When you’re leaving your house to go to work in the morning, nobody walks into the kitchen and turns the gas stove on and then leaves for the entire day. But nobody seems to have any problems turning their furnaces on and letting them run the entire time they’re gone.”
This is how Chris Crawford, general manager of Integrity Comfort Solutions in Conroe, Texas, began a Facebook Live video post discussing the operation and safety devices built into a furnace. The video was posted Sept. 29 and has already garnered 19 Likes and more than 5,500 views.
The live video is just one example of how Integrity is taking advantage of social media to create brand awareness in its community.
Integrity Comfort Solutions was founded in 1980 as Conroe Air. The company was purchased by Rich Hare in 2014. Hare, the owner of two other HVAC companies, Air Services Heating & Air in Springfield, Missouri, and Barker’s Heating & Cooling in College Station, Texas, spent 25 years in software development management before deciding he wanted to own his own company.
“I had no experience in HVAC before purchasing Air Services Heating & Air in 2007,” Hare said. “I honestly thought I would end up with a cabinet-making shop because I’m into woodworking. I looked at probably 100 different companies and found that cabinet making businesses didn’t have the best cash flow in the world. So, I started researching HVAC and plumbing companies and realized they were much more solid.
“There was a definite learning curve for me. I was lucky, because the previous owner of the first company I bought spent about a month with me. It was an intense education and very helpful. I was also very fortunate to hire two experienced people from other companies, and I’ve learned from them, as well.”
In 2013, Hare started shopping around for another company and came across Barker’s Heating & Cooling. A few years later, the company, then referred to as Conroe Air, was listed on the market. “It was only 60 miles down the road and seemed like it would be a good fit,” Hare said.
The key to operating three companies in multiple states is having excellent general managers in all three locations, said Hare. Based in Missouri, he travels to Texas once a month and holds weekly meetings via telephone.
After purchasing Integrity, the company went through an intense transformation, from its name all the way down to the kind of work it did. Previously a commercial contracting company, Integrity is now a 100 percent residential service and replacement contractor serving the north Houston area.
“We transformed everything,” Hare noted. “We bought all new trucks, changed the focus to residential service and replacement, and truly focused on putting customers first. After discussing a number of names, one of our guys came up with the name Integrity, and we thought we could follow that theme. So we changed the company’s name to Integrity.”
When Hare purchased the company, Integrity was earning about $3.5 million in revenue. In 2015, the company hit $4.3 million and is on track to finish 2016 somewhere between $5.6 million and $5.8 million.
The company has also grown from 23 employees in 2014 to 38 employees now with 14 vehicles in its fleet.
“It’s been challenging for sure,” Hare said. “The thought was to take in-place management and add a strong general manager, which was how it worked in College Station. At Integrity, we had all but two people leave the business. We fought it for quite a long time but remained focused on implementing the change we felt was necessary getting the focus to where we needed it to be. We had a significant loss of employees last year, and we’re finally getting things turned around this year.”
Hare credits Crawford, who joined the company in January, for the turnaround.
“This is all to Chris’ credit,” he said. “He got everybody focused and brought in some additional folks. He’s also had a hand in increasing our leads. We had done the standard marketing fliers, newsletters, mail drops, some TV, and some radio with a large firm, but we really weren’t growing the way we wanted. So Chris decided to put a focus on social media, and he’s done a really great job. It’s really exploded for us. I would say at least 60 percent of our leads now come from something online, whether it’s the website, Facebook, or our videos.”
SOCIAL MEDIA GURUS
Crawford, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, is no stranger to turning HVAC companies around. After retiring from the military, he briefly assumed control of his family’s struggling HVAC business, tripling its production in a span of four years before handing control back to his family. He also spent time growing a brand-new HVAC service department for another Houston contractor before joining the team at Integrity.
When Crawford took the helm at Integrity in January, the company only had about 300 residential service agreements.
“We really had to push into the community and get our name out there,” he said. “The way we did that was through social media. We became very active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snap Chat, Instagram — you name it. If there’s a platform on social media, we’re on it. We’re still a small company, so it’s not like we have millions of dollars in marketing funds to draw from. A giant TV campaign wasn’t going to fit in our budget, so we turned to social media because it allowed us to have a very large voice with a very small budget. And it’s worked out perfectly for us. Currently, we have more than 1,400 service memberships, with 1,100 sold in nine months. That’s not too shabby.”
Crawford said he decided to turn his attention to social media to create brand awareness simply because that’s where the attention is in today’s world.
“Anywhere you go, everybody is looking at their cellphones, and if they’re not, they at least have it in their hands. You’re never more than arms-length from your cellphone. My wife, for instance, will be sitting on the couch watching TV, and every time I look over at her, she’s flipping through Facebook or something on her phone. The other day, my 7 year old was playing Minecraft on the computer, with two computer screens by the way, with his iPad on in front of him and using his mom’s cell phone to text one of his friends. This kid’s 7, and he had five screens in front of him.
“This is where everybody’s attention is focused. We don’t watch TV the way we used to – everybody DVRs everything or streams it through Netflix. Because of that, TV commercials aren’t what they used to be. They’re highly overrated and overpriced. We’ve moved about 80 percent of our advertising and digital marketing into social media platforms. I can tell you that within the next three to four years, your Facebook page is probably going to be more important than your website. Facebook gives you so many more capabilities and so much more data than standard SEO website marketing does.”
Crawford decided to differentiate Integrity from its competition by using interactive social media features, like Facebook Live.
“If you look at any service company’s Facebook page, most of the time, everything looks the exact same,” he said. “Everybody’s using some canned picture that came off the internet with some advertising words. If you’re on Facebook, you scroll right by it because there’s nothing there that grabs your attention. We didn’t want to do that. We got on there and started doing things that were attention grabbing, like video. Video has become a big deal right now. When Facebook launched its Facebook Live feature, it really helped us because Facebook seriously wanted to be the premiere platform for live video. If you put something out there and put, $15 towards it, you’re tripling your budget return on investment and pushing it out to even more people than you would expect. We get a lot of bang for our buck that way. That’s how we got started, just throwing out some videos about what we do here as a company and some funny, random things that were happening in our office, like the fact we’re an air conditioning company and our air conditioner broke, so we had to install one in our own office.”
Integrity posted a few live videos answering some common technical questions the company received from customers. Those initial videos created a giant response. Now, the company posts a minimum of two videos a week designed to educate homeowners about their HVAC equipment.
“It’s become a major part of our platform,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to educate homeowners on how their systems work and what they need to know before they ever call us out there. That’s a major shift in perspective, because a lot of HVAC companies have really depended on the fact the homeowner didn’t understand how the system worked. They would take advantage of that ignorance, saying, ‘We’re the professionals. You should just take our word for it.’ Putting that information out there puts us ahead of the game because the consumers of today’s world aren’t just going to take your word for it. They’re going to figure out what you’re asking them to do, what it looks like, and Google the prices before they make a decision. By giving homeowners some of that information before we even visit the house shows we have a lot of honesty, and, pardon the pun, integrity.”
In addition to live videos, the company also posts some prerecorded video in order to take advantage of the ability to add captioning to the video.
“A lot of people who watch videos on social media watch them without sound,” Crawford explained. “My wife does it all the time, it drives me crazy. So, if you don’t have captioning at the bottom of your video, guess what? It doesn’t get watched.”
All of the video production and editing are done in-house. “Crawford had to learn all of this stuff,” Crawford joked about himself. “I didn’t know any of this — I was not big into social media before. But once I figured it out, we found we could capitalize on it as a marketing tool.”
For live videos, Crawford picks a topic such as R-22 versus R-410A and starts promoting the video a few days before the “HVAC Live” event. The company also released a few timely videos earlier this year when parts of Houston flooded. In fact, Integrity’s own office flooded.
“One morning after the storms, a tree had blown over and hit the building, which caused a rain gutter to come loose, rotate, and point directly at an upstairs window. The entire roof was draining into the gutter and then smashing into the window. It didn’t take very long before water started coming in. We had to tear up the carpet and sheet rock and pull all the insulation out of the walls. It was a mess. It took about two months to fix everything, and it’s no fun operating a business while undergoing reconstruction. So we started recording what was going on in the office with all the flood damage and then posted several updates as things were slowly fixed.”
Crawford also made a video discussing the potential dangers flooding could have on outdoor HVAC units and a checklist of things to do. That particular video received 19,973 views.
“Social media has greatly impacted our business,” Crawford said. “It even impacted our website. Our analytics tell us about 75 to 80 percent of our website traffic is being generated from our Facebook page. It’s a big deal.”
Just like most HVAC contractors across the U.S., Integrity is having difficulty finding good, qualified employees amidst a growing labor shortage.
“It’s hard to find good people, no doubt,” Hare said. “It’s doubly hard to find people who are skilled in both customer service and technical skills. We’ve had the most success taking young guys and training them our way.
“We also hire differently,” he continued. “A lot of technicians just wouldn’t work for us because they’re technicians first and customer service people second. Our belief is it should be the other way around. We can take a young guy who is eager to learn and teach him the necessary technical skills. It’s definitely easier to train technical skills than customer service skills. If a young guy doesn’t really have the aptitude for customer service skills, he’s probably not going to be able to develop them. A lot of that may be due to an individual’s upbringing. You can mold some, but we believe we’re far better off just getting the ones who already have those skills, and we’ll teach them the rest. That’s what the industry is going to have to do just because of the shortage of folks.”
Personnel is our biggest challenge, Crawford agreed. “We don’t have enough skilled techs and installers in the industry. People are coming out of high school and college and aiming to create the latest phone app and become billionaires. They all want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Unfortunately, nobody wants to be in the skilled labor trades. Nobody is training throughout their entire high school years saying, ‘Man, I can’t wait to become an air conditioning contractor.’ We have a major shortage of people with experience, and the bulk of our skilled personnel are aging and looking at retirement. There just aren’t enough young people coming in to replace them. And the demand level has gone through the ceiling. Then you have to try and explain to homeowners that you have to raise prices in order to pay the young techs more because they’re in such high demand right now. That’s our biggest problem.”
Crawford said the company is currently working with several local technical schools in order to find a solution to the labor shortage. Integrity also holds internal training twice a week.
“We work really hard to give them everything they need to be successful in the field,” Crawford added. “We also have two experienced gentlemen in the office who are available via FaceTime to our younger technicians. If a younger tech is out in the field and having a hard time figuring something out, they call into the office using FaceTime, and these gentlemen jump on and basically provide in-house tech support.”
Rocky Schofield, procurement specialist for Integrity, is one of those gentlemen.
“In the past, we didn’t have the advantage of FaceTime, iPhones, or instant access to technical data,” he said. “We would actually have to draw pictures. Everything was done verbally – ‘It looks like this,’ or ‘It’s doing that, here’s the picture.’ And it looked like a cave drawing. Now it’s so much simpler. It’s a real treat because everybody wants their kids to do better than they did.
“These tools we have today are just phenomenal. If that had always been the case, the industry probably wouldn’t have the reputation it has. People were shooting from the hip, so to speak, when they resolved problems on the job. Instantaneous access to an in-house support team or manufacturer’s support team allows a young man in the field not to be burdened in having to make a decision on his own. He has a team behind him. It creates a foundation contractors can draw from to get the support they need. It’s really cool.”
Schofield, along with his wife, Diane Schofield, are the last two remaining employees from before Hare purchased the company.
“It’s been a pretty dramatic change,” Rocky Schofield said. “With Chris’ leadership, we’ve divested ourselves of the commercial business and focus solely on residential service, replacement, and repair. It’s more than just a philosophy; it’s become a culture and an enthusiastic environment full of joy. And it’s an encouraging place to work. It’s a lot of fun, quite frankly. It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited to get up in the morning and come to work.”
Rocky Schofield noted the company’s videos are being noticed. Recently, a few competitors have even called to complain about the informative videos the company has produced and posted on social media.
“It’s such a different side of air conditioning. Crawford actually tries to educate customers instead of trying to hide things from them. He’s not trying to get away with the cheapest option he can,” Denise Schofield said. “The philosophy he has is just so refreshing. And the crew we have is fantastic. It’s really a family.”
Integrity is determined to continue on its current path of growth.
“I’m 62, and, at this point, I’ll be putting each of the three companies up for sale within the next 10 years,” Hare said. “I want to get each company to where they are approaching the $8 million to $10 million range in revenue. Each of my three general managers have the first right of refusal on each facility. I will also help finance them. It certainly gives them a real buy in to what we’re doing now because they’re more invested in the business. The future is very bright. Probably 75 percent of the equipment out there right now needs to be changed out. So the market is there. We just have to find a way to serve it.”
Publication date: 11/14/2016