When the Internet first began, its primary use was for military applications and general information gathering. As the Google era spawned and information exploded, however, creative entrepreneurs found new ways to use the Internet. Online storefronts, eBay, blogs, chat rooms, MySpace, and instant messaging propelled the Internet from the uncommon computer accessory to the daily gathering place of an electronic community. It is in this atmosphere that contractors attempt to carve out an electronic niche as they endeavor to keep with the times and satisfy the needs of the upcoming generations. To meet these needs, contractors are establishing some new business practices in the online arena.
YOU'VE GOT MAILBe they commercial or be they residential, most contactors across the board are implementing some form of Internet tool into their daily business models. E-mail is a common addition that has multiple benefits both to the contractor and the customer. Its primary benefit, communication, allows the contractor to correspond with his employees on a regular basis. It also removes the constraints of normal business hours, freeing the contractor to handle matters at his own pace.
As e-mail popularity has increased, so have the devices and portable technologies that allow users to access it. Richard Krohn, president of Krohn Refrigeration Inc. in Manalapan, N.J., uses e-mail in his company and outside of his office. According to Krohn, his commercial and light industrial refrigeration company “lives and dies” by e-mail.
“E-mail is so important to us, that I have a Blackberry that I use to send and answer e-mails throughout the day when I am on the road.”
Customers benefit from e-mailing their contractor as well. Contractors that offer the opportunity often find that customers appreciate being able to schedule service calls, request maintenance, and ask questions at their convenience.
“Giving customers the ability to communicate with us when they are at home on their computer after hours makes sense,” said Scott Robinson, president of Apple Heating & Cooling, Ashtabula, Ohio. “To me, this is making it easier for the customer to do business with contractors.”
ONLINE BUSINESS DIVERSITYIn spite of all the new entertainment gadgets and gizmos available on the Internet, it still remains a place to do business online. Many contractors use online business tools that pertain directly to their individual needs. Larry Taylor, president of AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, uses the Internet primarily as any other consumer. “To us, it is an informational and educational venue.”
John Whitaker, owner and president of Mechanical Service Co. Inc., Virginia Beach, Va., uses the Internet to research products and network with his fellow contractors.
“We order equipment and office supplies as well,” he said. “Besides accepting service calls via e-mail, we also communicate with our customers and pay our bills online.”
Approximately 20 percent of Philadelphia-based, Custom Aire Inc.’s business is processed online. According to Scott Schneider, Custom Aire’s vice president, his company not only corresponds, bills, researches, and orders service calls, but it also schedules inspections and accepts electronic in-home estimate requests. His electronic systems have been in service for some time, and they are currently looking to expand to meet new customer demands.
Robinson also uses the Internet to conduct business with his company’s vendors. “We conduct a lot of business with our vendors online. We also place warranty claims and are able to receive payments electronically from our larger commercial accounts,” he noted. “Our customers are able to apply online for financing via a link on our Website.”
WEBSITE MANDATORYWebsites are now considered a must have for contractors interested in doing business on the Internet. It is an interactive interface between the contractor and the customer. If a contractor’s Website is the first interaction a customer has with a company, attitudes and preconceived notions can be formulated based on that alone. This can be a benefit if the Website is professional, updated, and easy to use. If it isn’t, then the site can negatively affect a customer’s perception of the HVAC contractor.
W. Theodore Etzel III, president and owner of Conditioned Air Corp. in Naples, Fla., understands how important his Website is to his business.
“We want people to view our Website,” noted Etzel. “We want them to get to know us and to ask questions of us when we speak to them. Getting the customer informed as to the various factors that influence their comfort is the main thing we want our Website to initiate. Then we want to make it easy to contact us for personalized service.”
His Website offers an online survey for customers to fill out after they have received service or a new installation. They can also request a service call or make a replacement appointment on the site. Looking to the future, Etzel’s company has plans to further his online business offerings.
“We will be setting up a secure portal for existing customers to review their billing accounts with us,” he said. “I am always open to ideas that make it easier to do proper business with us, but it has to be in the best interest of both parties. If it shortcuts the client’s long-term benefit, then we won’t do it.”
As the future brings new ideas and more technology, contractors will continue to evolve with the times, counting the cost of each new technology they implement. As for Taylor, he approaches the future with optimistic caution.
“I think we have to broaden our view on what electronic avenues of selling might be,” he said. “With today’s time-crunched consumer, we need to become better at informing, educating, and assisting customers with their choices.”