It’s July and it’s hot. That means it’s time for another TV investigative report on those dirty rotten HVAC contractors. This time it was NBC’s turn to catch contractors in the act at a home in New Jersey and a group of six service technicians didn’t disappoint the camera crew or the reporter.

All the techs had to do was find a low voltage wiring problem, fix it in about ten minutes, and then charge the homeowner the minimum service call fee. They found the problem all right, but then each of them said more needed to be done like the replacement of the start cap or the contactor or time delay relay on a unit that didn’t even have a time delay relay. The service estimates started at $395 and went as high as $950.

My first reaction was to get mad at those gotcha journalists that give our industry a bad name, but there’s more to the story. First, NBC contacted Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) before doing the sting and Paul Stalknecht, ACCA president and CEO, felt they had no option but to agree to participate.

“They were going to record the segment whether we were involved or not. Imagine what they would have said on air if we rejected their request: ‘We contacted the industry’s trade associations but they refused to comment,’” explained Stalknecht. “The audience perception would have been — guilty as charged.”

Bobby Ring, president of Meyer & Depew and the senior vice chairman of ACCA cooperated with NBC News and was present during the hidden camera operation.

“I had a responsibility to our entire industry to be involved and ensure that the report was done in the most professional way possible,” said Ring. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do to stop the technicians from pushing unneeded repairs.

My second reaction was to ACCA’s response. The association sprung into action immediately after the report was aired, releasing a special bulletin, special reports, and exclusive interviews with Ring and Laura DiFilippo, vice president of DiFilippo’s Service Co. and ACCA chairman. They also sent a press release over the wire referencing the NBC broadcast and included tips for homeowners on selecting the right contractor which has subsequently been picked up by more than 200 websites.

ACCA’s response is a great example of turning a lemon into lemonade, but I still have a bitter taste because six out of six technicians wanted to charge hundreds of dollars more than necessary. How can that happen? Why would an employee of a contractor try to turn a minor service call into a $950 service bill? We could chalk it up to incompetence, poor training, or to the technician being a rip-off artist, but I think it is more than that. If it was a rip-off, the contractor would have likely pushed for a major repair like the replacement of a compressor. That repair would mean thousands of dollars. Instead the technician was tacking on a few hundred dollars which suggests to me the possibility that they are being paid based on the amount of service business that they produce. I put that theory to Stalknecht and he conceded some contractors, “Might be too aggressive in pressuring the service tech to seek out additional business.” One of the contractor comments concerning the NBC sting on the ACCA website suggested the same thing.

“I believe the result of the sting is from how compensation plans are structured and the inability to find and retain quality employees,” said the commenter. “They all appeared competent and had the system cooling quickly, but they obviously have some pretty hefty incentive for replacing a part.”

I posed this same theory to Ring and he admitted this might be a contributing factor but he felt the problem is caused more by the integrity and character of the technicians. Ring said it was better to hire an inexperienced technician with a good attitude and moral character and teach them how to fix a unit than to hire a technician with 15 years of experience and a bad attitude. “You can’t as an employer teach them something that their father should have but didn’t,” he explained.

Although it is hard to watch, the NBC investigation has a message for contractors. Be very careful of who you hire and how you train them to represent you with potential customers. Take a long hard look at how you compensate your technicians and heed the words of DiFilippo; “You should never do anything in a customer’s home that you wouldn’t feel comfortable watching on television.”

Publication date: 7/30/2012