Matching the 'Stat to the Customer

December 13, 2010
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When they arrive at a customer’s home or facility, contractors say they frequently find programmable thermostats in “hold,” “manual,” or “override” mode. Like everything else these days, programmable thermostats are becoming more high-tech, and there are more and more varieties and models available. Yet one of the most common problems facing the industry is that people aren’t using the advanced features of the newer programmable thermostats.

Contractors give a variety of estimates for the percentage of their customers who understand and truly utilize the advanced features of their thermostats, but it never seems to be higher than 50 percent. And it’s frequently estimated much lower. “We anticipate that less than one-third, probably more like 20 percent, of our customers take advantage of the advanced features,” said Butch Welsch of Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. (St. Louis).

As a result, contractors have found that they must take care to match the thermostat model to each individual customer’s needs and abilities.

THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE

According to contractors who perform residential work, predicting what level of technology customers will prefer often depends on their age. “Typically, people over 50 don’t want to mess with programming, and most of them just set the temp and use the ‘hold’ feature,” said Russ Donnici of Mechanical Air Service Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). “The trend toward more sophisticated thermostats is a good one; however, many times people want a simple-to-use programmable thermostat with an override feature.”

To put it even more bluntly, John Sigerson of O’Connor Co. (Omaha, Neb.) said, “Homeowners and tenants need ’stats that they can understand and program without getting their IT guy or the closest 14-year-old to do it for them.” As a result, many contractors recommend selling simpler, non-programmable models to older clients.

On the other hand, the younger generation is excited about newer technologies in thermostats and is quickly grasping onto the concept of programming and the energy efficiency gains available.

“The younger customers love new tech stuff because they understand how to program and [they understand] the benefits,” said Hank Bloom of Environmental Conditioning Systems (Mentor, Ohio).

Welsch agreed. “In general, the older customers don’t go for the high-tech stuff, while the younger customers who have grown up using computers their whole life aren’t challenged by the technology.”

CASE-BY-CASE BASIS

But generalizing all customers by age group isn’t a perfect system. There will always be someone who breaks the mold - not all Baby Boomers are technophobes, and not all Millennials are tech-savvy. So, sometimes it’s a judgment call on the part of the contractor to determine if the customer will be happy with a programmable thermostat.

Make Falade of Marx Diversified Interests (Hebron, Conn.) said he tends to steer consumers toward nonprogrammable models “unless I feel they are capable of operating a programmable with no trouble.” He finds that most of the consumers he comes into contact with have a hard time understanding the advanced thermostats. However, Falade said, “I do like the numerous options available with the new configurable thermostats because I can offer many types of ’stats while carrying only one model. But again, I would only install one where I felt the customer would not be overwhelmed by it.”

Michael J. Goater of Air Conditioning by Jay Inc. (Scottsdale, Ariz.) said his approach is similar. “When selling to older clients, I stick with on-off and up-down controls, unless they request something more advanced,” he said. And, he clarified, the advanced features should be thoroughly covered in a sales presentation.

“We are told people are more comfortable with technology, but I see programmable ’stats in manual all the time,” said Adrian Jones of Alpine Air Inc. (Jacksonville, Fla.). And he added, “Look at most electronic devices today - they are packed with so many features you have to be a geek to work all of them, and it takes over your life.”

“The techies are into it, but the general population doesn’t really care,” summed up Martin Hoover of Empire Heating and Air Conditioning (Decatur, Ga.).

But for those techies, the newer features like high-definition screens and remote controls can be a real selling point. There are certainly customers who appreciate the extra features and the added technology. Sigerson pointed out, “There are lots of techno geeks out there that love the new technology, like thermostats talking to computers or smart phones.”

And some believe it is merely a lack of education that has prevented so many homeowners from properly programming their thermostats. “My gut feeling is that customers think the devices are cool, but maybe the service contractor isn’t educating them very well as to all of the features and benefits,” said Greg Crumpton of AirTight (Charlotte, N.C.).

Rich Morgan of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. (Mesa, Ariz.) requires his technicians to spend 45 to 60 minutes doing hands-on training with customers when they install programmable thermostats. He says this is the only reason why his customers are able to use the advanced models. And, he added, “This saves us on trouble calls later on. Plus, the client really appreciates the extra time spent with them.”

RESIDENTIAL VS. COMMERCIAL

The type of application can also be a factor in whether a customer is likely to be interested in a thermostat’s programmable features. According to Karl Roth Jr. of A.N. Roth Co. LLC (Louisville, Ky.), “Commercial customers do [take advantage of programming features]. Many residential customers don’t like the hassle.”

And within the commercial sector, certain facilities are more likely to use thermostat programming than others. Ken Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions (Orlando, Fla.) noted that office/medical applications are definitely using advanced programming features, while dual shift/industrial applications are not as likely to.

Bodwell added that the pressure to meet green initiatives has led to a change in commercial customers’ willingness to purchase and use advanced thermostats. “Customers are now accepting the energy-saving options we have always offered but [which were] frequently rejected.”

Yet Crumpton noted that even in commercial applications, customers are not realizing all the benefits of energy-efficient programming. “In a nutshell, we see commercial customers utilizing only a portion of the benefits of digital thermostats.” While he acknowledged that larger facilities “are and have been embracing the digitized world with BMS [building management systems] for power, cooling, and lighting controls,” Crumpton said that mid-sized facilities have not been as quick to move in this direction. He said this might be because mid-sized facilities don’t think they are big enough for a real control system. In fact, according to Crumpton, most buildings are candidates for web-based control systems, and he noted that these systems have dropped in price.

FIGHTING STICKER SHOCK

Yet in the residential market, many customers still express sticker shock when they are presented with programmable thermostats. That is why, according to Lee J. Rosenberg, PE, of Rosenberg Indoor Comfort (San Antonio), inexpensive models are always popular with customers.

“The price points [of advanced thermostats] are just too high. If you operate at a 50 percent GP [gross profit], then the upgrade cost to the client is around $800. They can purchase a 42-inch plasma TV at Wal-Mart for that money,” Goater said.

Welsch added, “The customers think the new technology is neat; however, many don’t want to spend more money for them.”

But many contractors believe that the newer, more advanced features will become more popular with customers. Current features that are increasingly popular include the easy-to-read LCD screens and touchscreens. According to Goater, it’s always a given that “customers like easy to read and use.” And other features will become more desirable as prices come down.

“Most customers still have sticker shock. The wireless remotes will be embraced as the cost comes down,” Roth said. And he isn’t the only one who believes that wireless technology will continue to heat up. Other contractors agree that there are lots of opportunities for wireless. And they are pleased that the technology continues to improve.

Donnici said, “The wireless thermostats are much better with stronger signals that are not susceptible to interference like the earlier ones were.”

Bloom also agreed. “The greatest trends are the wireless controls available.” He pointed out that the benefits of wireless are that it saves on installation costs and allows a contractor to install thermostats in various locations.

Looking to the future, Donnici said, “We believe that Internet connectivity is something that will increase in popularity.” He said that one current concern is Internet security, noting that “most homeowners and buildings use secured internet connections and need their IT person to do some setup which adds cost to the installation.”

As contractors continue to focus on providing customers with the right thermostat for their needs, they will be able to provide them with the best solution even as the technology continues to evolve.

Publication date: 12/13/2010

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