In most industries, good salespeople are worth their weights in gold. The same is true in HVAC, where comfort consultants are often tasked with converting regular service or maintenance calls into replacement furnace sales. This can be a difficult job, as homeowners can be a demanding (and skeptical) bunch, and educating them about their various options can be time-consuming.
This is especially true of high-end furnaces, which feature an array of benefits and options that may take a while to explain and understand. But, gifted consultants know how to provide homeowners with just the right amount of information so homeowners feel comfortable with their purchase of a more expensive furnace.
CONVERTING A CALL
Education is the most important part of the sales process, said Jim Betlem, residential division manager for John Betlem Heating and Cooling in Rochester, New York. “It usually starts with the maintenance and service technicians who are very good at making sure our customers have all the options before making any costly repairs on equipment that might be getting to the end of its intended life.”
If a Betlem technician believes a homeowner could benefit from a new furnace, he contacts a comfort adviser while he’s still in the home in order to make the handoff as smooth as possible. The company also has several mandatory advisor verifications (MAVs) in place where service technicians must contact a comfort advisor immediately if they come across a failed heat exchanger, a high repair bill on equipment nearing its intended life, and/or if the customer is not happy with either equipment performance or high utility bills.
Comfort advisers then complete the education process by making sure customers understand all the choices available to them, including high-end furnace options. “Due to our climate in upstate New York, we mostly sell high-efficiency condensing furnaces,” said Betlem. “Our best-selling furnace has always been a multistage gas furnace with a variable-speed blower, followed by a modulating furnace. These two furnaces provide our customers with the greatest amount of cost savings and comfort with quiet operation.”
Almost all the furnaces sold by Pittsburgh-based Bolster-DeHart are condensing models, said company president, Paul DeHart. “If our service technicians come across a unit that is not operating or one that requires major repairs, they’ll contact our comfort consultants, who’ll often meet with the homeowners the same day. They educate customers about all the options, from single-stage units to variable-speed furnaces, and they always offer IAQ products, as well. Two-stage and modulating furnaces seem to be the most popular with homeowners, particularly after we explain how a home does not require full capacity all heating season.”
When a service or maintenance call transitions into a sales call, it’s usually for one of two reasons, said Joe Bechtold, president of Air-Smart Inc. in Wheaton, Illinois. “Either the heat exchanger is leaking and we must take immediate action, or the equipment is old(er), and we ask the homeowners if they’d like to hear what new equipment options are available. If they say they don’t have time at the moment, we ask if there is another time and schedule an appointment with them right then.”
Bechtold trains his service technicians to look for potential new equipment sales opportunities while in the field, but, once homeowners signal an interest, he prefers a low-pressure approach. “We strive for a professional presentation and blend that with being real,” he said. “As a rule, we strictly avoid any exaggerations or misleading comments, and we provide ample room for customers to speak and then listen carefully to what they have to say. Customers are not shy about stating what their concerns and needs are and listening to them is important. Most homeowners enjoy learning about all the high-efficiency options that are available.”
However, customers are rarely as happy to learn about how much more they’ll have to pay for a condensing furnace. Not only does the equipment itself cost more, but there are also increased installation costs for both material and labor, particularly if a customer is upgrading from a minimum-efficiency unit, said Bechtold. “Finished basements with drywall ceilings, condominiums, and townhomes can be problematic when converting from a noncondensing to a condensing furnace with regard to furnace intake and exhaust. In addition, a two-stage-compatible thermostat is needed for a two-stage furnace, which costs more, as well.”
Most of the higher installation costs are due to labor, noted Betlem, as it takes an additional two to four hours to install a high-efficiency furnace compared to a minimum-efficiency unit. “A condensing furnace needs to be vented with PVC [polyvinyl chloride] pipe through the sidewall, whereas an 80 percent efficient furnace can be vented with more traditional metal type B vent pipe into the chimney. High-efficiency furnaces also require a drain, due to moisture condensing in the secondary heat exchangers.”
Sometimes, changes need to be made to the ductwork, as well, said Betlem, as a fairly quick and easy efficiency test might reveal the ductwork system is not delivering the promised savings. “These tests often reveal high-efficiency furnace installations are losing 30-50 percent of their efficiency due to inefficient ductwork. Just because you install a 96 percent high-efficiency furnace does not mean that is what the customer is getting out of it. We want to make sure homeowners are getting what they paid for.”
The higher price of condensing furnaces and their installation may be a concern to customers, but comfort consultants can often allay that concern with education. “If you were to look at an average middle-class family who intends to live in the home for a number of years, the upcharge for a condensing furnace may raise an eyebrow,” said Bechtold. “However, if you explain to them the additional benefits of a condensing furnace, starting with increased comfort, they often will find a way to make the purchase. Our feedback tells us that comfort is the No. 1 reason customers will spend extra money on a furnace. The other benefits of lower energy bills, quiet operation, and even better filtration as a result of increased air circulation are all enjoyed, but comfort is still the clincher.”
Another way to encourage homeowners to buy a condensing furnace is to offer financing, said Betlem. “In some cases, we can show them that their monthly payment could be very close to their monthly savings. This is very powerful for customers who are on a tight budget and think a high-end furnace is out of their reach.”
It’s also helpful to make homeowners aware of all the different programs that are available that can make the purchase of a condensing sale more affordable. Betlem notes his company is part of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which offers multiple incentives to upgrade to Energy Star equipment. “Homeowners can receive up to 10 percent back on their Energy Star upgrades, as well as low-interest loans and 50 percent subsidies if they qualify based on their income. There are also local utilities that offer a rebate for Energy Star heating equipment, but they cannot be used in conjunction with the NYSERDA program.”
Take the time to educate homeowners about the benefits of condensing furnaces and then explain how to make that purchase more affordable. These are two surefire ways to encourage customers to pay a little more for a high-end unit. The end result is usually a grateful and comfortable customer who is happy to share their experience with a friend, which is the goal of just about any reputable contractor.
Publication date: 11/30/2015