Ping! The “Breaking News” alert goes off to notify homeowners that their HVAC repair guy is on the road. The message reads: He’ll arrive in half an hour. And there’s a picture of him, so they know who to be looking for when a fellow with a toolbox shows up at the door.
If current smartphone usage trends are any indication, this type of consumer experience could soon move from the exception to the norm. With some forward-thinking contractors, it’s already the reality.
Jonathan Rivera, COO and lead technician at Revolution Air in Houston, is one of those contractors.
“The days are gone where people wanted to pick up the phone and say ‘Hey, I need you to come out and perform an estimate,’” he said. “Almost all our new customers call us the first time, but after that, it’s almost always online. People just want to text.”
HOW IT WORKS
Contractors that use live texting, and companies that make that software, operate on the premise that people respond best to the kind of communication they use in their everyday lives — and with smartphones, online sales, and texting now firmly embedded in American society, jumping on that bandwagon just makes sense.
Brian Elrod is CEO of Text Request, an online text messaging service for small businesses, founded in 2014.
SCREEN TIME: Using a live texting service, staff members can forward a message, set up an out-of-office reply or a Chrome extension to use with their CRM, or create multiple users so that employees can be on the program at the same time and see what the others are doing.
“We realized there was a huge opportunity because people were no longer communicating the way they were in the past ... no longer setting up voicemails on their phone, or they were not listening to voicemails,” he said. “We knew businesses needed to communicate better just to operate.”
Adding live text to contractors’ communication tools gives them the platform to text in a professional manner, without passing around a cellphone.
“We take a business phone number — it can be one they’ve had forever — and because landlines have SMS rods just like a cellphone does, we can enable ‘call or text us at this number,’” Elrod explained.
And, in a key move for reaching HVAC’s online shoppers, contractors can put a click-to-text-us option on their company websites.
“If they click on it from their phone, it goes straight into their SMS application,” Elrod said. “They don’t have to enter anything; it’s a one-push button to ask for service or a quote.”
On the contractor’s side, staff can forward a message, set up an out-of-office reply or a Chrome extension to use with their CRM, or create multiple users so employees can be on the program at the same time and see what the others are doing.
For Revolution Air, which started using Text Request a couple years ago, the on-my-way notification system has proven popular with customers.
Roland Ligtenberg is co-founder of Housecall Pro, which focuses on the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical industries, with a focus on the smaller companies — the one- to 10-truck-size contractors. Being able to give real-time updates on when the technician will arrive for a job, and being able to show them a picture of the tech before he or she shows up, helps build trust and demonstrate transparency, he said.
“Typically, we’re dealing with a mom who’s head of household, with the purchasing authority in the home,” Ligtenberg said. “It’s about making it so that she’s comfortable with a random stranger coming into her home. When the face matches the software, it starts things out on the right foot ... there’s a level of trust.”
That feature often shows up in customers’ Yelp reviews: “I could see the technician before they were already here,” or “I knew when they were coming, so I had time to drop my kid off for karate before they showed up.” It gives those contractors a real advantage, Ligtenberg said.
That convenience factor has generated an amazing amount of positive feedback from Text Request’s clients’ customers, Elrod said.
“Their customers love it because they don’t have to answer a phone call: They don’t have to call and go through a phone tree, a call system, and they can send texts after hours,” he said. “Maybe [the contractor] doesn’t respond right away, but it’s on the next day’s to-do list.”
Unlike the live web chat feature that contractors are increasingly adopting for their websites, live text allows the contractor to initiate communicate on an outbound basis, as well as respond to incoming messages.
“Say you’re in a maintenance contract with a customer, trying to do spring or fall maintenance, and you can’t reach them,” Elrod said. “You can send them a text: pick a date, etc.”
Other uses include typical confirmations, hiring, and sending review links and payment reminders or links to pay online — anything a contractor might otherwise do over the phone.
IT’S IN DEMAND
Ligtenberg compared live texting, live chat, and the rise of online booking to the rise of an instant-gratification, instant-update culture.
“It’s like Uber and Lyft,” he said. “Once they disrupted the industry, now everyone wants to do the on-the-way texts. It’s the same as when the Yellow Pages came out: You had contractors who named their company AAA HVAC so they’d be on the front page.”
It’s the same phenomenon as when communication went from phone calls to email. Except now, it’s being driven by the likes of Amazon, eBay, and Southwest Airlines.
“Now it’s email to texting,” Elrod said. “I think it’s just how people are wanting to communicate. It’s all quick, short-code communications, and businesses need to be able to communicate in this way. I’ve talked to hundreds of home service companies at this point, and they’re all struggling with reaching their customers. If that many people are looking for a solution, there needs to be a shift.
Elrod said his clients’ users are generally people under 50.
“I think it will become a necessity, especially as that millennial demographic of 37 and under keeps moving up,” he said. “It really translates because it’s their form of communication, for people under 50. And the generations coming up, they just will not do a phone call.”
Rivera put the age range a little higher: more like 28 to 65, among his customers, with the majority being in the 40 to 45 age range.
“It’s crazy how much these elderly people are like, ‘I’m tired of picking up the phone and calling these people,’” he said. “It seems like more and more elderly people are trying to streamline their golden years.”
The same goes for live booking, Rivera said.
“I’m one of the few contractors who feel that all companies should be able to put all their pricing online,” he said. “People are so tired of the same old rhetoric: ‘We’ll have to get out there to provide you an estimate.’ More and more customers are looking for more of an Amazon feel to home service, where you can click a button and do a standard service call, book a capacitor. They know what they want, and if they don’t, they’ve already done twice as much research as a technician in the past 24 hours, trying to figure out what they need.”
Follow-up calls to confirm appointments booked online actually agitated Rivera’s customers so much that he stopped doing them and just sent them a confirmation text instead.
This year, 30 percent of Revolution Air’s customers booked their appointments online, leading the company to decide against hiring a dispatcher.
Elrod reported that the response from texting out an ad is five times greater than doing the same by phone.
“So every ad should say ‘call or text us at this number,’” he said. “Anyone who does that always comes back to say, ‘I’m amazed: I get more texts than I do calls.’”
Joseph Giannone Plumbing, Heating, Air Conditioning in Philadelphia, uses Text Request software. While the program works well, it’s not a substitute for other forms of communication, he said: It’s an addition to their pre-existing marketing strategies.
“We are getting under a 10 percent response rate,” reported Giannone. “The bottom line is, this has been the best response rate, but it is not the only thing that we do to get a response from a customer.”
HOW TO PREPARE
Elrod put the number of contractors who currently use live, two-way texting communication at less than 25 percent.
“In order to be great, you have to stay up to date with industry standards: It’s either evolve or go extinct, and it starts with a growth mindset,” he said. “I ask the skeptics, ‘When was the last time you talked to a travel agent?’ and they’re like, ‘Uh, I booked my trip online.’ Some will say, ‘My town is Nowheresville, South Dakota.’ But the truth of the matter is, you need to open all the channels … to do what’s best for the customer. That will make your business successful.”
In the next five years, Elrod estimated that all the routing, scheduling, dispatching, and pricing in HVAC businesses will be automated.
“So many of those aspects are all mathematical equations,” he said. “What’s skilled is the HVAC technicians, who have to go out to the home; robots will never replace that. But all the boring stuff, that will all go away.”
How to prepare for a potential onslaught of texting? One way is collecting new phone numbers and making sure the numbers in a current data set are valid.
“They’re definitely going to want to take a look at how they’re marketing their website,” Rivera said, “and invest and probably divest from having multiple dispatchers.
“This is no longer the mom and pop shop type mentality any more, with the written estimate … that’s a thing of the past,” he continued. “We’re gonna have to do a major rehaul in terms of the process of taking in a service call and how they follow up with the customer. People want to purchase air conditioning online, and contractors are gonna have to make room for the change.”
Publication date: 1/28/2019