Cleaning up After Other Contractors

July 27, 2009
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Cleaning up after another “professional” can be frustrating in any line of work. Often you are cleaning up not only technical errors, but also customers’ perceptions of how your work is carried out, and the overall professionalism of your trade. In short, it’s a cleanup that goes beyond the equipment; it includes customers’ thoughts and feelings.

At the start of the cooling season, or during any time of extreme temperatures, contractors may find themselves more likely to be cleaning up after another contractor’s poor practices. We checked in with our contractor advisors to get their take on how much cleaning up they are doing these days, and how it affects business.

The general consensus is that while the number of cleanups seems to be on the low side, they nearly always seem to involve the same types of technical errors. And one of our contractors is cultivating these system/customer repairs as a niche market.

HOW OFTEN, HOW BAD?

As we stated, the actual numbers of problem installations don’t seem to be that high, according to our contractors. However, their seriousness is intensified by the frustration of the customers, and their increased likelihood to talk about their bad experiences.

According to Sonny Knobloch of Smartway Solutions, cleaning up after other contractors’ errors constitutes a very small percent of the company’s total business. “Three or four times a year amounts to approximately less than one-tenth of one percent of annual sales,” concurred Arthur Pickett, president of Royair.

Roger Grochmal, MBA and P.Eng., of Atlas Care, said it’s a rather small percentage, but it’s still “much more than we should see.”

“Most contractors do a credible job,” Aaron York Sr., president of Aaron York’s Quality Air Conditioning & Heating, Indianapolis. “There are a very few moonlighters, trunk slammers, and fly-by-nights that slam something in, grab their bucks, and go. It seems like there are many more than there are because everyone tends to want to talk about them.

“Most HVACR businesses that are licensed, bonded, and insured do a credible job,” he said.

“All of us make a few mistakes which we handle to the customer’s satisfaction, but little of our time is spent correcting poor practices of other contractors.”

“It’s not a lot, but if we get a call from a new client as a result of frustration on their part, we often find bad workmanship,” said Ken Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions.

Cleaning up after another contractor’s poor practices “has actually become a niche business for us,” said Russ Donnici, CEM and REA, of Mechanical Air Service Inc.

Larry Taylor

COMMON CAUSES

The errors tend to have similar causes. “Many times we find the problem is not with the equipment as much as the rest of the house or system,” said Larry Taylor, president of AirRite Air Conditioning Co.

The causes include poorly designed or leaky ductwork, misapplication of product, the wrong size copper lines, and general code violations, agreed our panelists. Added Donnici, “It’s not uncommon to see a problematic system that has a new, high-efficiency air cleaner and the system cannot handle the pressure drop.”

Russ Donnici

He also has noticed that “whenever there is a zone system installed, there are balancing issues, and either a missing or improperly installed or calibrated bypass,” in addition to setup errors or duct sizing issues in replacement scenarios. “The most common issues are installation related compared to actual equipment failures,” he said. “Sometimes the installation problems can contribute to compressor failures, etc.”

“On new installs, it appears to be sizing issues, whether those are line sets or equipment,” said Bodwell. “In service, it’s poor diagnosis, where a wrong tech was sent out and tried to bluff his way through the issue.”

Grochmal said the most common problem he runs into involves homes that have had additions put on and existing HVAC systems have been added on to, “with the expectation that the original furnace and ductwork can handle the requirements of the addition. In most cases they can’t, but it sure helps keep the cost down,” he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Ken Bodwell

NEW CUSTOMERS?

The benefit of cleaning up on another contractor’s poor workmanship, of course, is the ability to convert these customers into fans of your company.

How many of them can be converted? Our contractor advisors’ answers ranged from most of them to all of them.

“If we get called in behind a contractor that has ‘screwed up,’ I would say we end up with the client 100 percent of the time,” said Bodwell.

“If there are contractual obligations that need to be satisfied, we get in or at least have an opportunity to take over at the first available time.” He noted that his company will be more expensive than the one the customer is using - the one that “screwed up” - “so they need to justify it to their company. We look for an opportunity to get an audience with the decision maker.”

Aaron York

A show of professional knowledge goes a long way toward sealing the deal with these clients. Taylor said more than 90 percent become converts once his company performs its audits and evaluations. “They see and understand what should have been done. We tear out lots of installs and reinstall them with the existing equipment,” he said. “We find the equipment sizing to not always be a problem.”

“We normally tell them what is needed and encourage them to get their installing contractor to correct it if they can,” said York. “If not, we will give them a price to make it right, do the work, and offer them a maintenance agreement. Most of them accept it.”

“We have a 100 percent retention rate of these types of clients, and they are a source of many referrals,” said Donnici, whose company cultivates these customers as a niche. “On the systems that we have been called in to analyze and fix that are in the crisis stage, and the general contractor is on the verge of being sued, we have been able to avoid a lawsuit in 100 percent of these situations.”

Sonny Knobloch

FIGHTING THE STIGMA

When fighting through the poor customer perceptions left behind by unprofessional contractors, sometimes the best strategy is to stay the course - if your course is set true.

“We just make our presentation, which points out the disadvantage of using low-price contractors,” said Knobloch.

Arthur Pickett’s company, Royal Air, points to its 30 years in business, excellent references, excellent Chamber of Commerce record, membership in the Better Business Bureau (BBB), positive Attorney General report, mentions on Angie’s List, and professional affiliations such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

Contractors like Bodwell choose not to compare themselves in any way to contractors of poor repute. “We sell professionalism, honesty, and communication, and invite anybody to speak to our clients.”

“After 77 years in business, we occupy a position of pretty high trust in our marketplace,” said Grochmal. “However, we don’t take anything for granted. We continuously reinforce the value we bring to the business.

Roger Grochmal

“The biggest thing for us is the fact that I am a professional engineer and that we have invested heavily in quality through becoming ISO 9001-2000 certified,” he said. “We have also made a video called ‘The Perfect Install,’ which we have posted on our Website (www.atlascare.ca) and uploaded to You Tube. We use this on every sales presentation to assure customers of our commitment to high quality and doing things right.”

According to Taylor, it boils down to “walking the talk, showing our professionalism, explaining the problems and solutions to the customer, providing historical creditability and longevity, using satisfied customers’ referrals, and finally and most importantly, the quality of our team members and their abilities.”

York takes his fight directly to the source: the offending contractors. “If they are licensed, we will discuss the issues with them with the understanding that if they do not do good work and purchase permits as required, which comes with an inspection, they will be answering to the Licensing Board.

“This very seldom happens,” he continued. “If they are a contractor, generally they are trying to do what is right. If we come across those who are not licensed, we turn them over to the Licensure Board, the BBB, the State Attorney General, Angie’s List, etc. They normally run like they have been set afire.”

“I think the unprofessional contractors just make us look better and make the client a real believer in the value of the service we provide,” said Donnici. “Unfortunately, since our trade has such a low cost of entry, there are many poorly trained and/or lazy contractors out there.”

Problem systems and poorly trained contractors are neither unique nor new, he pointed out. “We have seen problematic systems installed by union contractors as well as contractors that have been in business a long time. I think the simple implementation of a thorough startup, with static pressure readings, etc., would help reduce these issues.”

We wholeheartedly agree.

Publication date: 07/27/2009

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