What drives consumers to purchase HVAC equipment? That’s one of the questions that Decision Analyst Inc., an Arlington, Texas-based market research firm, sought to answer in its comprehensive American Home Comfort Study of 2012-2013.

Upon completion, the company discovered a laundry list of customer perceptions, many of which surprised those facilitating the study and contemplating its results. One of the keys was bridging the communication gap between contractors and consumers about energy efficiency, home comfort, and home performance.

“Many homeowners are doing something to save energy in their home.” reported the study. “Unfortunately many are uninformed and are doing it poorly.”

A Rising Star

Despite the fact that customers are making uninformed energy-saving decisions, the American Home Comfort Study, as discussed at a contractor event hosted by Famous Supply, Akron, Ohio, revealed that the Energy Star® symbol is gaining understanding and acceptance among consumers.

“Only homeowners living under a rock don’t know the Energy Star symbol,” said Ken Reese, strategic marketing consultant for Decision Analyst Inc. “The Energy Star symbol is well known for the right reasons.”

Nine in 10 survey respondents acknowledged that the symbol provides evidence that a product meets specific standards set by the U.S. government. Seven in 10 reported they will not purchase equipment unless it is branded with the Energy Star label.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed what may be a partial result of this Energy Star label saturation. According to the Residential Consumption Survey from the EIA, released in 2011 and 2012, energy consumption for space conditioning is down 10 percent when compared to 1993.

“Factors underpinning this trend are increased adoption or more energy-efficient equipment, better insulation, more efficient windows, and population shifts to warmer climates,” stated the Residential Consumption Survey. “The shift in how energy is consumed in homes has occurred even as per-household energy consumption has steadily declined.”

Consumers Are Spending

Consumer spending has been on a roller coaster in the wake of the economic crisis, but as the unsteadiness settles some, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is reporting that consumer spending — based on 2011 data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey — increased for the first time in three years.

Rising incomes and inflation partially account for the increase, according to the BLS, but the agency showed that there was more to the expenditure increases than just these two factors. One element the agency reported was the increase in spending on household furnishings and equipment. This would include HVAC equipment. Although not broken out specifically, the uptick in home improvements seemed to be supported by some of the information found in the American Home Comfort Study.

According to the analysis, as homeowners aged and had more income, their desire to improve their home’s comfort increased. In fact, energy efficiency was one of the top reasons for improvements. In the study, one in 10 homeowners wanting to replace an old a/c unit with a new one did so to improve air quality, and more than two in 10 wanted to improve comfort. Forty-five percent wanted a more efficient product to reduce utility bills.

Of the current homeowner market, approximately 57 percent are 45 and older. This demographic was cited by Decision Analyst as some of the recession’s strongest survivors.

“Many want more comfort for less cost in their homes, and can pay for the upgrade,” stated the survey.

Customer Relationships Can Improve

Spending may be on the uptick, but getting homeowners to spend money with a specific contractor can be tricky. How do contractors successfully discuss energy usage and home comfort with the homeowner decision maker?

Results from the American Home Comfort Study suggest that one of the more important elements is trust. Respondents to the study showed that they were more likely to trust contractors with which they had signed a service or maintenance agreement. Respondents also preferred contractors who took on a more consultative role during the sales process.

Another key contractor-consumer relationship point was how each views different sources of information. According to the study, back in 2002, approximately 24 percent of homeowners were gathering information about purchases from the Yellow Pages, 46 percent from friends, 21 percent from the Internet, and 55 percent from contractors. In 2013, those numbers have made some major changes. Only 10 percent are gathering information from the Yellow Pages, 35 percent from friends, 43 percent from the Internet, and 43 percent from contractors. (Those surveyed were asked to check all methods that applied.)

“More and more homeowners are turning to the Internet as a primary source of input,” said Reese. “It’s important for contractors, especially those acting as energy consultants, to know what is being said on the Internet, to know how to best serve Internet-using clients.”

The study suggests that contractors should not take offense to the use of the Internet by their customers.

“Homeowners that use the Internet to research HVAC products are information seekers, and the Internet should simply help them better understand and confirm what they are hearing from other sources,” noted the report. “The Internet should be used to allow them to better talk with others about their heating and cooling needs and experience.”

For those contractors looking to improve or change their relationships with their customers, here are five tips from the American Home Comfort Study. The first tip is to stand back from the door of a home until you can be properly identified. Allow the homeowner to feel comfortable. The second is to have a business card ready for delivery when you ring the doorbell. This can also help identify and put the customer at ease. The third tip is to wear uniforms and have the proper name on the shirt. The fourth is to clearly identify the truck with proper signage, and the fifth is to maintain a courteous and professional presence in and outside the home.

Publication date: 8/12/2013 

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