Barb Checket-Hanks

You know, residential contractors seem to be more effective at selling maintenance agreements to their customers than commercial-institutional contractors are. This surprises me; it would seem to me that in the world that these commercial contractors deal in, businesses would have a better grasp of the costs of deferred maintenance - catastrophic failures and reduced equipment lifespan - but they really don’t. It can be an uphill battle to teach them.

Building owners and managers seem to be stuck in a morass of short-term costs and budget restraints, without a real sense of long-term costs and how emergencies can pretty well ruin their budgets.


Where are the big differences in residential and commercial maintenance work, other than the scope of their customers’ facilities? (This does not imply that all residential contractors sell a lot of maintenance contracts, or that all commercial contractors do not. But of those who aggressively go after maintenance contracts, it seems to me that the residential guys are able to rack up higher scores.)

First of all, most residential HVAC contractors that do a lot of planned maintenance work have very thorough strategies for going after this type of work, which may or may not be supported by manufacturers’ co-op advertising dollars.

They market it and have prepared informational materials to educate their customers. They deliver the message frequently, often beginning with the point of sale of a new or replacement unit, and continuing with home flyers and reminders containing special offers. Send flyers to your commercial customers and see how quickly they land in the recycle bin, not even coming close to a decision-maker’s desk.

The main advantage enjoyed by residential contractors is that when they educate their customers, they are reaching several important levels: owner, manager, bean counter, and occupant, all in one or two people.

For commercial contractors, this is typically four distinct levels within the organization, with gatekeeper secretaries and assistants to get past first. The occupants may never be considered - unless comfort complaints miraculously turn on the light bulb in some facility manager’s head and he or she realizes that regular maintenance/inspections can reduce those complaints. Mostly occupant complaints turn into operational changes that could put the system out of balance.

Then there’s the in-house staff. Homeowners may or may not change their air filters, but very few presume that they have the knowledge to maintain their system for optimal performance and efficiency. They won’t shrug and say, “I’ve got people who already do that.” They know what they’re doing, or not doing. In-house maintenance for a commercial customer may consist of changing filters, or maybe not even that.


For commercial contractors, finding the way into a facility’s maintenance program can be much more complicated. However, it can be likewise quite rewarding, giving successful contractors many more opportunities to have contact with the decision makers.

In all types of HVAC work, most of it comes down to growing relationships. Residential contractors appreciate the ability to stay in regular touch with existing customers as much as anybody, and they have similar incentives: replacements and referrals.

Commercial contractors may need to dig deeper to find the best decision makers; they may need to gather more operational information, particularly data that shows before-and-after maintenance efficiency numbers (try the utility bills first). Metering is huge when it comes to showing the effects of maintenance.

But taking the time to mine that information, and digging your way towards the correct person on staff, can be valuable in terms of a steady workflow, future work, better efficiency, and an even stronger customer relationship. According to the contractors we’ve spoken with recently, it’s worth it.

Publication date:11/24/2008