I was reading, with great interest, a letter sent to me by Coleen Essman of Component Assem-blies in Bryan, OH (see Feedback, page 6). She concludes that her company, seller of “innovative” hvac products, is ahead of its time. She based that conclusion on slow Internet sales of her company’s products, venturing that buyer mentality is still entrenched in one-on-one buyer-seller relationships.

The evolution of e-commerce is transforming traditional business practices from brick and mortar (touchy-feely), to brick and click (visit a business in person and/or order from its website), to click-throughs (transacting everything online).

There are advantages to each way of doing business. Buying and selling in person is highly personal. It also allows for sellers to see and feel what they are buying. For example, buyers usually like to try on an item of clothing before they purchase it, with the exception of socks or underwear — in which case, if they open the package, they’ve bought it.

On the other hand, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com has made a killing (on paper) by selling books online. Not too many of us need to slip into a book to see if it fits.

Let’s switch the scenario to our industry. How would you like to sell an accessory item like an electronic air cleaner or a dehumidifier — in your showroom or online?

Let’s put it another way — what would you prefer your customer to do? If you deal in volume sales, a click-through would suit you just fine. But if you like to meet and greet your customers, you’ll want to invite them in to run their hands over the smooth surfaces of your products.

If you like a little of both, encourage them to order online and pick up the merchandise in your office. That way, the sales presentation is circumvented, but you may have a chance to close the sale with additional add-ons, warranties, or add future business, simply by using the old-fashioned method: meeting your buyers in person.

Ms. Essman said in her letter “There is still a need for human contact, a desire to see the product before purchasing, and the want of immediate feedback.”


We are in a service business, and the only way to properly serve customers is through interacting with them. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the Internet and all of the opportunities it affords small businesspeople like hvacr contractors.

But it has its drawbacks. The Internet has increased isolation and created a “gotta have it now” mentality — two traits that have lessened the importance of service and, in some cases, product quality.

It’s hard enough to fight the stigma that years of bad publicity and stereotyping have bestowed upon our industry. Now our last bastion of hope — customer service — is threatened by the allure of easy Internet e-commerce.

Don’t send up the white flag just yet. If we can all step back and let the Internet work for us instead of against us, we can succeed in this marketplace. I believe the Internet can be used to draw customers to your business, online and in person, and we should encourage our customers to follow both paths.

One way of ensuring an onsite visit is to offer a carrot, a reward for walking in and shaking your hand. It could be a product discount, a free calendar, or thermometer.

Ms. Essman said that customers “like to feel as if they are cared for and appreciated.” She believes that e-commerce is a good five years away from really taking off.

I contend that e-commerce is taking off as we speak. We just have to know how to use it.

Publication date: 09/04/2000