Customer Care Drives IAQ Sales

June 28, 2003
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For many contractors in the Midwest and in the northern and eastern parts of the United States, the 2003 cooling season started off chilly and damp. Most cities whose “Cooling Degree Days” are tracked by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center show 2003 figures with a minus sign in front of them compared to last year.

While cool, damp weather is not ideal for cooling sales, it can be a boon for products that address indoor air quality (IAQ), which suffers when mold and fungi are in bloom.

An estimated 20.3 million Americans suffer from asthma, according to the American Lung Association. Still more people suffer from upper respiratory problems that do not fall under the asthma diagnosis, but that are similarly triggered by pollutants such as mold, dust, and fungi.

Contractors need to offer IAQ products and services so that customers’ concerns are individually addressed. As one contractor commented, “There are no catchalls.” The customer’s care, not the product in hand, needs to be the driver.

Contractor Fred H. Kobie (left), owner of Kobie Kooling, has installed three HVAC systems in his house, which he refers to as an “IAQ experiment.” In the center is his wife, Holly B. Kobie; on the right is Ray Taylor, a Lennox Industries territory manager.

Specialist

Fred Kobie is the owner of Kobie Kooling Inc., Fort Myers, Fla. In addition to HVAC, the company has a division that offers IAQ diagnoses and solutions. This was an offshoot of Kobie’s interest in the science of IAQ.

IAQ products account for roughly 10 percent of sales for Kobie Kooling. The company’s philosophy is to incorporate IAQ into every job. However, product recommendations are not taken lightly. “Our philosophy is to sell a complete air conditioning system — including IAQ.”

Kobie is a Certified Indoor Environmentalist (CIE) through the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA), Rockville, Md. He also has CIAQ Professional certification pending through the Association of Energy Engineers. At the time of this article was completed, he was awaiting board approval (part of the association’s certification process) for a certification number. These are not fluff tests, he stated. They measure a person’s professional IAQ knowledge, which must be added to regularly. IAQ is “ever-changing,” Kobie states.

His role is not to treat asthma, he is quick to point out. “I’m not a doctor.” However, “The air quality problems we see routinely can trigger asthma and other breathing problems.”

Kobie recently built a new house for himself, and has what he calls “IAQ experiments” going on in it. There are three separate heating-cooling systems with filtration and ultraviolet (UV) add-ons, and one ERV on the main system. As a result, “I couldn’t measure or smell off gases [from the construction],” he said.

Senior installer Robert Matcovich helps put in the Lennox Signature Series HSX 19 system with an energy recovery ventilator in the Kobie’s residence.

How It’s Handled

IAQ referrals are made when one of the company’s typical HVAC techs sees what could be a potential IAQ problem (possible mold and/or wetness); he refers these cases to Kobie’s IAQ division, which opens up an IAQ investigation at the customer’s request.

“I don’t let salespeople out for mold inspections,” Kobie said. “My role is to investigate. My dignity doesn’t have a price on it.

“It’s too easy to scare somebody,” he added. “I don’t want people to lose confidence in this industry.”

Contractors need to make sure they are using IAQ products that are appropriate for specific problems, he continued. Sometimes simple solutions are sufficient, sometimes as simple as a new, higher MERV-rated filter. Sometimes solutions are more complex, such as the photocatalytic system from Lennox that is said to break down VOCs and other chemical products that cause odors, Kobie explained.

Just make sure the recommendation is appropriate for the situation. UV lights, for instance, have been found to be better applied to shine on the indoor coil, not to try to clean the airstream, particularly in residential and light commercial applications; airstream use requires intense UV saturation. Electrostatic filters, Kobie continued, also serve a purpose, but they are not recommended for mold-sized particles.

“IAQ is a specialty, not a hobby,” Kobie said. “I’d advise people not to get into it if they’re not serious.”

Product Showroom

Kevin Multauf handles inside sales for Harker Heating and Cooling, Madison, Wis. The company built an entire building for the operation of demo systems. Multauf said five complete systems are installed, including radiant heating, six humidifiers, four air cleaners, and one air exchanger.

“It’s the place to go when you want to kick a tire,” he said.

The company performs commercial, residential, add-on, and new construction work. The new showroom, and the education customers receive because of it, has had a big impact on the bottom line. “Whenever we quote a replacement, seven out of 10 times people take the quote,” said Multauf. “If we do 400 installs per year, maybe 300 have an IAQ product.” The company carries Aprilaire lines.

The high numbers, he said, are probably due to two-fold progress. “You need a good foundation in sales skills,” he said. “Get a feel for listening to people and meeting their needs. There also needs to be a paradigm shift” in the minds of servicers and installers, he said. “Most guys who go for a furnace replacement, just replace the furnace.

“We have extremely cold winters, so there is a real need for humidifiers,” he continued. Also, particulate blows from farms in this rural area, so there is a need for air cleaners.

As for mold, “You’ve got to be really careful what you say to customers,” Multauf said. “You don’t want to assume responsibility for the outcome,” especially since mold problems may occur due to construction-related problems that fall outside the realm of the HVAC system, he said.

IAQ products can help even out the seasonal fluctuations contractors often contend with, Multauf agreed. “In spring and fall we send out tuneup fliers We always include some sort of IAQ products. We moved more air conditioners and humidifiers last fall than we ever have.” In addition, sales from January through April — sluggish months typically — were all up, he said. “They were our biggest months ever.”

So what’s the system? “I’m kind of an inside sales guy,” Multauf explained. “I talk to consumers who call in and come into the showroom.” He also does prequalifying for outside salesmen. “Our closure rate is up around 70 percent,” he said.

“With this kind of setup, consumers can take their time — they don’t feel the pressure. It’s much easier to sell accessory items.” Customers take their time and get what they want. More importantly, they get the products they need.

Sidebar: Humidification Down South

Alton Powell is the general manager of Morris Jenkins Co., Charlotte, N.C. The HVAC contractor specializes in an unusual niche for his part of the country: residential steam humidification systems.

Who buys steam humidification equipment in North Carolina?

“You know the term gingerbread home? People who live in those,” replied Powell. These people want to protect the wood from problems that arise from too-dry air, which can occur in summer as well as winter due to systems that originally were not designed correctly. Often these homeowners are not willing to shell out the kind of money required to completely redo their HVAC system, but they will install what Powell calls “Band-Aid fixes.”

When it comes time to replace their systems, he is ready to step in with an appropriate design, he said.

What IAQ product sales often come down to, he said, is fixing another contractor’s errors. “If you really get down to it, we [contractors] don’t do a good job with [IAQ],” Powell said. “When you’re in the retrofit business, you’d better run a load calculation.”

Is steam really what people need in southeastern residences? “When you start looking at the way homes are built, tight, many people need humidification seasonally.” According to Powell, steam is the way to go. The systems he installs are manufactured by Skuttle Inc., Marietta, Ohio.

Morris Jenkins is 98 percent residential, virtually all of it retrofit work, Powell said. The company makes close to $10 million per year. “A lot of companies match our figures in new construction,” Powell said. “Those are the guys that keep us in business.”

In some cases, air conditioning is oversized and the fancy woodwork and trim dries, he explained. “We recommend steam more than bypass,” Powell said. Bypass humidification systems that are connected to the furnace blower motor go on when the furnace does; the airstream dries out before it starts circulating in the home, he said. On the steam system, a thermal fan interlock control allows the unit to humidify the air without furnace heat, according to the manufacturer.

“The steam brings the fan on with the humidity sensor,” Powell said. “The furnace doesn’t need to come on.”

People who own pianos also appreciate the protection their instruments receive by keeping the indoor relative humidity conditions at a constant, acceptable level (45 to 60 percent rh). “Some people in town have very fine ears,” Powell said. “They’ll play the piano for you and say, ‘Did you hear that?’ I don’t hear it, but we try to give customers what they need.”

— B. Checket-Hanks

Publication date: 06/30/2003

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