Like it or hate it, whether it’s scrolling through social media, texting, checking email, or shopping online, today’s society is “always on.” More and more, consumers are demanding that the businesses they patronize join them in that lifestyle as well. According to, a 2016 survey shows that 51 percent of consumers say a business needs to be available 24/7 — and not just “on,” but actively engaged and ready to answer questions from online shoppers.

For the HVAC industry, that means taking additional steps to create the kind of personalized shopping experience that customers want. In terms of customer service and support, live web chat has taken the lead, outpacing email, phone, and social media in its popularity with consumers. Live chat is a service that enables customers who are browsing a website to start a real-time conversation with a representative from that company, getting an immediate response without having to pick up the phone. It also allows the company to obtain leads by requesting a name and email address to initiate the live chat feature. Though not all companies offer live chat on their websites yet, some contractors are saying it’s becoming less of a nicety and more of a must-have.

Dave Dombrowski, general manager, Rapid Repair Experts, Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of those voices.

“I don’t think it’s the future; I think it’s here right now,” he said. “Pretty much every support group that you go to with your computer has a live chat option.”



Rapid Repair, a multi-trade (heating, a/c, plumbing, and electrical) contractor servicing the residential and light commercial markets, implemented live chat on its website about six months ago. The company subcontracted with HomeServiceChats, a Lee’s Summit, Missouri-based vendor who they got in touch with through Service Roundtable.

It’s Dombrowski’s second experience with live chat. At a previous job, the company tried implementing live chat but used its own employees rather than an outside vendor.

“It failed miserably,” he said. “The problem is, the person on chat wants a response immediately. Trying to do this with your own people means they have to be able to respond in, like, a minute. If they don’t, and that customer leaves, they’re gone forever.”

Trevor Flannigan, COO of HomeServiceChats, said having someone on call to answer chats 24/7 is key to a successful live chat experience and that contracting with a vendor is the most feasible way for a company to provide round-the-clock service. According to HomeServiceChats’ statistics, 42 percent of its chats take place after 9 p.m. and before 5 a.m.

“Some folks think ‘We turn it on and turn it off, and that’s fine,’ and it’s not good,” Flannigan said.

Hypothetically, hiring an internal staff member to run live chat 24/7 from the office would be upwards of $10,000 per month, he said, and there’s no way to facilitate that. In contrast, the average HomeServiceChats client pays $450-$550 per month.

About six to 10 people contact Rapid Repair Experts a day through live chat, according to Dombrowski.

“We get ‘em at 3 in the morning, but what surprised me is, we get quite a few during the day,” he said.

Candace Hunerberg, marketing director at Thornton & Grooms, Farmington Hills, Michigan, said the company made a decision driven by data to add live chat to its website in mid-December 2017, also using HomeServiceChats.

“We were looking at Google Analytics to see when people were on our site,” Hunerberg said. “There were a lot around 10:00 p.m. — people sitting there in the evening, getting ready for bed, doing their to-dos — and also on the weekends.”

Unfortunately, Thornton & Grooms is closed during those times.

“We thought we were missing out on some opportunities there, and live chat would give us the opportunity for more leads,” Hunerberg said.

Currently, Thornton & Grooms gets about 12 leads a day via live chat, accounting for about 5 percent of the company’s leads. And according to Hunerberg, for the most part, those turn into service calls.



Chat specialists work off-site but respond on their client company’s behalf, as if they were an employee.

“They respond, pretty much letting the customer know the office will be in touch shortly, then email a transcript of the whole chat into our office,” said Rob Minnick, owner, Minnick’s Inc., Laurel, Maryland, who started live chat on his website in September 2017. “We see everything said on both sides, and then we reach out to the customer. We don’t want [the chat service] going too deep; it’s better to find out the customer’s needs and wants, what are their concerns, and then pass that along.”

The important thing in live chat is responding promptly.

“You have to respond right away — you can’t ignore the email for two days,” Dombrowski said.

At his company, he has it set up so that chat transcripts are sent immediately to dispatchers.

“First thing in the a.m., we open emails and look at all the chats available. If it’s an emergency, the chat people tell them to call this number immediately and we’ll go out there,” he said.

If a chat comes in during business hours, HomeServiceChats can also do a warm transfer.

“We realized when we send an email, it’s like 15-20 minutes until they can get back, so we launched a call connect feature,” Flannigan said. “We call the customer as if we are that company — ‘It’s Trevor at Bob’s Home Service: let us get you over to our scheduling company’ — and while they’re on hold, they transfer them over to the company and send them a transcript of the email. Because of that, the conversion rates have been off the charts for our clients.”

To be able to respond in a company’s voice, the chat service first collects background information to create a client profile.

“We send over a survey, we scour their website, we work with them,” Flannigan said. “It’s a living document, in some ways.”

The more detailed the profile, the better the chat service will be able to tailor their responses.

“That was a big concern of mine: that we would lose our brand,” said Hunerberg. “Would it appear to them that an outside person was talking to them, instead of one of our employees?”

But so far, that hasn’t been the case. According to Hunerberg, the chat service presented a hefty form to fill out in terms of facts about the business and the kinds of key services offered. Chat users agree that giving feedback along the way is key to ensuring the best customer experience.

“You have to monitor it — make sure you’re happy with the chat service and the email transcriptions being provided,” Hunerberg said. “Sometimes you need to raise a flag. Don’t be scared to have that communication with them. You’re paying them to be part of your company, and you should be well represented.”

Dombrowski said it’s all about education and communication: for example, if a customer calls and says, “I see you’re based in Raleigh, do you also service the Durham area?” and a chat company that’s new to the business said “no” when the answer was “yes.”

“Or there might be a tuneup special ad for $59, and they might not be aware of that,” he said. “You’ve got to read every chat and give feedback constantly. Giving wrong information to a customer is the worst thing you can do.”

Minnick agreed that spot checking the transcripts should be an ongoing effort.

“You can read exactly everything said in the chat, so if you see anything that needs to be tweaked, make sure they’re doing exactly what you want them to do,” he said. “There’s a human being doing that on the other end, and nobody’s perfect.”



While the obvious use for live chat is to generate new leads, it can also prove useful for other routine conversations and ongoing customer maintenance: asking for an invoice, asking for advice, voicing a complaint, and the list goes on.

“We have quite a bit of new customers who have maybe Googled ‘plumbing’ or an HVAC item and ended up on our website,” said Hunerberg. “I have also seen comments in transcripts from current customers; they see that as a quick and easy way to say ‘I have something I need to ask,’ and they have also left reviews via chat.”

Live chat can also be used to intervene with unsatisfied customers, Flannigan said.

“People often come to the website before social media,” he said. “We train on how to deescalate the situation and get a manager involved ... so you don’t have to untangle that ball and try and get them to reverse this review.”

Flannigan said 84 percent of his clients’ chats turn into leads, and 35 percent of chats turn into new customers. Two percent of the chats are people looking for jobs.

“If a technician comes to a website looking for a new job, we have custom scripting for each of our customers ... we warm-transfer them over to the business, too” he said. “I had a guy in California who said, ‘You just hired us two plumbers, and I don’t even know what the return on investment is for that.’”

As with anything new, it’s reasonable to expect some bumps in the road while employees and the chat service get acclimated.

“The first month, it was a bit difficult: typical growing pains, like they got the neighborhood or the area wrong,” Hunerberg said. “Now we really like it. It’s allowing us to answer some customers’ questions when maybe they would have stopped looking otherwise, if they couldn’t find something on the website. I wouldn’t say traffic has changed from an overall standpoint, but we are seeing an increase in time spent on the website. When they’re chatting, they’re also active on the page, and there are fewer forms filled.”

Hunerberg said the biggest challenge has been dealing with the lack of control that comes with handing over a service to an outside vendor.

“They’re not an employee here, so they don’t fully understand our culture, our complete depth of service,” she said.

Flannigan said it’s a misconception that live chat only works well with a good website.

“We actually chat more on bad websites because there’s no information there,” he said. “It’s like a digital front desk.”



Minnick started live chat at his company “because we know today’s world doesn’t like talking on the phone,” he said.

In today’s real-time, multitasking society, waiting on the phone can be akin to anathema. According to Harris Research, 53 percent of customers would prefer to use online chat before calling a company for support. And it’s not going away. A recent report, published by Allied Market Research, stated the global live chat software market was valued at $590 million in 2016 and is projected to reach $997 million by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 percent from 2017 to 2023.

Flannigan said that while millennials are an obvious contributor to the trend, live chat is more than just a young-person’s thing.

“It’s kind of like Uber,” he said. “Obviously, millennials picked it up first, but if anything is going to save time, people pick up on it.

“People who are deaf or hard of hearing love website chats,” Flannigan added. “They’re not going to pick up the phone because they can’t hear very well, and chat allows them to communicate in a way they feel comfortable.”

More customers are wanting to get as much information as they can online, Hunerberg said.

“It’s so much easier to go and have those answers without having to pick up the phone and talk to someone,” she said. “We all value our time — it’s a commodity that we don’t get back, so whatever we can do to make our service more convenient for them is a plus for our company.”

Flannigan said that, for now, live chat still serves as a differentiator, but it won’t be that way for long.

“In three years, you’re going to lose a considerable amount of business if you don’t have live chat on your websites,” he said.

Minnick has been in the HVAC business for 64 years, and he sees live chat as changing the future of how consumers interact with service providers.

“I see anything to do with your cell phone and being able to chat, book appointments, communicate — it’s all through that now,” he said. “Nobody’s talking on the phone anymore. Email’s going away, too. Contractors need to get to today’s work ethic of how customers want to be serviced and handled, and that’s where everything’s going: it’s going to all the technology.”

Michael Kansky, founder and CEO of LiveHelpNow, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said that the next big trend in live chat is texting — something he pioneered in 2016.

“With traditional live chat, you have a live chat box where you can fill out a box and start a chat,” he said. “With texting, it’s an even greater degree of convenience — text is king, as far as convenience goes. You don’t have to be glued to the screen waiting for the answer; you can send your question and go about what you’re doing. It’s definitely gaining popularity.”

Publication date: 5/21/2018

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