For more than a dozen years, I operated as a small-market contractor. The company I ran was part of a national organization that owned and operated numerous companies, which kept buying businesses in a down market. This unfortunately led to bankruptcy. The company I ran survived the bankruptcy, but I’d had enough, so I decided to leave the contracting world and switched over to the dark side of HVACR distribution. I have been working as a regional sales manager for Johnstone Supply for the past 12 years.

I have now seen the HVACR world from two different vantage points. What is really interesting is how the keys to success in both of my careers has virtually stayed the same. The fact is, there is no substitute for hard work. You have to work hard at differentiating yourself from your competitors. If you can provide value-added services that will enhance your customers’ purchasing experience, your business will grow. The reality is that both professions are part of the service industry, so the requirements for success are very similar. You have to give potential customers a reason to use your company.

What is your company known for? Is it superior, reliable service or a low price? Are you able to show clients video testimonials of customers praising your service? What affiliations are you and your company tied to? Are you active within those organizations? I have sat on the board of directors for ACCA both as a contractor and as a distributor. I also sit on an advisory board for the local community college that teaches applied technologies and trains HVAC students. It is important for customers to know that you are a professional who is actively trying to improve the HVACR industry. Your aspiration should be to have others view you as an industry leader. You have to promote yourself, because your customers have a lot of companies to choose from. The competition is fierce for both the contractor and the distributor, so when your customer is weighing their options as to whose services they should use, you will find that customers will generally gravitate to the company or person with the greatest credentials.

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on, your ability to provide quality products and services is what will set you apart. The key, though, is to be able to prove to a prospective customer that you are, indeed, the best contractor or supplier, because everyone claims to be the best. How can you prove it? When I was a contractor I had a comprehensive installation checklist that I shared with customers. I would explain it didn’t matter what brand of equipment that you install; if it’s done incorrectly, it will not operate properly.

We ensured a quality installation by having our factory-trained installers review all the steps we took to properly install the equipment with the homeowner. The technician and homeowner would sign the checklist and each would get a copy to keep. The technician would turn the signed checklist into our office, and before my production supervisor would send the tech to his or her next installation, he would review the document. The supervisor would ensure the proper checks were followed and correctly filled out. My production supervisor would then call the homeowner to ensure he or she was extremely pleased with the installation. The tech who did the install work knew the customer would be contacted and was even instructed to inform the customer that his or her boss would be calling to check on the quality of the installation. After hearing about our process, the customer would feel reassured that using our company would result in a job well done. We really had a good process in place that allowed us to guarantee our customer’s satisfaction. I used our process to help sell jobs and was able to prove to customers we were a quality company.

It is just as important for the supply house to stay in contact with its contractors. You need to know how customers perceive your company so you can reinforce the positives and work extremely hard to change any negative perceptions. You have to have committed employees who want to take it upon themselves to make your customers happy. The culture of your company needs to be centered around customer satisfaction. The contractor and supplier both face some of the same challenges.

I think some of the differences lie with contractors having to deal with the general public.

Today’s homeowner more than likely found your company on the Internet because few people today are using the Yellow Pages. The front line for contractors is their websites’ home pages. I am a big believer in video referrals from happy customers. If pictures are worth 1,000 words, what’s a video worth? You need to become a Web page ninja. You have to study the analytics your website produces. How many prospective customers visit your home page? What do they click first? What is drawing your customers’ attention? How hard is it to find your contact information? Can a customer schedule a service call or a clean and check on your website? Is there a place for your customers to rate your service? If you don’t know the answers to all these questions, then you have some work ahead.

A supply house only needs to have an accessible physical location for customers to find a company, but trust me, there is a big difference between someone finding your location and your ability to keep them coming back. The residential contractor has limited interaction with customers. A long-term relationship is not the norm. The supplier, however, is looking to establish a lasting relationship with their customers much like a commercial contractor looks to do with their customers.

Technology is an important aspect of any business that desires long-term existence. The implementation of technology allows both the contractor and supplier to be mobile, connected, more intelligent, and flexible. You now have access to specification sheets, installation instructions, customer history, and brochures that can be found on any tablet or smartphone. You can print information about test instruments and tools or email critical information. Wi-Fi thermostats send alarms to the owners warning them of potential problems. The complexity of today’s equipment requires constant training for both contractors and suppliers.

I have enjoyed my time in the HVAC industry, and I am thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to work on both sides of the counter. It is interesting how the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.

Publication date: 2/29/2016

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