Successful HVAC Contracting Starts With Building Trustworthy Relationships
Trust is defined as the assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something. When it comes to operating a small business, it can take years to build a trustworthy relationship with customers. Unfortunately, contractors are just one decision, one mistake, one split second away from losing that trust. HVAC contracting companies already have an uphill battle since there is a somewhat less than honorable stigma associated with the trade. However, many have managed to establish solid, trustworthy reputations in their service areas.
STARTS AT THE TOP
While Steve Saunders, CEO of Tempo Air, Irving, Texas, is aware that HVAC scams exist, he is unaware of any in his immediate service area.
“I have little time and even less interest in trying to understand ‘what is going around,’ and how that may impact other customers or clients of other companies,” Saunders said. “In general, I spend my time trying to think about how we can be better, smarter, and run smoother. Our philosophy — for what it is worth — is we are our own biggest enemy, and we need to spend time addressing what is wrong with us before we try to spend time worrying about what might be wrong with others. With that belief, we find that there is zero time to worry about what others do and barely time to work to better ourselves.”
Companies build trustworthy relationships by simply being trustworthy, Saunders noted.
“It starts at the top and runs through the organization,” he said. “If I am not trustworthy, how can I expect any others to be? And if my co-workers do not see me as trustworthy, well, why would that be a requirement for them? We fail, and we fail often. But we get up, try again, and work on earning trust every day. With clients, it is mostly about doing what you say, showing up when you promised, and fixing what is broken.”
Contractors should be clear on recommendations and be certain that they are offering what the client really needs, not what might look good on the daily revenue report, Saunders added.
“Charge fairly, and explain your pricing,” he said. “Deliver value and think about the long term, not just today’s transaction. Communicate effectively, both internally and externally. And be consistent. There is no magic bullet. Trust is mostly about fairness, hard work, and good people trying to deliver work for others.”
Tempo does not spend a lot of time or money advertising. In fact, most of its clients come from referrals or from the company’s HVAC construction business, Saunders explained.
“We try hard to turn these folks into long-term clients based on their experiences,” he said. “And we hope they will tell their friends and families about us, and hope that each one sends us just a few new customers every year. Our motto is ‘revenue growth first comes from keeping your current customers and then by adding new ones.’ Our best deals and our best pricing go to our best customers. We don’t offer a cheap ‘come on’ deal for new clients. It just doesn’t work well for us. I think that mentality shows up in how we operate, how we communicate, and how we respond to the many challenging situations we face daily. As I say, anyone can be a good HVAC company in October. The true test is how you operate in June, July, and August.”
Additionally, Tempo’s comfort advisors and customer support team are constantly training in both technical and communication skills.
“Technical skills are crucial; communication skills are essential,” Saunders noted. “Some of it is about doing what is right because sometimes, what is ‘right’ is expensive. But, longer-term, we make more money if our folks do what they think is the best action in any given situation. With more than 200 people, no one can mandate doing the right thing. It just has to come from within.
“When we fail, it is probably something I did or something I failed to do,” he continued. “When we succeed, it is the success of the individuals in the fray. They are the ones who have the power to give clients good experiences and keep them coming back. I love and respect our workforce. We pay them well and offer a lot of benefits to keep our company at the forefront of being a great place to work. And, when we do it right, our people will do a great job because they want to do what it takes to make the client happy.”
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
With the advent of the internet, it’s so easy for a company to make itself look professional and like it’s been around for a long time, said Matt Bergstrom, president of Thornton & Grooms in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
“People will look online and go, ‘Well, Google said they were OK,’” he said. “The opportunity is out there for the folks who maybe don’t have the best moral or ethical standards, and that’s not good or fair.”
According to Bergstrom, building a trustworthy reputation happens in two ways: before meeting the customer and when the company is face to face with the customer.
“On the pre-side, it’s all about reviews and being able to show that you’ve created a bunch of happy customers out there,” he said. “And you need to be able to do it on multiple platforms, so you can’t be perceived as putting them up there on your own or having friends and family do it for you. We use Google, Yelp, Better Business Bureau, and Facebook. So when a customer goes looking, they can see that we have a bunch of good reviews, which must mean that customer service is important to us.”
Thornton & Grooms joined Nexstar Network to help train employees in customer service.
“We wanted to really be able to help our technicians and help better educate them on how to best be able to serve the customer while they’re in front of them,” Bergstrom said. “And to do it consistently, guy after guy after guy.”
Thornton & Grooms employees focus on three things: expertise, empathy, and expectations.
“Expertise is all about helping the customer understand that they know what they’re doing and the company has been around for a while. Empathy is about just talking to them to show we understand what they’re going through, and we’re going to take care of them. Then we focus on expectations — on helping that customer understand what a general service call looks like, what we do, and how we involve them in the process, so they can see what’s going on.”
It’s also extremely important for companies to listen to customers when they feel their trust was broken, Bergstrom added.
“We listen and try to understand where the trust was broken and how that happened,” he said. “Then we will gauge the situation, to see if it makes sense to help explain and build value to that customer to try and rebuild and reestablish that trust. And if we can’t, we’re going to do our best to do whatever we can to make that customer happy. Whether that means a refund, additional services at a future time, or a free maintenance plan, we’re going to work with that customer. Because for us, we’re trying to create raving fans and customers for life every single time. That’s our goal.”
ALL IN THE NAME
Trustworthy relationships take a long time in building, but like any relationship, trust can be destroyed in a very short amount of time, explained Ray Isaac, president, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Rochester, New York.
“My dad always said, ‘Watch my feet, not my lips,’” he said. “That relationship with customers has changed a bit nowadays. Today, if customers don’t trust you, there is an outward mechanism for them to share that betrayal or lack of trust. Everybody’s looking to be the savior of the world, and if they don’t trust somebody, they’re saving society by taking on that cause. So it’s kind of a new relationship with clients; the dynamics have changed.”
Unscrupulous contractors are the biggest problem because they give the whole industry a black eye, Isaac noted.
“A lot of times, you have to ask whether the result was due to incompetence or an ethical issue,” he said. “I would rather be viewed as incompetent than unethical. You have to admit when you don’t know something, admit when you make a mistake, and admit when you’re trying to figure something out ... and involve the customer in the process. That’s really a trust-building exercise because then you’re completely transparent in the diagnostic. When somebody comes up and tells you that you need 4 pounds of refrigerant at $80 or $90 a pound, what else are you making that decision on but trust in that service provider. We involve the customer in our processes, and we’ve been doing flat-rate pricing since the early ’90s because it’s very transparent with the customer.”
Isaac’s technicians will invite customers to come out and look at the meters and gauges with them. And because of the amount of information readily available on the internet, customers can go inside and search the causes of the coils freezing up, Isaac noted.
“They can vet whatever you’re telling them really easily,” he said. “That’s what I mean when I say the landscape has changed because of the information the customer now has at their fingertips. After 73 years in business, we have some inherent credibility with the public as far as making a diagnosis goes. I always tell people, ‘Look, I’m not going to jeopardize 73 years of building a business on trying to scam you for $150 bucks. It’s not worth it to me.’”
One of the things that makes Isaac a reliable, trustworthy company is its name.
“The first thing my grandfather did years and years ago was put his name on the business,” Isaac said. “Our name is our reputation, and you’re only as good as your name. I just did an orientation with a new group of employees, some of whom will be in the field, discussing how to improve the quality of life for the community. It’s all about the little things you do, like something as simple as stopping to let somebody into traffic. People will think, ‘Now there is a trustworthy company.’ I always tell my guys, don’t ever do anything that is questionable. Always do everything beyond reproach, and treat it like they are riding around in a truck with their last name, phone number, and website. I tell them, ‘You’re my representative out there. You’re Isaac.’ I provide them with a lot of ways to build trust with the customer. I give them the authority to take money off a service. I want them to feel empowered — it’s all about the employee feeling good in their own skin and practicing self-leadership.”
Isaac also sends its employees through its internal Isaac University program for training. Since customers can also be untrustworthy, techs, especially new ones, need to be prepared to handle confrontation situations — situations where the customer might lie, cheat, steal … do whatever possible to get something for free.
“They’ll take your kindness for weakness, and it’s tough out there,” he said. “That’s the reason for all the training we do with our people — so they are able to handle those situations and not get themselves into a compromising situation.”
Publication date: 10/22/2018