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The Weird Winter of 2010

March 1, 2010
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Barb Checket-Hanks

People in the Southern United States will be talking about the winter of 2010 for a long time. Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures are normal January weather for many of us, but not for the folks who live in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida. And not for the contractors who service their systems.

Fortunately for the contractors, the laws of thermodynamics do not change with the weather. They are simply applied to a different set of numbers and they result in different outcomes. The big difference seems to be in the minds of the customers.

For some people down South, the snowbirds, this extreme winter weather is an almost-nostalgic reminder of why they moved down South. For most residents, though, this is almost completely unfamiliar precipitation in these amounts, and at these temperatures. And even among the snowbirds, there seems to be a readiness to completely adapt to those new temperatures and weather conditions.

Can their systems handle it? They are handling it, though generally not as efficiently as the heating systems we have in the Northern states. Nor are they handling it as comfortably; one contractor we spoke with referred to the electric backup heating systems as feeling like “a toaster with a fan blowing.”

HUMAN NATURE

We need to keep in mind that human temperature sensations are not absolute; they change based on recent experiences. When people have lived in warmer climates long enough to get used to higher ambient temperatures, cold temperature that may have been tolerable to them once upon a time, suddenly feels too cold.

We often hear people say that living down South “makes the blood thin,” therefore they feel colder at higher temperatures. What’s actually going on is this very human adaptation to ambient temperature conditions. That’s why the same 60°F temperatures show year-round Floridians wearing sweaters or jackets, and tourists basking in the sun, wearing shorts.

Freezing temperatures are not only much less tolerable; they are given a media hype specific to the climate. Those freezing temperatures kill local crops; couple it with snow and ice and there are injuries or even deaths related to traffic accidents. The drama level goes up because the fear factor goes up. HVAC contractors get to deal with a lot of that fear, but they also get great opportunities to become trusted consultants.

For many of those contractors, the key has been customer communication. In a panic situation, these contractors have needed to employ more empathy than usual with their customers, starting with the person who answers the phone. Be sympathetic of their fears, and be prepared to explain system operation.

It may also be a good time to talk about system replacement and maintenance contracts, if the situation warrants it.

REGIONAL?

The climate can change wherever a person is. I happen to live in an area that experiences four seasons; we’re used to winter temps that can dip down to the single digits or below, and into the 100s in summer. But if it were to get as hot as, say, Arizona in the summer for extended periods, or as cold as arctic regions in winter, there would be some panic. The more temperate the region, the more extreme widely fluctuating weather variations would seem.

Add something like snow and ice, which these cities and municipalities are not prepared to deal with, and something like pandemonium can ensue. It’s part of human nature to react with a certain amount of distress until the learning curve has been gotten over.

The chief thing for any professional to remember is that customers’ fears need to be acknowledged and respected. The feeling of fear is real, even though the cause may not be scientifically valid. If a customer feels their heating system isn’t keeping up with their heating needs, in a home that they are stuck in for the time being, they will be scared.

Customer fears are always real. You deal with those fears by creating trust. And you create trust by providing information - not sugarcoating, and not fear-mongering, but information you can provide by asking them key questions, which can lead to more questions from them. And that is how you create the warmth of goodwill.

Publication date: 03/01/2010
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