Everywhere we turn, businesses are urging us to visit their Facebook pages, read their blogs, or follow them on Twitter. HVAC contractors are following that trend, having been thoroughly schooled by keynote speakers at just about every industry event on the importance of embracing social media or being left in the dust.

As a result, most contractors have set up Facebook pages, Twitter handles, and LinkedIn accounts, and are attempting to update them as often as possible. For example, Pamela Keshlear, customer service manager, United Heating, Cooling & Plumbing Inc., Grandview, Mo., uses Facebook to talk about the company’s community service, as well as money-saving opportunities for customers. “We discuss the need for preventative maintenance and also promote contests. We attempt to update Facebook biweekly or more, and we release three blogs per month.”

As contractors become more comfortable with social media, there is no doubt that they will continue to discover new and innovative ways to harness its power in order to boost business.

Free Exposure

One of the biggest benefits to social media is that much of its content can be created and distributed for free, if you take a little initiative. Jeff Lee, general manager, Mechanical Heating and Cooling, Dearborn Heights, Mich., started using social media approximately three years ago, creating a Facebook page, writing a blog on the company’s website, and posting “how to” videos on YouTube. Lee struck a partnership with a local TV station to air these video segments within their newscasts, and now they are professionally created for his company at no cost.

“The videos have been very successful for us,” said Lee. “They are short, to the point, and helpful to consumers. We get positive feedback regularly, but customers do not always indicate where they’ve seen the videos — they just mostly say they saw them ‘on TV or on the web.’”

Chloe Pullen, director of marketing and business development, Pullen Air Conditioning Inc., New Orleans, started focusing on social media in 2010. She began with Facebook and Twitter and gradually developed a social media branding approach.

“Currently, I have the company on basically any and all social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus, and Foursquare, just to name a few,” said Pullen. “I also make use of our blog site (www.pullenac.com/blog). Moreover, I use the business marketing tool, Constant Contact, pretty regularly to distribute monthly filter reminders, as well as our newsletter, 72 degrees.”

Pullen estimates that she spends about two hours per day updating the company’s social media sites. She tries not to overwhelm customers with information, noting that there is a delicate balance when it comes to the frequency of posts a business makes. “You don’t want to do it too often, as it will annoy the customer. Likewise, you don’t want to do it too seldom and lose credibility.”

Her approach to the social media content — particularly Facebook and Twitter — is to keep it focused solely on the topic of HVAC. With that in mind, she writes about allergies, weather forecasts, asthma health studies — anything related to HVAC that can be easily understood by homeowners. “I don’t like irrelevant content, such as asking about weekend plans. I like to keep my posts professional and smart in tone, yet witty and entertaining. There is a wide range of information to provide to the consumer, but I am selective about the topics I cover.”

Pullen is also a firm believer in only using social media that is free. She does not utilize pay-per-click advertising anymore, having tried it on Facebook, finding that while it increased Pullen’s fan base, it did not result in increased business. “I found that it was attracting people who were outside of the U.S., under our target age range, outside our socioeconomic bracket, and, basically, just out of our target demographic entirely. So, while we were getting more ‘likes,’ we weren’t getting more business, which resulted in a very poor return on investment.”

Pullen has found that Facebook and Twitter have worked well in terms of branding, while LinkedIn has been helpful in terms of employee recruitment. Pinterest has been good in terms of expanding Pullen’s product line, especially regarding add-ons, and Constant Contact — the one site she pays for — has been great for surveys, reminders, and campaigns.

“I have been very pleased with the results we’ve received thus far,” she said. “Because I keep our social media costs so low, the ROI [return on investment] is always very high.”

Hit “Like” For Rewards

Maintenance agreements are considered as sacrosanct to many contracting firms, but not to Rob Minnick, president and CEO, Minnick’s Heating and Cooling, Laurel, Md., who not only eliminated his maintenance agreement program, he replaced it with new rewards offered through social media sites.

“In this industry, maintenance agreements are considered to be your core business,” said Minnick. “We became so frustrated with them that we decided to go out on a limb and get rid of them entirely last summer.”

The reasons for Minnick’s frustrations included the fact that it was often difficult to get in touch with customers to schedule preventive maintenance in the spring and fall, and they would end up running maintenance calls in the middle of the busy summer season. “It was also frustrating when we would find a problem, tell the customer about it, and have him say, ‘wait a minute; I thought that was included in the maintenance agreement.’ The whole process just went downhill, and we needed to do something,” said Minnick.

So do something they did. They took a look at the bonus cards given out by grocery stores and decided to start offering a similar VIP program to customers. Customers sign up for the Minnick’s VIP card by providing an email address, and then they start accruing points, each of which is worth $1. When they sign up for the VIP program, they are awarded 25 points, and when they “like” Minnick’s on Facebook, or follow the company on Twitter, they get another 25 points per site. If they refer customers to Minnick’s, another 25 points are posted to their card.

Customers were initially a little leery of the program, but when they understood that it would not cost them anything, they embraced it, said Minnick. “Some of them had misconceptions of how to use the card, but it works out to be at least the same amount of money, if not cheaper, than our old maintenance agreements. If they have 75 or 100 points on their card, they get $75 or $100 off their service call.”

Going forward, Minnick is thinking about other ways customers can earn points, such as through posting positive reviews or noting on Facebook where they’ve seen a company truck. While tracking all this information is posing a slight challenge, Minnick is sure they will figure it out.

“We want to make sure we can keep track of each customer’s points, because if they don’t remember, they won’t use them,” he said. “We want our service techs to let customers know if they have points available to use.”

Since rolling out the program last July, the response has been tremendous. “We haven’t even marketed it yet, and with just our service techs telling customers about it, we’ve doubled the number of people signing up for the VIP program.

“It’s free, there are no obligations, and we don’t hear any grief about not being able to get in touch to schedule maintenance. It eliminates all that, and it’s been a huge blessing. It’s been fantastic for us.”

Publication date: 2/4/2013