Turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or talk with a colleague — “e-business” is the latest buzz. But the influence of the Internet has varied industry to industry.

For example, consumer retail has exploded, while hvacr has experienced little change in its business practices. However, during the past six months, a variety of “e-solutions” beneficial to contractors have entered the marketplace. Those promising to make the greatest impact to the hvacr industry are customer portals.

To date, contractors have primarily used the Internet as a marketing tool, a place to put company information and product and service descriptions. Some have even ventured to open parts stores on the web.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t always proved to be a viable business solution for a few reasons:

  • The expense of opening an e-retail store;

  • The additional work and cost of maintaining and monitoring the site; and

  • The availability of the same products, priced lower, from other suppliers.

So how can you take advantage of the Internet to bolster your bottom line and retain customers? Enter customer portals.

The Benefits of Customer Portals

Simply defined, a customer portal is a web page that allows your customers to access their specific account information via the Internet. However, unlike most current, marketing-focused websites, which are created for potential customers, portals are specifically used by current customers.

Using this Internet tool, your customers can view a variety of details such as call and equipment histories, call statuses, maintenance contract details, project information, schedules, and billing.

Equipment and facility documentation such as O&M manuals, CAD drawings, and replacement parts can also be included.

Some portals even facilitate submitting service requests online. In addition, you may be able to customize the type of information you display to your customers.

Accessing information in a customer portal is similar to accessing any other website. Customers point their Internet browser to the portal’s web address. For privacy and security purposes, most portals require a user ID and password, which allows customers to only view the details in their own account.

Most customer portals are integrated with a service management or project-oriented application. As a result, time-consuming double entry is eliminated and all information is displayed real-time. This integration also allows for easy facilitation of online service calls.

Capturing New Business

Customer portals’ numerous benefits can be used as selling features when soliciting new commercial service and maintenance business.

Furthermore, since portals are new to the hvacr industry, they can also be positioned as a service differentiator, giving you a market advantage over your competition. Possible selling points include:

Type of information available — Customers can gain access to their specific information such as call statuses, service history, equipment manuals, facility and equipment drawings, etc. Again, the information available will vary depending on the product and customization options.

Immediate access to information — Not only can customers view an array of information, but they can gain immediate access to their account details, getting virtually instant answers to their questions. This provides a time-saving method of obtaining information, instead of traditional means (making a phone call, leaving a voice mail message, waiting for a call back).

Convenience — Day or night, customers have the flexibility and convenience to retrieve information and place service calls. This accommodation can be especially attractive to customers who work around the clock.

Increased productivity, efficiency — By putting status and historical information at your customers’ fingertips, customers can track the performance of your work. Although this may keep you on top of your game, customers will perceive you working smarter (fewer hours) compared to the competition, who charges less per hour but requires more time to get the job done.

Although a contractor’s first instinct might be to charge for this type of service, it may be of greater value to offer it as a free benefit to all your customers, or to those who hold maintenance contracts with your firm. Access to their account information via the portal can be positioned as an added benefit. The real money, though, will not be made from this service, but from a customer’s continued business relationship.

The information you maintain on your customers can be used to your marketing advantage. Portals allow you to channel, categorize, and customize this information.

Bottom line: Use the web and tools to provide value to your customer, and exceed what they can get from your competitors.

Publication date: 08/28/2000