I have a confession to make. Since moving into my new house nearly two years ago, I have been living with a 25-year-old furnace and air conditioner. It feels good getting that off my chest. I squirm in my seat at every industry conference, listening to the presenter preach about energy efficiency and new high-tech products.

I finally decided to right that wrong and upgrade both systems. If my experience is the norm, it must be awfully tough for a regular consumer to cut through the clutter when purchasing an HVAC system.

Like any smart consumer, I went out to get my three bids based on Angie’s List recommendations. And, while everyone was friendly and talked about the products with confidence, I was getting different information from each company. One sized me for 3.5 ton, one had me at 4 ton, and the last contractor said my house needed a 5 ton. Only one company thought a load calculation was important; the others said they could just go off the square footage — which they asked me for.

Two of the contractors disparaged every manufacturer they were not selling. The third contractor talked up his manufacturer a bit before stating there is not a lot of difference between the equipment, and it comes down to choosing a contractor that installs the product right and stands behind the work.

Two said there was no need to pull permits while the third contractor said they always pull permits. One said a single-stage furnace was the way to go while the other two said two-stage was the right decision.

Two of the contractors said a new unit would fix all the problems I shared with them — some cold rooms in the winter and hot rooms in the summer, humidity issues, not the best IAQ. The third contractor said a new box would help but we need to look at the house as a system and perhaps fix other items as well.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I have been writing about HVAC for over 10 years and know that a load calculation is important and a two-stage furnace should help my comfort level. I also know the importance of IAQ. However, the vast majority of the public has no idea what a load calculation is, nor do they know what IAQ stands for. All they know is three different people were in their home and they got three different “expert” opinions on what is important when making a decision that comes with a significant financial investment.

So, if the customer can’t tell the difference on the technical aspect of the decision, they switch to personality and soft skills. However, like my experience can attest, each company had a competent sales person come out to the house. Everyone emphasized attention to detail, talked up their great employees, and said they stood behind their work. So, in essence, that becomes a wash as well.

At that point, the customer does not have any choice but to make the decision based on price, and the low bidder who will not do a good job generally gets the gig.

To differentiate, a contractor needs to show the customer what could happen when they go down that road. Have you been to a house that has called you to fix a comically bad installation? Take a picture of what you walked into and a picture of after you fixed it. Show the customer what might happen if they make the wrong decision.

Don’t just tell them you employ North American Technician Excellence (NATE)-certified technicians. Provide stats of what a difference a NATE-certified tech can make. Go to the Consumer Contractor Connection at NATE’s website to print out a list of local companies that employ such techs. I was taught in journalism school to write a story as if the reader has never heard about the subject. The same can be said of selling HVAC equipment — because there is a good chance the homeowner doesn’t know much on the topic. It is just as important to educate them on what might go wrong, as it is to brag on your product or staff.

Publication date: 3/16/2015

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