COMMUNICATIONS

Steve Vannoy, manager of Curriculum Development for the National Comfort Institute, called good technician-to-customer communications “critical to the success of any HVAC business.”

“In many cases the service tech is the only face-to-face contact our customer has with our business,” Vannoy said. “The technician then becomes the company to that customer.

“We’ve all heard the statistics about how much more it costs to acquire a new customer versus the cost to retain an existing customer,” he said. “The technician has the potential for the greatest impact on whether or not a customer does business with us again; or almost as important, would refer us to friends and family.”

It’s essential to hire techs and installers “who are personable and can interact with the customer effectively.” That includes explaining what is being done, in language the customer can understand. “If a technician cannot tell the consumer what is happening to their system in a way the customer can understand, they are only compounding the frustration of the customer to understand what they are paying for,” said Robin Boyd, a territory sales manager with Goodman Manufacturing.

A LANGUAGE BARRIER

Terry Townsend knows about the gaps that can be created by using language that isn’t readily understood. He should know; he’s the president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

“In the HVACR industry, our biggest hurdles are centered around insufficient communication between our members and their clients, and our industry with the consumer,” he said. “This may be due in part to technically oriented professionals’ inability to speak the language of business or consumers. We are most comfortable speaking ‘engineeringese,’ which comes across as us talking at rather than with the client or consumer.”

Boyd agreed. “When I do training, I consider myself an interpreter between the language of the manuals and the language of the technicians. The problem is, those who are writing the technical manuals, training manuals, and instruction manuals are all engineer-oriented.”

Concepts such as superheat, subcooling, and psychrometrics “are tough enough for the technically oriented person to grasp without being defined using college-level engineering terms in our manuals and textbooks,” Boyd said.

“So often after a training session I am asked, ‘Why don’t the books just say what you said?’ My answer is, ‘Because the people writing them think in design terms, not in operational terms.’”

“From top to bottom, our interaction lacks the basic principle that we have one mouth but two ears,” summarized contractor Kobie.

Sidebar: Missing Info on Equipment

Jim Herritage, CEM and president of Energy Auditors Inc., Mount Pleasant, S.C., would like to see some equipment information improvements. “Manufacturers should communicate with each other to develop a uniform standard for the presentation of expanded performance data,” he said.

“Believe it or not, many if not most contractors don’t know how to select their equipment. They don’t know there can be a very big difference between how their equipment performs at ARI [Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute] conditions and Manual J conditions for their [geographic] area. It is entirely possible for a contractor to do an accurate load calculation and then misspecify his or her equipment.”

Herritage would like to see “an industry-wide format for expanded equipment performance presentation.”

Herritage also would like to see grille and register manufacturers develop uniform airflow test and performance labeling standards. “Think about it,” he said: “Well over half the problems we have in the field with installations are related to airflow.

“There is no grille and register manufacturer industry-approved method for measuring airflow,” he lamented. “That would mean understanding how to measure feet-per-minute (fpm) velocity and multiply it by the net free square feet of the return or supply device.

Publication date: 06/18/2007

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