Energy prices are expected to jump this winter, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which projects the average U.S. household will pay 13 percent more for natural gas and 9 percent more for propane, compared to last winter. For homeowners thinking about replacing their existing furnaces, pointing out this surge in energy prices may be all that’s needed to persuade them to purchase a highly efficient (93 percent-plus) gas furnace.

Others may not be so easily convinced that it is in their best interest to spend several thousand dollars more for a high-end unit. That is when well-trained comfort consultants should not only point out all the benefits that come with a properly installed, highly efficient furnace, they should take the opportunity to build trust with the homeowners so they feel comfortable investing in a more expensive system.

Sell Yourself

Larry Kirchhoff, owner, All Star Mechanical, Lansing, Mich., knows a lot about selling high-end furnaces; in fact, the Maytag dealer rarely installs anything less than a 95 percent efficient furnace. One of the main reasons for his success is that he takes the time to sell himself before ever talking to homeowners about equipment options.

“I start off any sales situation by introducing myself. Most of my business comes through referrals, so the personal connection is very important,” said Kirchhoff. “I’m a likable guy, and I treat people the way I expect to be treated. Whether it’s fixing somebody’s furnace or replacing it, I go into each situation as if I’m the consumer. When I leave somebody’s house, I want them to feel like they got more than what they paid for.”

After introducing himself, Kirchhoff leaves the homeowners with a presentation book that they can look at while he takes the measurements necessary to calculate a quote. “I encourage them to look through my book, because it has all my insurance and licensing information in there — basically everything that would be important to me, as a homeowner. I want it to answer the question, ‘Why would I hire this guy?’”

Kirchhoff measures everything in the home, including doors, windows, wall thickness, and more. He also takes into consideration the year the home was built, as newer homes are typically tighter than older homes. Once he obtains all the information, he heads back to his office, where he generates a load calculation and creates a proposal, which he then emails to the homeowner.

“I never leave homeowners with a price at the table, although if they’re in a no-heat situation in the middle of winter, I will email the proposal the same day,” said Kirchhoff. “My closing rate is about 70 percent, so this process has worked well for me. And if the customer doesn’t choose me, it’s because somebody else was just as impressive.”

Sell Solutions

More than 75 percent of the furnaces that Bryant dealer, Kevin Walsh, president, Schaafsma Heating & Cooling, Grand Rapids, Mich., sells have efficiencies of 93 percent or higher. That’s primarily because he makes sure everyone in the company is on the same page when it comes to identifying issues, solving problems, and relating a consistent message to the customer.

“Our people know how to build relationships with customers in order to gain their confidence and trust, which allows us to identify their needs and present options and recommendations with which they are comfortable,” said Walsh. “In fact, most customers are more than willing to move to a higher-end product, after we talk with them about the benefits of improved comfort and IAQ.”

For this reason, Walsh focuses more on selling solutions, rather than discussing payback or savings. As Walsh pointed out, customers will buy high-end furnaces if they can see a benefit for themselves. “The benefit is not just the few percentage points between 91 and 95 percent, it’s in the additional comfort and safety we can bring to their homes.”

In order to consistently explain those benefits to customers, salespeople starting at Schaafsma must first become proficient at installing equipment, as well as be able to diagnose issues with the building envelope, airflow, and combustion before Walsh sends them through extensive training at both National Comfort Institute and Comfort Institute. After that, salespeople are sent for sales training at Weldon Long’s Sales Training Courses, where they learn how to confidently explain how the issues they have uncovered in a home affect the homeowner’s safety, health, and comfort.

“Ultimately, it’s about providing service and solutions for their problems,” said Walsh. “We show the value of our solutions, and we offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee for one year. If customers are not happy with their system, for any reason, we will remove it and refund their money, or else switch them to different equipment. This takes away their fear of making a bad decision.”

Sell an Experience

The key to upselling furnaces is to ask the right questions and not judge what customers want before they explain their needs, said Keith Harnish, president, Ultimate Comfort Heating and Cooling LLC, Werners-ville, Pa. With more than 85 percent of furnace sales consisting of high-efficiency units, the York dealer noted, “You can’t walk into someone’s home with preconceived ideas of what that person needs. You need to start a dialogue to determine what their needs are, such as asking about allergy issues, comfort concerns, and efficiency options. Once you do that, you can tailor your offerings to them, showing homeowners that you care about them and want to match the right products to their particular situation.”

Harnish doesn’t follow a script or a prepared questionnaire when talking with customers, as he prefers to keep things more conversational. This includes explaining equipment features in such a way that customers understand how they solve the problems they are currently experiencing. “Don’t just rattle off all the bells and whistles of the equipment; tell them how that particular feature fixes a concern of theirs. For example, if someone complains of temperature variations throughout the house, and the distribution system is not the culprit, don’t just tell them they need a modulating furnace. Explain that this particular furnace modulates the heat output much like the accelerator in a car, that it matches the heating requirement of the home regardless of outdoor temperature, resulting in longer run times and less temperature differences throughout the home.”

And while contractors may believe that their particular brand of equipment is the best the market has to offer, customers often cannot distinguish one brand from the next, said Harnish, which is why contractors need to differentiate themselves from the competition. “What do you do differently than the other four companies that are quoting this same job? If you can’t come up with a laundry list of why you are better, you will have a difficult time selling high-end equipment. And that does not include talking about your years of experience or the fact that you offer 24-hour emergency service. Just about everyone offers that now.”

The bottom line, noted Harnish, is that customers who are interested in buying high-end equipment want a high-end sales experience to go along with it. “You have to be able to give customers something to justify why they should use your company, such as longer service hours, more complete maintenance agreements, flat-rate pricing, etc. These benefits cannot remain static either, because your competition will adjust to your offerings and then those will become the expected standard in your area. Always look for ways to offer a premium experience to your customers, which will allow you to sell a greater number of premium products.”

Publication date: 12/2/2013

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