You’ve undoubtedly had to deal with this scenario: You or one of your customer service representatives answer the phone, and you begin going into whatever scripted questions you have to get relevant information from the caller. This is standard procedure for many companies.

But the flow of conversation is interrupted when the caller says, “I just want to know how much it’s going to cost me for a new system. What am I looking at in terms of cost?”

Our instinctive response is that we can’t give an accurate estimate over the phone without knowing a number of things about their home. But the caller is insistent. “I get it, but just give me a ballpark estimate,” they’ll say.

It’s an uncomfortable spot to be in, no doubt. But this isn’t a lost cause. I’d like to talk about how these calls can be converted not just into sales, but into customers who understand the value of a thorough, precise estimate.


Why We Hate the Question

For most of us, it’s obvious why we avoid the question. At minimum, a few basic pieces of information are needed to provide even a broad price range for a piece of equipment.

And if you’re performing a full load calculation, you’re collecting information that most homeowners don’t even realize is relevant to the efficiency and power of an HVAC system.

Further still, if there are problems with the home or system that need additional work, a “standard” estimate might not be applicable. What if the ductwork needs to be torn out and replaced, for example? In some homes, that could double an estimate.

Running from the problem won’t help, though, and understanding the customer’s needs in the process is the first step to solving it.


The Customer’s Perspective

People are jaded toward contractors, and not without reason. When you say “I need to come to your home to provide an accurate estimate,” what they hear is “I need to go through a two-hour sales pitch before I’ll get the information I want.”

It can be exhausting. So who can blame them for trying to cut to the chase?

The problem is that HVAC is more complicated than many other household projects, and a system that is customized to a home takes precision. So how do we bridge that gap?


Handling the Initial Inquiry

The worst thing we can do as contractors is to sound like we’re annoyed by all of this. If it sounds like we’re only happy to help this person if it’s on our terms, they’ll pick up on the annoyance and will be less trusting of us.

So for us here at Fire & Ice, the first key is meeting the customer where they’re at. “You probably know I can’t do a written estimate without taking measurements in your home, but I’ll be happy to give you a rough price range,” our team will begin, “But I won’t know if it’s $4,000 or $15,000 until I learn a few things from you. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your home?”

Opening with a positive affirmation that they’ll finish this call with the information they’re looking for is usually enough to get a caller to settle into a conversation.

We can’t perform a load calculation over the phone (yet), but we can start to dig into the basics, and we can also impart the value of an in-home estimate to a homeowner. Questions we’ll ask include:

  • What’s the square footage of your home?
  • Where is the a/c or furnace located?
  • How many windows are in the home? Do many of them receive direct sunlight during the day?
  • What is the age of the current system?
  • Do you know if your current system is single-stage, two-stage, or variable speed?
  • How’s the ductwork? Any obvious leaks?

Most people won’t have the answers to all of these, and that’s ok. The goal is twofold: One, you’re getting information to provide a reasonably accurate range of possible prices. And two, you’re clueing them in to the fact that there may be other issues with the home that affect the final cost. Nothing kills a sales appointment like a $2,000 increase over the ballpark estimate due to, say, ductwork modification or having to move the location of the equipment.

At the end of this, we’ll provide the ballpark estimate (with appropriate caveats that it could change depending on these other variables) and try to book a time for an in-home estimate to continue the process.

Preparing the customer this way can pay dividends, since refusing to provide one (or guessing) rarely works.


When It Doesn’t Work

The above example is an ideal situation, but we don’t live in an ideal world. “Scott,” I can hear some of you saying, “callers we get don’t have that kind of patience.”

And it’s true. Sometimes your attempts at guiding the conversation to a more productive place will fall on deaf ears. So what then?

It’s here that we stand by our principles. It’s irresponsible to shoot from the hip on pricing, especially without educating the customer on the benefits of what we do when we provide an estimate. How can we value ourselves properly if we allow the customer to believe that slapping a price tag on a job can be done in a heartbeat?

So on those calls where they’re unwilling to have that conversation, I inform them that we can’t provide an accurate estimate with no information and wish them best of luck.

There are edge cases, of course; real-life calls are always messier than we imagine. But sticking to these principles and strategies can allow you to stand by the integrity of your work while also providing immediate value to prospective customers.