According to Gary Marowske, president of Flame Furnace Company in Warren, MI, one of the most common misconceptions he hears from his customers is that if the furnace “heats and runs OK, then everything’s OK.”
Wrong. The system might be running, but that doesn’t mean everything’s OK, Marowske said. There could be a carbon monoxide (CO) leak or dirty ducts that could be exacerbating customer health problems.
Marowske says tracking how many leads he gets from his monthly column is tough, but he said that the company has been contacted by three TV stations this fall to promote furnace safety and his “Ask the Furnace Doctor” column has been featured in four to six newspapers so far.
Flame Furnace also periodically sends out direct mailings to promote the importance of furnace safety checks and offers duct cleaning and sanitization discounts, too. Marowske said the response to the company’s direct mail campaigns has been very good, with a higher positive response rate from existing customers vs. new customers.
All of the employees receive commissions for following up and scheduling repeat system maintenance appointments. “They get $10 [per new appointment] and I’m very happy to give it,” said Marowske. “The girls up front make the most [commissions].”
Peace of mind is the most important thing contractors can offer their customers regarding system maintenance, said Marowske.
“People don’t want to deal with their furnaces, but they want to make sure there are no problems,” he said.
You might think that cost would be the biggest concern when it comes to offering service plans, but Marowske said this is not the case. As long as there’s trust between the company and its customers, they don’t mind paying.
“The price we charge is a fair price,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to charge what a job is worth.”
The Gold Program offers discounts on parts, labor, and duct cleaning and sanitizing. It also gives the company more flexibility in scheduling system maintenance service calls throughout the year, not just during spring or fall.
“As long as you have an annual inspection, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is,” Marowske said. “You just have to make sure the customer’s air conditioner and furnace are checked once a year, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the spring or the fall.”
Scheduling the inspections during the industry’s slower times helps keep technicians working and business steady, leaving “more time for emergency calls, which provide higher margins,” he said.
According to Marowske, a lot of service maintenance calls come to the company through word of mouth. “We promote a professional image,” said Marowske. “Be professional, dress professional.
“Customers’ concerns are our goals. We do what they want.”
Flame Furnace offers media air cleaners, electronic air cleaners, and ultraviolet air treatment systems to combat a variety of air pollutants, including dust, mold, mildew, and pollen.
Although Flame doesn’t offer air quality testing, it does offer duct cleaning and sanitizing. “We’re not experts on indoor air quality,” said Marowske. When there’s a potential air quality problem, customers are referred to local specialists in air testing and diagnostics, he said.
The company teaches the technicians to inform their customers about safety, said Marowske. For example, they are currently working on better ways to educate customers about their own role in system maintenance.
When technicians conduct a CO test and results are positive, the techs let customers know, Marowske said. Sometimes customers call someone else for a second opinion.
When this kind of situation occurs, “A lot of people think you’re trying to sell them a new furnace.” To allay a customer’s skepticism, Flame Furnace technicians make sure to completely explain the test results to the customers.
“We offer to give a second opinion at no charge,” said Marowske. “If another company comes out and tells the customer there is no leak, Flame Furnace is willing to meet with the other company to settle the dispute on behalf of the customer.”
In 1998, Flame combined its staff and resources, expanding the service area to six southeastern Michigan counties.
In November of 1998, the Michigan utility company then known as MichCon, now a part of DTE Energy Co., bought Flame, as well as Tri-Masters Heating & Cooling and Kopke Heating and Cooling. Initially each company was allowed to keep its name, but since the largest of the three was Flame, MichCon briefly renamed all three companies Flame Furnace Company for about one year. In April of 1999, Flame was renamed MichCon Home Services.
“The customers reacted very negatively to the name change,” said Tom Andren, sales manager with Flame. Andren has worked for the company since 1967 and has seen a lot of changes throughout the years. MichCon bought Flame Furnace for its name and reputation and then changed it, he said.
According to Andren, it was very confusing for customers. They couldn’t differentiate between MichCon Gas Company and MichCon Home Services. “They kept mistakenly calling our 800 number thinking it was the gas company,” he explained. “And we had to pay for every call.”
Andren described the name change as “utility mentality” — the gas company assumed customers would buy from them just because they were MichCon. Andren estimated that the company “lost about 30% of our customer base” after Flame became MichCon Home Services.
“Before all of this happened, the competition thought of us as leaders in the industry. After MichCon took over, they didn’t consider us leaders anymore,” said Andren. “The competition never had a problem with us before because we carried high-end equipment and systems,” but MichCon implemented inexpensive, economy-priced equipment to compete with mainstream heating and cooling companies, forcing Flame to be more competitive with a different level of the industry.
In early 2001, Gary Marowske bought the company back from MichCon and reinstated the Flame Furnace Company name.
According to Marowske, all of the sales managers and salespeople have returned since he bought back the company.
“About 70% of the installers and 50% of the service techs are back,” he said.
Now that the name of the company has been restored, Andren said, “People consider us to be leaders in the industry again and we set the price and tone.”
Publication date: 10/15/2001