Since the dawn of time, salespeople have been trying to figure out what factors make consumers part with their cash and actually buy a particular product. Is it special features? Is it price? Is it need? Is it because their next-door neighbors have it, and they want it, too?
The same is true in the HVAC industry. Comfort consultants sit down with customers every day, trying to determine which type of equipment would best meet a particular customer’s needs. Many consumers are willing to buy high-end heating and cooling systems, provided the comfort consultant identifies their needs and then clearly explains how the equipment will benefit their situation.
The tough part is figuring out which features are most important to the customer, and the only way a comfort consultant can do that is through meticulous questioning and careful listening.
IT COMES DOWN TO COMFORTIt can be extremely humid in Louisiana, so it is not surprising that humidity control is the No. 1 concern for most homeowners who live there. Glen Sharpe, president, Sharpe’s Climate Control, Lake Charles, La., noted that many customers opt for high-end, two-stage, variable-speed air conditioners precisely because they deliver superior humidity control. “If you live here and it is 95°F outdoors with 80 percent humidity, believe me, it’s a blessing when you walk in your house and the humidity is down where it’s comfortable.”
Humidity control may not be the main issue for every customer, though, which is why Ben Sharpe, vice president, begins each conversation by asking which features are most important for that customer. “I always start with asking about what they’re looking for because that’s essentially what you’re going to sell them on. With some customers, it may be humidity control, and with some it might be the electric bill. Probably 90 percent of everyone I talk to thoroughly understands that dehumidification is very important on that new system, and they realize that their old system is lacking in that area.”
Ben listens actively to his customers, picking up on clues they might drop, such as complaining about having to turn the thermostat down to 68° or 70° in order for the house to be comfortable. To him, that’s a sure sign that the existing system is not providing enough humidity control and/or the system isn’t sized correctly. Either way provides him an opportunity to talk about how a new system can solve that customer’s problem.
“I like to talk with the customer about what they’re going to get for their money,” said Ben. “It’s not just turn on the system, it blows cool air, then turn it off. We’re actually giving them some comfort features. I compare it to buying a car. There’s a reason why someone spends $10,000 or $15,000 more on a car, and it’s not because they’re going from point A to Point B - they’re buying comfort features, like leather seats. It’s the same with air conditioning.”
Even though most customers of Sharpe’s Climate Control buy a high-end system for better humidity control, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in the bottom line. Ben likes to point out that if they spend $6,000 on a standard system or $9,000 on a deluxe system, they’re going to make back that $3,000 on their utility bill. “We have to show a pretty quick payback, and most customers respond positively to that,” said Ben.
While features such as better humidity control, less noise, and longer warranties definitely sell high-end equipment, the main reason why customers buy from their company is trust, said Glen. “The average person is operating on trust. When customers work with us, they know they have an honest, reliable company that will work in their best interests.”
ENERGY SAVINGS A BETTER INVESTMENTBen Stark, general manager/owner, Stark Air, Hurst, Texas, estimates that about 55 percent of the air conditioning systems he sells are 16 SEER or higher. The main reason why his customers are buying high-efficiency equipment is energy savings. “I tell customers that investments in the stock market are not doing well right now, whereas an investment in a properly engineered and installed heating and air conditioning system will almost always have a significant payback within five years. Customers can save enough money in energy costs to pay for a high-efficiency air conditioning system. It’s a great return on investment, much higher than anybody’s getting in the stock market.”
To make sure his customers achieve the high efficiency ratings they’ve paid for, Stark thoroughly trains his employees in all aspects of design and installation. The company has its own lab and training program set up on site, so technicians can be taught how to install systems properly. They are also taught how to look at the whole house as a system before suggesting any course of action to the customer.
“Most of the people in the market are just taking out old pieces of equipment and putting in new pieces of equipment,” said Stark. “That’s really shortchanging the customer because very few of the systems that are sold are actually getting the efficiency ratings that are being advertised.”
Looking at the house as a system ensures customers achieve the rated efficiencies of their equipment, and it also benefits the bottom line. That’s because Stark and his team do more than simply replace one air conditioner with another - they analyze each house for deficiencies that cause increased energy usage, such as leaky ducts, lack of insulation in the attic, or heat flowing into the house through thermal cavities. Then they fix those problems.
“We want to see what we can do to get the load of the house lower,” said Stark. “Many 20-year-old houses are not designed with enough insulation or with a radiant barrier. We look for ways to eliminate the heat gain into the house, so customers can save money. We also address indoor air quality needs such as humidification and dehumidification, as well as filtration. It results in a higher profit margin for us, but it’s also a good investment for the customer.”
Rising energy prices also help Stark sell more high-efficiency equipment because he can clearly illustrate how much it will cost a customer to keep an old system versus replacing it with a new one. “Energy bills are never going to get cheaper, so it makes a lot of sense to show a customer the breakeven point. Now all of a sudden, the money that’s normally been paid to the utility is being put in the customer’s pocket. When we present that information, customers see that energy payback is one of the best investments they could ever possibly put their money into.”
Getting customers to sit and listen to that information can be difficult, but Stark is firm on obtaining a 60- to 90-minute commitment in order to listen to their needs and then educate them about their heating and cooling options. As Stark noted, “This is a big decision for customers to make, and once they understand how important it is, they’ll sit down and listen to what you have to say. People think it’s a big investment to buy a car, and they’re only in it two or three hours a day. With a house, they’re in it eight to 16 hours a day at a minimum, so it’s important they choose a system and a contractor carefully.”