How important is a first impression? Does it matter if you blend into the crowd or if you stand out from the others? How do you want people to think of you when your company name is mentioned?

If you are an hvacr contractor looking to retain your customers and add to your base, you have to believe that first impressions are extremely important. What a customer thinks of you and your business has a direct affect on how much you can charge for your services and how well you can compete against the guy down the street who seems to be doing everything right, too.

“I think that if you look professional and clean, you automatically can demand a slightly higher price,” said Alan Barnes Jr. of Aircond Corp., Smyrna, GA. “Customers pay for value and when they see a professional and clean-looking technician and vehicle, they perceive that they are getting more value, compared to a technician with only a uniform shirt, operating out of the back of a pickup truck.

“We are not the cheapest in town, nor do we look cheap.”

A first impression can be the voice on the end of the phone, greeting customers and answering questions for them. It can be that moment a customer’s door opens wide to a smiling service tech, who is making his first visit to the home.

It could be how the service tech explains every detail of his work, so the customer has a complete understanding of the labor and material involved. It can be the way a business markets itself through direct mail, advertising, and now, the Internet.

The point is, people remember first impressions and contractors will improve their bottom line if they remember the keys to making a good first impression.

“We want to reaffirm with our customers [with our impression] that they made the right choice when calling us,” added Vince DiFilippo of DiFilippo’s Service Co. in Wayne, PA.

The News asked some contractors what they did to make a good impression and how they continued to bring in new business via happy customers, word-of-mouth customers, and web-browsing customers.

The first impression

In most cases, the first time a customer comes in contact with your company, it is by way of the telephone. One contractor puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of telephone contacts.

“First impressions start with the person who answers the phone,” said Paul Stellick of Stellick Plumbing & Heating, Colorado Springs, CO. “They must be courteous and professional. Your representative must have the knowledge to answer the customer’s questions.”

“Response from first impressions has not changed over the years,” said Joe Gennari of IBS, Fort Lauderdale, FL. “It is still the most important part of gaining a new customer.

“Your first impression sets the stage for the customer to hear your story and, more importantly, to listen to it. Clean trucks, dress, literature, and speech are of the utmost importance.”

Felix Famularo of Robert Refrigeration Service, Inc., New Orleans, LA, thinks that contractors should respond to the needs and expectations of their customers and their potential customers.

“When your customer is an upscale homeowner who shops at Dillards or Eddie Bauer’s, they expect, are entitled to, and will pay for, a professional contracting team with clean uniforms, clean trucks, ID badges, letters of reference, etc.,” he said. “Even those customers who do not expect these things are entitled to them.

“So let’s all practice proper presentation of our companies and ourselves to all of our customers no matter where they shop.”

“Image is so important,” added DiFilippo. “The first phone contact is very important and the service person must be clean and professional. We don’t use typical uniforms. Our people wear black pleated slacks, red shirts, shoe covers, and carry ID badges.”

DiFilippo only has three trucks on the road and he doesn’t use manufacturer’s logos on any truck, preferring to “sell ourselves, not our equipment.” He added that it looks like they have 30 trucks because of the distinct and impressionistic look.

That’s true for another contractor, Barnes. He said his customers comment that they see his trucks “everywhere.”

“Our vans are very distinctive looking and we require that our technicians keep them clean,” said Barnes. “We look at our vehicles as ‘moving billboards’ and keep them in great condition.

“We provide our techs with their own vans. We also provide them with uniforms [shirts, pants, overalls, jackets, safety boots, hats, etc.]. We place a high emphasis on how we look to the customer.

“I strongly feel that the first impression is what gets you in the door and keeps you there.”

Involving the customer

Do your technicians take the time to talk about their test instruments and provide a checklist of the services they provided? Many customers prefer to open the door, let in the service tech, and wait upstairs until the service has been completed. They are often indifferent to what has been done.

However, many contractors believe good service techs should be able to spot the customers who take a genuine interest in what they are doing and have questions about the “gadgets” and the maintenance checklist.

“If the customer wishes to know what the gadget is and what it does, we are happy to explain,” said Famularo. “A customer base better educated in hvacr is our goal. After all, don’t you start every call by talking with the customer and learning from them what the symptoms and problems are?

“Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually steered your technician in the right direction, because you educated them over time?”

Famularo added that his techs explain each item on the maintenance checklist if the customer has the time. He believes it is another way to educate the customer.

Contractor Gennari said that there are two good reasons for informing customers about the gadgets and the checklist — trust and justification for services rendered.

“Taking the time to show the customer these types of tools gives them [the customer] a trust level and shows that you are serious about your trade,” said Gennari. “A checklist is a very important part of an accurate hvacr maintenance service.

“Customers today want to be informed to the details of a checklist to ensure that they are getting the service they are paying for.”

Meanwhile, Barnes believes that using “professional looking” tools goes hand-in-hand with a professional looking appearance.

“If we have professional looking tools and use things that help us work faster, then we bring more value to the customer,” he said. “A good example is the infrared gun that our technicians use to point and shoot at any object to get an instant temperature reading. This type of device speeds up our performance and looks ‘high tech.’”

Barnes added that the use of a checklist is important depending on the type of customer.

“Checklists are typically geared towards simple and common equipment [residential]. In the commercial-industrial world, the uncommon equipment is the norm and checklists would be difficult to use,” he said.

Contractor Stellick believed there are those homeowners who are satisfied with a working system — and not a checklist.

“Most customers don’t care about every point,” he said. “They just want to know if their system is safe and working efficiently.”

Tapping the internet

There has been an infusion of websites that allow visitors to learn about local businesses and schedule service-maintenance calls with the click of a mouse. Has this convenience reached contractors yet? Some have it and some are looking forward to getting it.

“IBS has an online call screen that allows customers to place service calls directly to our call center and get e-mail confirmation,” said Gennari. “Websites are not as active in our trade as they will be in the future, but we use this time to try different things and are changing it constantly.”

“We have a few customers who contact us via e-mail for service,” said Famularo. “It still isn’t the most efficient way, but if it is an emergency, the convenience factor is usually what drives our customers to the Net.”

Meanwhile, Barnes said that an interactive website is definitely in the works for his company.

“Our first phase in web development is to create a website that our customers can browse and get good information on the company and the services we provide,” he said. “At some point in time, we will have the capability where the customer can check the progress of a project, place a service call, and check the status of a service call.”