When Is It Appropriate for HVAC Contractors to Fire Customers?
Sometimes, doing business with certain people is more hassle than it’s worth
Believe it or not, the customer is not always right. Although most small business owners — like HVAC contractors — do all they can to ensure every customer has a happy, satisfying experience, some people are simply impossible to please. And when those people become a drain on the business and its employees, it often makes more sense for contractors to fire the customer than to continue the relationship.
CROSSING THE LINE
Most contracting companies, like Orem, Utah-based Western Heating & Air Conditioning, take pride in working with customers and do their best to make them happy.
“There is a line a customer crosses when they begin to take advantage of us,” said Angie Snow, vice president of Western. “This might look like asking for multiple discounts, or freebies, even after we have given them our best pricing and best service. There is a point where we have to put our foot down, and we have a heart to heart with them. We show them the value in our services and what it takes for a good company to take care of them. We walk them through our pricing structure, how it works, and everything that goes into it. We explain to them that moving forward, if they choose to continue to do business with us, then we expect them to respect the value we place on our services. If they choose not to continue to do business with us, we wish them well with no hard feelings. We understand that we are not the right fit for every customer.”
Handling customer complaints often depends on the issue at hand, but the customer service representatives (CSRs) at Western Heating & Air Conditioning are trained to approach every situation with empathy — listening and truly trying to help — Snow explained. If a CSR is not able to resolve the situation, department managers then step in to work with the customer to find a solution that accommodates both parties.
“If we can’t find a win-win, we ask the customer what they think is a fair solution,” Snow said. “We usually honor their solution, but we also let them know that, moving forward, we will not be able to serve them anymore.”
Daniel Jape, president, Reliable Heating & Air, Kennesaw, Georgia, said his company just recently severed a customer relationship when the customer insisted on getting work done for free.
“It wasn’t because we breached our agreement or were negligent in any way, but simply because this customer felt entitled to free work,” Jape said. “After lengthy conversations and proposing alternative solutions, the decision was made to end this relationship, as it was damaging our team’s morale and negatively impacting our business.”
Reliable has a dedicated customer experience team that monitors its Net Promotor Score feedback and social media channels on a daily basis, Jape noted. The team captures complaints and reaches out to the individuals to better understand their concerns and avoid similar situations from occurring in the future.
“Collecting feedback from our customers is invaluable because we strive to improve our service,” Jape added.
Buyer’s remorse is also a situation that might be cause for terminating a customer relationship, as was the case with Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Plano, Texas.
“We had an existing customer agree to a service repair only to have buyer’s remorse,” said Paul Sammataro, owner of the company. “We handle complaints by trying to understand and see the complaint from the customer’s perspective. We never want to lose any customer. We explain to all our customers that we are not perfect, but when we make a mistake or error, we will handle it to the customers’ satisfaction.”
There are also times when customers are very rude and berate service companies or employees.
“When you have someone who is completely rude to your people — cussing at them, calling them bad names — that’s where you need to step in,” said Rich Biava, vice president, GAC Services, Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I tell my employees that we are here to help, and we do a darn good job. We are the experts in what we do — we have a great reputation. And, yes, there are times we may mess up. But that’s not a reason for people to get to the point where they are unloading on us.
“You might be able to ignore the customer one time and take care of the problem,” Biava continued. “But once you have a history of people calling and being rude, it’s over.”
It’s important for contractors to weed out the bad customers, since it is a give-and-take relationship, Biava noted.
“It is a relationship — you have to build trust, show empathy, and support each other,” he said. “And when the customer decides that we are worth nothing and treats us like nothing, it’s not worth having that person as a customer.”
Biava said he always informs the customer of the decision to end the relationship, although sometimes, they don’t answer the call. So the company will make a note on the file, and when that person does call for service six months or a year down the line, the CSR will inform them that the company has chosen not to service their system anymore and asks if they would like to speak to a manager.
GAC Services recently experienced a situation where it installed a new HVAC system for a customer, then realized she needed electrical work done to ensure the system would pass inspection. The company explained the circumstances to the customer and informed her it would be another $300 to get the electrician to fix the issue.
“After we did all the work and finished everything, she decided not to pay the full price,” Biava said. “She decided to withhold $500 and said it was because she had to call in and get someone on the phone because her husband messed up the system when he started playing with the new thermostat. We listened to her message … it was of her yelling at him and him cussing at her. It was just a mess. But we got it back up and running. But she wouldn’t pay, saying we never told her about the $300, and she didn’t have a good experience with our company. So I talked to her and said, ‘Look, we’re done. You berated my staff on the jobsite and on the phone. No one is going to come back out to your house. Thank you very much, and good luck.’ I have a feeling those people have similar situations wherever they go.”
Sammataro said he terminates customer relationships when his company is not at fault and he cannot resolve the situation to a customer’s satisfaction.
“We also cut ties when the customer is being disrespectful to our employees, they request improper work or design, it’s an unsafe environment, or a refusal to pay,” he added.
Snow agreed, saying when a customer is not respectful, not fair, takes advantage of Western’s customer service, or falsely accuses the company and questions its integrity, then it’s time to say goodbye.
“We inform customers in a letter or a phone call … that we can no longer serve them,” she said.
At Reliable, terminating a relationship with a customer is always the last option, Jape noted.
“We have an open communication policy and work tirelessly with our customers to find a resolution,” he said. “In the rare instance where we cannot find a solution that meets the customer’s expectations and we have exhausted all of our options, we notify the customer that parting ways would be a mutually beneficial decision.”
Typically, the company considers termination if a customer’s demands abuse policies and morale. Once the decision has been made, Reliable will call the customer to review a final proposed resolution and, if there is no interest in working together, will thank them for their business and suggest the relationship is not a ‘good fit.’
“In certain cases, we will extend the same friendly service and summarize our understanding of the customer’s wants and needs and introduce businesses we believe could better provide what the customer is seeking — often a service or product we do not offer,” Jape said.
In today’s internet age, unhappy or unsatisfied customers can often damage a business’ reputation by leaving negative reviews on popular websites, such as Google, Yelp, and Angie’s List. Terminating a customer relationship could incite an angry customer to do just that.
“People are going to do that no matter what,” Biava said. “We always take the high road. I trust someone that’s managing that for us to handle the situation if we get a bad review. We try to address the situation, but we’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Well, you didn’t pay us,’ or ‘You were rude to our CSR.’”
Sammataro personally responds to all the reviews his company receives — good and bad.
“I try to explain our position and why we took the action we did,” Sammataro said. “We try not to be defensive, just honest. We have actually had a customer replace two systems with us because of the way I replied to a negative review. In the service business, unfortunately, customers will be unhappy in some cases. It is knowing you did all you could to retain the customer by fully explaining why or why not you are taking the action you are taking.”
Jape said his company tries not to get defensive or to prove that they are right and the customer is wrong when responding to online reviews.
“We also recognize this is a public forum, and while our customer can air details about their experience with us, we try to be careful with what we share,” he explained. “We always let them know we heard them and we will have our customer care team get in touch. We remind them we stand behind our 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. No one likes to lose a customer. The reality is that it does happen. Taking care of our customers is as important as looking after our team members. We strive to give both the experience they deserve.”
According to Snow, Western always replies to negative reviews in a positive manner to uphold the integrity of the company.
“We thank them for their feedback and always mention our efforts to find a resolution — whether they accepted them or not,” she said. “We have found that the public knows that sometimes, there are just crazy people who need to vent. When we respond in a professional way, we take the higher road and will earn the respect from the types of people who have the same values as we do — that’s really who we want for our customers.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to break up with a customer, especially when the customer has been with you for years,” Snow continued. “But deep down, if you know it’s just not a good fit … it’s best to tell the customer, ‘It’s not you, it’s me, and I just don’t see this relationship working out.’”
Publication date: 10/22/2018