Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps HVAC and plumbing contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." He has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe NEWSsome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Levi your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.


Dear Al,

I've recently gone from time-and-material to flat-rate selling. My techs are struggling with having to present a price before they start the work and actually getting the customer to agree.

The beauty of time-and-material was that they got to skip the selling process because they did the work and the office sent the bill. The ugly part is the fights to get paid from the customer later and all the hassles it takes to put together the pricing.

How do I get them selling the flat-rate way correctly?

Flat-Out Sales

Dear Flat-Out Sales,

There are many steps to switching from a time-and-material shop to a flat-rate shop. The first step I talked about was in my online column in September 2005. (See "Hot Topics, Cool Solutions 19.") This involves getting buy-in from your techs using a training method shown to me by Dan Weltman.

Once they believe in your pricing from the Dan Weltman training you've done, you need to do role-playing with them in your own shop or, better yet, training center. Here's where they must sell you the job. It's your opportunity to coach them on how to ask good questions and listen effectively. This is where you teach them to take off the blinders and look around for more suggestions that are in the customer's best interest.

Then, I highly recommend you have them search the pricing in your flat-rate manual and present the options to you as if you were a customer.

Do this frequently enough and they'll get very comfortable with the process.

Al Levi


Dear Al,

I have offered a reward program to my techs for selling. But they act like that's not part of their job. I've explained that without sales we're all out of a job, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Why don't they want to sell?

Can't Get Them Motivated To Sell

Dear Can't Get Them Motivated To Sell,

When I first started to teach an in-house course called "Apprentice to Tech," I realized that teaching the technical side of the business was the easy part. Getting them to talk to customers, let alone sell, was the more challenging part.

I learned to address their resistance in the very first class. I'd say, "Close your eyes for a minute. When I say salesperson, what do you see? Stop, don't tell me. It's some loud-mouth guy in a plaid suit trying to sell you a used car. Am I right?" They'd laugh and nod in agreement. But this is not what sales is all about. Before we can teach them sales isn't talking but rather asking good questions and listening effectively, we need to break down their faulty thinking.

Many times they became a technician to avoid talking to people, let alone selling them anything. Typically, they are the kind of guys who work alone and would charge the homeowner more if they dared to watch them work!

It's wrong to think, "I'm a professional technician - not a salesman!" We are all salesmen! But there's a right way and a wrong way to sell.

They need to learn from you. The fact is you can't ever be a professional technician unless you're also an expert at communications. It's not good enough to be operationally consistent and technically skilled. It takes all three!

You need to let them know that only being good at fixing things, but not taking the time to discover what the client really needs and wants, doesn't serve the client. Needs and wants go unfulfilled and satisfaction suffers.

Selling is communicating. Communicating is not trying to sell anyone anything that's not in their best interest. It's asking good questions and really listening to their answers and offering good, better, and best solutions whenever they exist.

A technician's ability to communicate helps the client choose the right work that improves their level of comfort, safety, and convenience.

The best thing you can do is role-playing. That gets everyone up on their feet and communicating so when they get in front of the client they can feel at ease.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 03/06/2006