In the good old days, homeowners who needed to replace their furnaces or air conditioners usually trusted their local contractors to recommend systems that would best meet their needs. Then, along came the internet, and all that changed. Today, many homeowners still do trust the opinions of their contractors, but more often than not, they also do some research of their own online before they make decisions about their purchases.
This radical change in the homeowner-contractor relationship is the focus of a recent study from Decision Analyst, which showed, for the first time, more homeowners are turning to the internet — not contractors — to gather information about their new HVAC system purchases. In 2013, the same American Home Comfort study showed that homeowners looked to the internet and their contractors equally for advice, and prior to that study, contractors were the primary source for consumer HVAC information.
So, should contractors be concerned about this paradigm shift; after all, don’t they want to be seen as homeowners’ home comfort experts? Of course, but the truth is, the internet is not going away, so many contractors are choosing to embrace this alternate source of information rather than battle against it.
JUST THE FACTS
According to the American Home Comfort study, 58 percent of consumers who used the internet to research their purchases visited an HVAC manufacturer’s website to obtain additional information. Given that large number, it’s not surprising the study indicated that 77 percent of consumers decided on the brand they wanted to purchase before choosing their installing contractors. The study also showed that about 32 percent of consumers visited free internet review boards, and 30 percent searched their local contractor’s website.
Those numbers seem very accurate to Joe Tollari, president of Metro Heating and Cooling in Des Moines, Iowa, who estimates about 50 percent of his customers do some research online before purchasing a system. “Everybody Googles, and I think that’s great. I like it when homeowners want to learn more about what they’re investing in. And while they may not always know what they’re reading online, they will usually ask us, which means they see us as the experts.”
According to Jason Ellington, president of Ellington Air Conditioning & Heat in Rockledge, Florida, These figures are on the low side. Ellington notes that, on sales calls, about 85 percent of homeowners have already done some research online. “We find that a lot of homeowners research the equipment they already have. They’re usually curious about price, and they want to know about the latest bells and whistles, brand reliability, and the contractor’s reputation. Basically, they’re just trying to ensure they’re getting a good value proposition.”
Reliability is the primary reason customers search online before making a purchase, said Steve Schmidt, president of Frederick Air Inc. in Frederick, Maryland, who finds that about one-third of homeowners have researched a product online prior to the first contractor-customer interaction. “Customers want to know how long the unit is going to last and what sort of trouble or problems people have had. They want to make sure what they’re buying will last a long time and be trouble-free.”
The problem is that information on the internet may not always be accurate or up to date, especially where product review sites are concerned. “A lot of customers go to Consumer Reports, said Dave Schmidt, sales manager, Frederick Air Inc. “If you look at the last 10 years, the brands are all over the place. Customers don’t usually have the expertise to parse through all the information, so they sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. That’s when we can say, ‘From our experience, this is what that information really means.’ It’s an education process.”
Steve Saunders, CEO of Tempo Inc. in Irving Texas, agrees, noting that inaccurate information found on the internet is really an excellent opportunity to communicate professional expertise. “We do not denigrate our homeowners’ efforts to obtain information. We just calmly communicate the various considerations they should also think about. We work hard to provide information and data that supports our claims. It helps that our online consumer reviews are so positive, as independent reviews build trust and credibility.”
And if customers still want to do a little more online research after learning about their equipment options during a sales call, that’s okay, noted Paul Rivera, dispatcher at SMW Refrigeration and Heating LLC in Tempe, Arizona. “We just point them in the right direction, so they know we are legitimate. And, then, when customers find our information to be accurate, they know they can trust us.”
Some contractors may be uncomfortable to learn that the American Home Comfort study draws the conclusion that homeowners’ reliance on the internet as a source of information may highlight a weakness in their current business models. That is, instead of spending time with homeowners, sharing information about their HVAC systems, and becoming their personal home comfort experts, technicians are more focused on fixing what’s broken and getting on to the next call as soon as possible. The study claims that is why consumers are turning to other sources of information about their HVAC system choices, such as manufacturers’ websites.
Ellington believes there is some truth to that, but he notes the issue goes much deeper. “Technicians often gravitate toward the HVAC trade, because they like to help people. They don’t like to feel as if they’re selling anything, because they believe it tarnishes their integrity. Therefore, it is a behavioral issue that we as an industry — or as contractors — have to address. I absolutely think there is a way to change the business model — it’s implementing an actual step-by-step sales process and making everyone adhere to it.”
But Steve Schmidt argues that maybe the existing business model works just fine. “What is the technician’s job? It’s to fix things. If he doesn’t fix the system, he feels like a failure. For salespeople’s goals are to sell something, and if they don’t sell, they feel like they’ve failed. Our company is successful because we focus on what’s best for our customers. We may fix things other companies would want to replace. Our entire sales process is based on education, not selling.”
And if a customer does want to replace a system, our technicians will make an appointment with a sales consultant right on the spot, said Dave Schmidt. “Our sales guys will show up on time, looking professional, and are prepared to answer all questions. They’re encouraged to spend the time necessary to perform a thorough assessment of the house. That builds confidence and shows customers that we are the experts.”
Having a stellar online reputation is another way in which homeowners can be assured they are dealing with experts.
“Customers want to find a company that has numerous good reviews, as that helps earn their trust,” said Rivera. “Online content detailing your services on your website or profiles on HomeAdvisor or Yelp can build out your online profile and help customers make their decisions. On the flip side, the internet can hurt you if you have bad reviews, and/or if you don’t have any content built out.”
Ultimately, homeowners are going to look to the internet for information, although contractors still hope customers will view them as their home comfort experts. “If homeowners trust the internet more than they do us, then we have completely failed,” said Saunders. “Or, we are otherwise unsuited to do business with those clients. We are not for everybody, and everybody will not be for us. We do not cry over lost business. We work constantly to be the expert, offering solutions, and thinking about the real and unique problems of each client and each home. We try to deliver value, earn trust, and guarantee our work. Basically, do right and sleep well at night.”
Publication date: 2/20/2017