I’m a big believer in the fact that the image we project, both personally and through our company, has a great deal to do with our eventual success.

When I started in the business, I was embarrassed to say I was a “furnace man.” In the 50s and 60s, an extraordinary number of disreputable people saw an opportunity to make a fast dollar in our industry. New “forced air” furnaces were coming on the market to replace old gravity furnaces — some still fueled with coal and others converted to gas.

It was a growth opportunity in our industry, and many a shady character would go door to door offering to inspect a furnace “for free.” Coincidently, they always seemed to find something wrong with the furnace, which, by the time they were done, needed to be replaced. I remember investigations, arrests, and even some jail time served by these unscrupulous individuals.

Needless to say, the image of our industry was not very good.

Fortunately, when air conditioning came along, it required a higher degree of technical ability, and a lot of effort was made within the industry to clean up its image. Trade organizations like the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) developed programs to help contractors improve their technical and business management skills, which in turn helped improve the image of the associations and the image of the industry as a whole.

Service technicians at New England Mechanical Services Inc. (Vernon, Conn.) always wear company uniforms, and their trucks are cleaned weekly. Pictured are service techs Rob Giraud and Pier Man. (Photo by Hunter Neal.)

A Positive Image

We should project a positive professional image. After all, who besides a doctor does more to provide a comfortable living environment for the public than a heating and air conditioning contractor?

How would you feel if your doctor came into the examination room with tattered jeans and a torn T-shirt? You’d be looking for the closest exit. The comfort we provide is nearly as important as the service a doctor provides. Yet how many in the industry work to project a positive image like your doctor?

The amount of expertise our industry requires and the effect we have on the lives of our customers would indicate we should be a very professional industry. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we’re living up to that image as well as we should.

I attended a contractors meeting recently. It happened that President Bush was in St. Louis that day, and the conversation at our table got around to the small business the president was visiting. The contractor sitting next to me said he was sure glad the president

hadn’t come to his shop because it was such a mess that he would have been embarrassed.

Now, here was a contractor telling nine of his peers and competitors that he was embarrassed by the appearance of his own shop. What does this say about his entire operation? Do you think his trucks are neat and clean? Are his technicians properly uniformed?

Originally, I had been somewhat jealous that the president had decided to stop at a small transportation company rather than our sheet metal shop. I sure wanted the president to come by. In fact, I invite any of you to stop by if you are in St. Louis. We are extremely proud of our office and shop and maintain it appropriately.

While ultimately we would like to improve the image of the industry as a whole, realistically, each of us as a contractor needs to concentrate on improving our own company image.

So where do we start? The first important thing to remember is: “You aren’t what you think you are — you are what others think you are!” We need to keep that basic premise in mind as we work through this process.

The second important thing to remember is that everything we do affects our image.

Your receptionist or service call taker is probably the first contact customers will have with your company. First impressions are lasting impressions. The ability of that first contact person to make a good impression on the potential customer is critical.

Pay attention when you are on the phone; you can tell if the person on the other end of the line is friendly or not. Make sure the people in your company who are making that first customer contact have a smile in their voice.

Who is the next person to come in contact with the customer? Probably a sales engineer or a service technician. A sales engineer should be neat in appearance, punctual, and thorough. He or she should understand the customer’s real issues. It’s important that the sales engineer listens closely to the customer and then responds in a professional manner.

Our sales engineers love to follow someone who just writes a price on the back of his business card. Give the customer something in writing as to what you plan to do, make and model numbers of equipment, warranties, etc. You should be able to charge a professional price, so make your presentation like a professional.

If your job is to perform a service call, then the service technician is your next representative to make contact with the individual. Obviously, when the technician drives up to the home, your truck will say a lot about your company. Vehicles should be clean, uniquely lettered with your name and/or logo, and orderly inside. Trucks are moving billboards and have a great deal of effect on your image. In most large towns, trucks will make thousands of impressions every day, so don’t underestimate their impact.

Your service technician should have a company uniform. In today’s world, it is important to give the person opening the door the assurance that the person at the door is legitimate. Your tech should be polite and friendly. The “people” skills a service technician must possess are, in my opinion, more important today than technical ability.

The Follow-Up

After the sales or service person meets with the customer, there will undoubtedly be some type of paperwork follow-up — an invoice, quotation, or whatever. It is very important to have neat, professional forms, letterhead, etc., with your name and logo prominent. There should be a common look to not only all of your printed materials, but all of your trucks, advertising, and your Web site as well.

Finally, when your installers arrive on the job, they should possess many of the same types of people skills as your service techs. But most important for them is the quality of the work they perform. They are going to leave behind very obvious testimony of the type of work your company provides. They should pay special attention to little details, like covering exposed surfaces that might be damaged, and completely cleaning up when the job is finished.

Remember, everything you do affects your image. As a member of your community, when you go out for dinner, you are projecting an image. People want to do business with professional, successful people. Project that image, and they’ll want to do business with you.

Guest columnist Butch Welsch operates Welsch Heating & Cooling in St. Louis. He can be reached by e-mail at Welsch1@primary.net.

Publication date: 03/31/2003