Shoulder season never happened for many HVAC contractors this past year. Supply issues meant they were installing equipment in the normally slow times of the year. But soon, shoulder season will return, and contractors will need a plan for keeping staff busy.
This proves an important part of retention. Employees often cite a lack of work — right up there with too much work — as a reason for leaving a company. A number of speakers shared ideas for maintaining activity at the recent Barefoot Roundtable, hosted by Service Roundtable in Palm Springs, California.
There is no slow season for overhead. HVAC contractors pay the same to turn the lights on during a mild spring day as they do on the hottest day of the summer. While contractors can plan to spread their earnings throughout the year, the slow season still steals a firm’s profits, said Danielle Putnam, president of The New Flat Rate.
HVAC contractors look at all sorts of ways to fill their schedules during the slow times. Some expand into new services, ranging from pest control to chimney sweeping. This extra work comes from meeting a wide range of customer needs, from changing lightbulbs to putting together a play set. Putnam said she knows a few firms seeing success with slabjacking, which is leveling uneven concrete, usually in driveways.
Before selecting a new service, HVAC contractors need to inventory the resources they already have. This includes all tools and related supplies, including office equipment and even tape. It also includes vehicles to see how they can be repositioned. And, of course, it includes staff.
“You have skilled labor, and they’re capable of doing great things,” Putnam said. “Not every industry has that.”
Many HVAC contractors look at two related trades when they consider expanding their offerings — electrical and plumbing. Putnam said both are good options, but contractors should consider simpler alternatives.
“If you have an HVAC business and you want to diversify, you don’t have to add an entire plumbing division,” she said.
Putnam warned of spreading staff too thin. She also said HVAC contractors need to factor in safety when considering any new service. Hanging exterior lights, for example, is within the skill set of many technicians, but increases the risk of a fall. It’s crucial to make sure that someone in the firm is directly responsible for overseeing these extra offerings. HVAC contractors also need to dedicate marketing resources to increase customer awareness. This ranges from social media promotions to including a menu of services on truck wraps.
One of the best approaches to getting through shoulder season is to increase efforts to get more HVAC work. For example, a contractor could offer to remove the cost of an earlier repair if a customer buys a new system. Winterizing, specialized real estate inspections, and duct cleaning are three related services that require little investment. HVAC contractors can present themselves as IAQ experts, Putnam said, and leverage that for more work, such as radon mitigation.
Customers concerned about IAQ likely also worry about what’s in their water, said Glen Blavet, founder of Halo Water Systems. He said consumers currently spend $20 billion on bottled water. Contractors can capture some of that money by offering water purification systems. Technicians can include a simple tap water test as part of a routine visit.
“People want it,” Blavet said. “They just don’t know you have it. People buy from people they know they can trust.”
Target Existing Customers
The other way many HVAC contractors get through should season is preventive maintenance. Crystal Williams, creative director of Lemon Seed Marketing, said it’s best to lean into existing customers. But getting them to spend money on preventive maintenance requires more than just a standard sales pitch, Williams said.
“We have to make things fun and cool,” Williams said. “People don’t want to be part of something they can’t make an emotional connection to.”
She provided examples of how different HVAC contractors use their brand mascots to promote their preventive maintenance programs. One with a dog mascot called it Saige’s Loyalty Program. Another contractor that uses a bee in its marketing calls it the Hive Comfort Club.
HVAC contractors should offer a slight discount after several years of continuous membership, Williams said. That’s one way to get buy-in from technicians who may hesitate to sell a product to customers. The best way to get buy-in, Williams said, is to make the connection between steady work and these programs.
Steady work is the ultimate goal for HVAC contractors, whether it’s adding a service such as slabjacking or enhancing a preventive maintenance program. Blavet said overall expenses, ranging from fuel to marketing, only continue to rise. When slow times return, HVAC contractors should have a plan for how to cover those costs.