Feeling disoriented? You’re not alone. COVID-19 has everyone perplexed.
While many of us have led businesses through a recession, none of us have navigated the reality we currently face. None of us have faced an economic recession caused by government response to a global pandemic. The situation is evolving quickly, and it seems that no one knows quite how long things will last or how bad things are going to get.
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Home Service Marketing in A Time of Uncertainty
One of the questions I hear frequently from home service contractors is, “Should I continue to advertise and market through this chaos, and if so, how?” It’s a fair question with no simple answer. It depends on your cash reserves, where your business is located, how much capacity you have, whether your company serves commercial or residential customers (or both), what your growth goals are—the list goes on and on.
But just because there’s no easy answer, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend some time trying to come up with a productive course of action. No matter what your situation might be, there is one approach that is almost always sound:
- Review relevant data
- Execute small, safe-to-fail experiments
- Look for instructive patterns to emerge
- Put more resources behind what you see working
In the book Great by Choice, Jim Collins says, “Fire bullets, then cannonballs.” The bullets in Collins’ analogy are the small, safe-to-fail experiments I’m suggesting. They are low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction tests. You review the relevant data and shoot two or three bullets. The data you have might be limited, at first. But as you closely monitor the results of your initial tests, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll see something working—an instructive pattern—at which point, you put more resources behind it (turning it into a big bet or what Collins calls a cannonball), or your bullets will fail to hit their target, but you’ll have more data, and you’ll have learned something through the process.
In uncertain times, this is your most productive course of action.
COVID-19: What We Are Seeing
At Blue Corona Marketing, we have been tracking advertising and marketing and helping HVAC and home service contractors market their businesses online for more than 12 years. We see ourselves as the keepers of a large database of HVAC and home service contractor marketing and web data.
We have been watching carefully as the COVID-19 situation unfolds, and I want to share with you some things we are seeing.
HVAC Consumers Are Still Searching
If you spend any time watching the news these days, you would be hard-pressed to believe that there is any economic activity happening. While it is true that COVID-19 has completely disrupted the economy, there is still business being done. Fewer people working in offices means that the demand for various commercial services—office coffee, cleaning, fire protection, maintenance, shredding, etc.—has declined. But on the flip side, with more people working from home, there is still some demand for residential services related to home maintenance.
Of our more than 100 home service contractors, we are seeing varied demand. A lot of the variation is, as you might expect, based on the mix of services provided, your geographic service area, and how well you were positioned prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Take a look at Figure 1.
This chart shows website visits from people using Google organic search and living inside one Maryland residential HVAC contractor’s service area. As you can see, this contractor is seeing about the same number of website visits in March 2020 as they did in March 2019, long before the COVID-19 crisis.
Compare Figure 1 to Figure 2, which shows the same traffic segment from the same traffic source for an electrical contractor in the same geographic area, but focused on residential and commercial services. You can see in Figure 2 that traffic to the electrician’s website has suffered a much larger decrease, with visits falling 27 percent from 2,053 in March 2019 to 1,488 in March 2020.
Finally, look at Figure 3, which shows traffic from the same segment and same source for a residential contractor in Illinois that provides HVAC, plumbing, and electrical services.
This company has seen visits from the same segment—people living within their service area visiting their website via Google organic search—increase from 3,408 in March 2019 to 3,611 in March 2020. A 6 percent increase may not seem like anything to write home about, but with all the doom and gloom being portrayed in the media, an increase of any amount is encouraging—and this is just one example of several we’ve seen.
One of the takeaways here is that, contrary to what you’re seeing all over the news, not every business is suffering through this pandemic. Generally speaking, commercial contractors have been harder hit than residential contractors and HVAC, as a trade, has suffered smaller declines than trades like electrical and all forms of ‘want-based’ services (think: remodelers). Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your company is going to struggle indefinitely, or that just because you are currently struggling, there’s no hope things will improve. Some residential-focused contractors have suffered only small declines in demand, while others have seen things stay more or less like they were last year (in terms of demand). Others are actually doing even better than years past.
Searches for Indoor Air Quality Are Going Up
The combination of allergy season and COVID-19 has caused a dramatic increase in searches for all things related to indoor air quality—air filters, air purification, IAQ, etc. What exactly people are searching for, and the specific search volumes, vary by geographic area. Take a look at Figure 4.
This chart is from a residential HVAC contractor in Virginia. It illustrates how many more people in this contractor’s service area are performing Google searches that include the phrase “air filter.” Searches including this phrase have jumped 20 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019.
Again, the increases we are seeing vary greatly based on geography. Take the Chicagoland area, for example, where the increase in the number of people searching for “air filter” has been even more pronounced. Figure 5 is from a residential HVAC contractor in the Chicagoland area. They’ve seen a 133 percent increase in “air filter”-related Google searches.
Customers are Still Calling Their Local HVAC Contractors
Website visits are great, but calls and leads are what really matter. Call volumes for some of our home service clients have taken a sharp dip downward as homeowners delay appointments and projects. However, the most significant declines we’ve seen are with commercial contractors and what we refer to as “want-based” home service contractors—design/build companies, remodelers, etc.
Take a look at Figure 6.
When you look at the same chart for residential HVAC contractors, it paints an entirely different picture. Take a look at Figure 7.
What you are seeing in your business is going to depend on the services you provide and where your business is located. But there’s one thing that has been consistent across all of our clients—the questions callers are asking have changed. COVID-19 hasn’t just changed what consumers are searching for on Google, but also what they are saying when they call your office. We track and monitor marketing-generated phone calls for more than 200 home service companies. We do this to help our customers understand which advertising and marketing investments are really making the phone ring, which marketing channels generate real leads, etc. However, we also do it to help our customers improve their call handling.
Based on an analysis of recorded phone calls, we know HVAC contractors are receiving a large uptick in calls asking whether their businesses are open, whether their technicians are still available, and what precautions they are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have observed a surge in calls where customers are asking whether technicians will be wearing gloves, masks, using disinfectant wipes, shoe covers, etc. We’ve also heard consumers asking about no contact service calls and even virtual diagnostic calls conducted using video conferencing technologies such as FaceTime and Zoom.
Generating Data-Informed Marketing for Your Contracting Company
What marketing actions should you take based on these insights? Here are three suggestions:
Action 1: Update Your Content Marketing Strategy
You do have a content marketing strategy, right? Now would be a great time to revisit and update it. As I mentioned earlier, COVID-19 has consumers asking all sorts of new questions—questions like:
Are you considered an essential service? Are you open and running calls? Do you have technicians available? Can someone troubleshoot my problem virtually—via FaceTime or Zoom? Are you willing to do work in my home while I’m here? Will I be able to work while your techs service my home? What steps have you taken to ensure my safety, my family’s safety, your technician’s safety?
You should also make sure your website contains lots of information related to trending topics such as indoor air quality. Take a look at Figure 8. This residential HVAC company created a new page on their website related to air purification and resulted in a spike in entrances to their website via that page.
Action 2: Leverage Every Communication Channel
In this type of environment, over-communication is impossible. You need to get the word out to your prospects and customers, and you need to use every available communication channel. It used to be that prospects and customers would call you. If you are a commercial contractor, you probably received faxes too. Then email was born and fax machine use fell off a proverbial cliff.
Today, there are dozens of potential ways for a prospect or customer to contact you—email, phone, social media, text—the list grows with every passing year. To further complicate things, the modern consumer believes they should be able to use any of them and get a near-instant response from your company. Members of Generation X and Y, and certainly Millennials, are as likely to text you as they are to call you. You might even get some consumers contacting you via Facebook Messenger, Instagram, or Twitter.
Are you open for business? Do you have technicians available? Have you made adjustments to the way you serve customers due to COVID-19? You have? Great! Have you clearly communicated all this via email, your website, company Facebook page, Google My Business, and across all your company social media pages (Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.)? What about your company’s YouTube channel?
Speaking of YouTube—a lot of companies overlook YouTube as a communication platform, but this is a mistake. Not only is YouTube easily accessible from every smartphone and smart TV, making it extremely easy for your prospects and customers to use, it is also the second largest search engine after Google. With everyone working from home and trapped inside because of COVID-19, usage of YouTube and similar streaming websites is growing. Usage is growing so much that, in Europe, YouTube, along with Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, have actually temporarily reduced video quality to avoid breaking the Internet.
YouTube is a great place to extend the reach of any content you produce, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you need a videographer or a bunch of fancy camera equipment. While normally, self-shot, low-production quality videos uploaded from your phone might be frowned upon, the extraordinary circumstances of this crisis make substance more important than production quality.
Action 3: Sweat the Small Stuff
COVID-19 brought an end to the longest bull market in U.S. history. When the economy is great and business is booming, it’s easy to be sucked into the day-to-day operations of running your business consequently, overlook the areas of your business that need to improve. One of the most common issues we see preventing HVAC contractors from booking more calls is in our clients’ appointment booking rates—or how your staff handles inbound phone calls.
We have HVAC clients who convert 70 percent of their inbound inquiries into sales and other companies who convert barely 40 percent of their inquiries. When is the last time you called your office posing as a prospective customer or did a real analysis of your process? If it has been any appreciable length of time, this could be a great opportunity to increase your company’s efficiency.
It’s not inconceivable that you might be able to make up COVID-19-related lost volume simply by making your team better. Every call matters. When call volume is down, it’s even easier to do this type of customer service training and convert more callers into booked jobs.
Marketing, Testing, and Action
Think of the marketing actions above as bullets—they’re low-cost and low-risk tests. They are experiments. I can’t tell you whether you should continue to market your business through these challenging times. How you adjust and adapt your marketing depends on a lot of factors. One thing holds true, though, no matter what your situation is: It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re fire-fighting in a complex and rapidly changing environment. As a business owner and leader, you can’t afford to lose your cool. It’s your job to provide a sense of direction to your team and your company, despite the chaos. Try to bring some structure to your situation—no matter what your situation is.
Look for patterns in your data. Compare what you’re seeing in your business to what we’re seeing from our clients and the web landscape. If you’ve got solid cash reserves, use this information to execute some safe-to-fail experiments. Make sure you track your efforts closely. For example, you should be able to figure out the marketing source of every sale/job. When you see something working, put more resources behind it. Turn some of those bullets into cannonballs.
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