HILLIARD, Ohio - Jeff Ford has tried a lot of different ways to market his service and replacement business. The president of Columbus/Worthington Air of Hilliard, Ohio, has used some successful strategies and some not-so-successful ones.
So far this year the marketing strategies have worked, which is saying a lot for the Columbus market. “In a year filled with turmoil, we have managed to keep our head above water and then some,” said Ford. “Our market is suffering with new construction just like most others throughout the United States. Those companies who have been in that particular segment of the market have had to branch out into the add-on/replacement market to make ends meet.”
Ford said his competition has doubled and the days of 40-45 percent gross margins are over. He believes that many contractors think that sheer volume via lower prices will make them a success. But he doesn’t buy into that.
“We are a well-recognized organization and I was not willing to throw my staff under the proverbial bus to ride out this never-ending wave,” he added. “We have bolstered up our advertising, making sure our community knows that Columbus/Worthington Air, their most trusted HVAC company, is here to service them. We have created face-to-face time with them.”
Thanks to this renewed effort, Columbus/Worthington Air has accomplished the following in 2007:
• Commercial Service Division surpassed its highest volume month on record by over 31 percent.
• Residential Service Division has had four record-breaking months so far this year, with profit levels far exceeding past years.
• Residential Comfort Consultants have also had record-breaking months. Two out of three consultants exceed the $175,000 individual month sales mark twice this year so far. These are company records.
• Commercial Installation Division has had a couple of record-breaking months as well with gross margin dollars up over 38 percent and profits over 14 percent.
Ford recently spoke with The NEWS and outlined some of the highs and lows of marketing.
The NEWS: What has been your most successful method of marketing your company? Why?
Ford: Our most successful marketing method has been radio. I have been researching the many different stations within our market to find those two or three stations that fit our customer demographic.
Why radio? To be honest, you are more likely to hit your target audience on a more consistent basis than television or print. Radio has morning drives, special programs, and sports talk - whatever your desire - and you have the opportunity to brand your business at the same time every day. It has worked for us and I don’t know why it would not work for others.
The NEWS: Talk about the other ways you have marketed your company, both the successful ones and the not-so-successful ones.
Ford: Successful ones include our affiliation with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). They are the best partner in our entire industry. We make sure our customers know and understand who ACCA is and why it is important to do business with an ACCA contractor. Our company vehicles all have the ACCA logo proudly displayed.
Angie’s List has also been a tremendous success for our business. If people are not aware of this organization, they are a consumer-driven magazine that allows the homeowners to submit feedback on companies. If you are a member, you receive the magazine every month and you will find the ratings of each and every company in your service area, good or bad.
Something different and unique has been our Block Parties. We partnered with the radio station we do most of our business with, along with some other businesses outside of our industry, and created six community Block Parties. The radio station was the primary sponsor, but the six sponsors got most of the publicity.
We set up a large booth and featured one of our installation trucks. There were games, free food and drinks, and free giveaways for everyone who attended. We chose the communities based on age of homes, income level, etc. It was a win-win for everyone. The families loved the opportunity to be together for an evening of fun and free food. And we all loved it because it put us right in front of our existing and potential customer - right in their front yard!
We have decided to back the Ohio State University football and basketball programs via radio advertising. If you are fortunate to have successful programs and can ride on the coattails of these national championship runs, do it! Be a part of the buzz if you can, but make sure you are working with someone who cares about your business and not someone who is just interested in making a small fortune from your advertising budget.
Some of the not-so-successful ones include the standard direct mail in mass quantity marketing. I think you have a better chance of winning the lottery than actually getting good, solid customers.
We have advertised with Welcome Wagon, and again, not much success at all.
Home and garden shows are another losing strategy for us. I know some people swear by them. We have not had the success rate we would like to have for three salesmen sitting around for a week, eight hours a day. Unless you are very unique in your approach, you are just another HVAC contractor with literature.
The Yellow Pages are a necessary evil. You have to do it - kind of like paying your taxes - but don’t overdo it. The return on your investment will never match no matter what they tell you.
The NEWS: Who comes up with the ideas for your marketing?
Ford: Well, fortunately for me, I am not the only person who has to come up with all of the ideas for marketing and advertising. One of my sales consultants has a terrific creative mind and I listen to everything he has to offer from the what side of things. However, when it comes to the how, when, and where, I have another resource I use. Nanette Wickline, our radio representative, has been in the marketing world for as long as I have been in the HVAC world. We combine our thoughts and ideas and she steers my company in the right direction. It has been a great relationship for my organization.
The NEWS: How much do you spend annually (percentage of sales) on marketing programs?
Ford: We typically spend about 5 percent per year on advertising. We have been steadily growing this number and putting the dollars in the right places. Our goal would be to put near 8 percent to marketing and advertising in the next two-three years.
The NEWS: How do you tie in your major equipment manufacturer - Bryant - with your own name brand image?
Ford: We have spent the majority of the past two years branding the Columbus/Worthington Air name. Branding is never an easy process and tying in a manufacturer on top of it can be very tricky.
We have always been considered the educators of the HVAC industry in Columbus. I would venture to say that we spend more money in training than just about any one of our competitors. From technicians to installers and consultants to internal staff, we believe in ongoing continuing education. How does this tie in with Bryant you ask?
Bryant was the one organization who made the decision to change their entire platform to R-410A when others were skeptical. We wanted to make the change ourselves back in the ’90s but didn’t have a full product line to offer with the manufacturer we were with at the time. Bryant was the innovator of the Evolution system which took consumer comfort to a whole new level. This gave my consultants one more major bullet to take to our customer base. When others don’t have it - or don’t quite understand it - we have a competitive advantage.
Columbus/Worthington Air and Bryant are one in the same in Columbus. Our relationship with our supplier (The Habegger Corp.) is one of family. We are both working together to give each other a competitive advantage in the market. If we do this together, our chances of success are much greater.
We tag the fact that we are the Bryant Factory Authorized Dealer in Columbus, not just one of them.
This may sound cruel, but any HVAC contractor out there who has been in their market for at least 20 years will understand this next statement. No amount of support in the world from any manufacturer will help you if the manufacturer keeps setting up every Johnny Lunchbucket who decides they want to sell their product. When I made the switch two years ago from a well-known manufacturer - one this company has been with since the beginning - it threw shockwaves through our market.
You can only beat your head against the wall so many times before you decide the headaches just aren’t worth it. Bryant and the Habegger Corp. made a commitment to my staff and me. They made a decision in Columbus a couple of years prior to only sell to those HVAC contractors that would uphold the Bryant name. And if we came on board, they would not sign up any new dealers to directly compete against us, as long as we were doing our part to grow the market. Now you can call and ask if we have done our part, but I will tell you this, they have done theirs. Ken Habegger (The Habegger Corp.) and I signed a contract the old fashioned way: with a handshake!
We earn co-op dollars based on the type of product we sell. Being that we sell 90 percent high end, we earn quite a bit of co-op over the course of a year’s time.
Bryant and Habegger have teamed up with us on everything: radio advertising, Website projects, athletic sponsorships, block parties, and charity events. We have put in four systems in the last two years for families in need.
I used to have to beg and plead for a discount on equipment for these situations from my previous manufacturer, but with Bryant and Habegger, all they ask is that I allow them to help. That is what I call support!
Sidebar: Bryant ConnectionColumbus/Worthington Air and Columbus Mechanical is one of many Bryant dealers who take advantage of the marketing-advertising kits available to them. In the fall of each year, Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems distributes copies of its Ad Kit to Bryant dealers and distributors. They also make the entire Bryant Ad Kit available free online at Bryant’s proprietary www.hvacpartners.com.
In print, online or on CD, Bryant provides dealers with a complete arsenal of pre-produced, customizable materials for all of their marketing needs:
• Television, radio, newspaper, Internet, and magazine ads;
• Direct mail, door hangers, outdoor boards;
• Logos and product photos;
• Dealer identification for trucks and vans, building signage, apparel and merchandise, and uniforms;
• Spanish-language materials.
The Bryant ad kit also provides dealers with tips for planning and buying advertising, and implementing grassroots marketing, public relations, and local sponsorship opportunities.
For more information, contact the Bryant Solution Center at 888-994-7237.
Publication Date: 10/29/2007