What makes a consumer want to buy a product? And, more importantly, what makes a consumer want to purchase that product from you? These questions have plagued HVAC contractors since time immemorial. Through a comprehensive survey, Emerson Climate Technologies Inc. believes it has pinned down some answers.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
The survey asked 1,500 U.S. homeowners about the most important features they consider when purchasing air conditioning and heating systems, as well as what typifies a high degree of satisfaction with their HVAC contractors. They also asked about factors that might prevent someone from buying a new HVAC system if they own an older, more problem-prone system.
“In most surveys, homeowners say they want to buy high-efficiency equipment, but they don’t usually end up buying it,” said Frank Landwehr, vice president of marketing and planning at Emerson Climate Technologies. “We wanted to find out what was causing this industry phenomenon, which is why we decided to do the survey.”
When it comes to the features homeowners value most in their new HVAC systems, it’s no surprise that reliability tops the list. “Contractors should know that most of their customers just want their systems to operate for a long time without needing repair or replacement, and they may want to adjust their selling approaches to emphasize this,” said Landwehr.
Brian Hastings, president of 4 Seasons Air Conditioning & Heating in Orlando, Florida, agrees that reliability is often the top concern for customers purchasing a new system, noting, “We install systems in a lot of high-end custom homes, and reliability is almost always the homeowners’ primary concern. For other existing homes in our area, we know the types of problems they usually have, so we know the right questions to ask in order to find out a homeowner’s priorities.”
Those priorities often include energy efficiency and comfort, which ranked second and third in importance in the Emerson survey. These issues are usually more important for customers who plan to stay in their homes for a while, said Janet Maier, owner of Maier Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. in Webster, New York. “We’ve found that if homeowners plan to sell within a few years, they usually buy a mid-price unit just to keep them comfortable. If they do not have any future plans to move, they’ll usually go with a higher-end system, which provides the best comfort and energy savings.”
Maier has also found that young professionals are often attracted to new technologies, such as remote thermostats that allow them to adjust their heat from their cell phones, while retired people are often more conservative and want an efficient unit without all of the bells and whistles. “However, all of our customers are looking for reliable units that will allow them to save on energy bills.”
Other important issues, noted Hastings, are IAQ and humidity control, which rank much farther down the list of priorities in the Emerson survey. “Being in Florida, humidity control is huge, and most customers could benefit from having a separate dehumidifier installed. If we get a rainy day and the temperature is in the 70s, humidity in a home can easily spike into the 65-70 percent range. But, average homeowners don’t buy dehumidifiers; instead, they tend to go for variable-speed systems, which control humidity pretty well on their own.”
The majority of homeowners are ultimately seeking quiet, energy-efficient systems, though most know very little about purchasing new HVAC systems, noted Ben Poole, founder of Trusted Heating and Cooling LLC in Austin, Texas. “That’s why we take our time discussing why they want to replace their HVAC systems as well as what they can expect from the different models that are available. We believe educated homeowners make better decisions concerning the health and comfort of their families and homes.”
Poole also takes the time to explain to customers that, regardless of the unit they purchase, a quality installation is always the most important feature of any HVAC system. “You can invest in the best system money can buy, but with a bad installation, that new system will never operate the way it was designed to.”
Taking the time to educate consumers about all their available options, as well as proper installation, is smart, noted Landwehr, as this often leads to a greater degree of customer satisfaction. “One of the interesting things we found in the survey is that if contractors just let customers know about high-efficiency alternatives — even if they end up buying a basic unit — they’re still happier with the contractor, their decision, and the system they choose.”
In fact, that’s the main reason Poole believes customers often end up purchasing a system from him. “Our customers usually choose us because we take the time to educate, build the relationship, and explain the value of our installation and quality. We try to under promise and over deliver, and we try to deliver the wow factor every chance we get. That not only shows the homeowner that we’re not your average a/c guy, but also helps them see they made a great decision in choosing us.”
WHY WON’T THEY BUY?
Even when contractors take the time to determine the priorities of homeowners and then educate them about all their options, there are still those who will choose to keep repairing their old, inefficient system rather than replace it with a new one. Most contractors will be familiar with the primary reasons homeowners do not buy a new system, which include satisfaction with their existing system or the high cost of a purchasing new systems, according to the survey.
“Sticker shock is pretty common, because, on average, a new heat pump costs about $8,400,” said Landwehr. “It’s not a small purchase, so contractors should be prepared to discuss energy savings, government/utility rebates, home equity loans, and any financing options that could help homeowners with their replacement decisions. Having a relationship with local lending establishments can help, as well.”
Cost is almost always the primary reason consumers decide not to buy a new system, noted Maier. “I advise my customers to get two or three estimates and then evaluate them to make sure they are comparing apples to apples. We explain how our services differ from other contractors, and we also educate them on the differences between the unit we quoted versus our competitor’s unit. This will often turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ Our customers know we offer a fair price for a quality product.”
Customers who decide not to replace their equipment often tell Poole they’re waiting until winter, when they think they’ll get a better deal, or that the price is a lot more than they were expecting to pay, so they’ll just wait until the system breaks down completely before replacing it. “We respect the fact that someone may just not be financially or emotionally ready to purchase the most expensive appliance in their home, but we try to show them the reasons for doing the job now rather than waiting a year or two.”
If they wait, homeowners may experience rising equipment costs, business costs, and utility costs, as well as future repairs, which can end up costing them thousands more in the long run, noted Poole. “After that, they sometimes are still not ready to part with that old, noisy metal box, but, because we don’t use high-pressure sales tactics, we usually get their business down the road when they are ready to make the decision.”
Cost is not the only reason customers may choose not to replace their systems, explained Hastings. “Sometimes we lose to the competition, and it’s usually due to price or the fact that they just clicked with another company. For the most part, though, customers who do not buy a new system will choose to repair their existing system. We take the time to educate them about more energy-efficient systems, and, if it’s a big repair, we always let them know they have the option to change it out.”
If customers still choose to repair rather than replace, Hastings lets them know that if they change their minds and want to buy a new system within 30 days, he will credit the amount of the repair toward the changeout. “For us, it’s all about educating customers, giving them the tools they need, and then letting them decide for themselves. Most people still look to us for a recommendation, no matter how much information we give them. But, we want to give them the opportunity to have everything they need to make the right call.”
That jives with the Emerson survey, which showed that 81 percent of satisfied HVAC consumers rely heavily on their contractor/installer to guide them when they make this purchase. “Contractor influence is key to customer satisfaction,” said Landwehr. “Customers who have a relationship with their contractors and have confidence in them are more satisfied with their new equipment, which is essential for fewer callbacks and more referrals. That’s really important, because word travels fast on social media — you want to be known as a reliable contractor.”
Publication date: 2/1/2016