HVAC Contractors And Clients With Special Needs


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How should you treat someone with special needs? The answer to that question is simple on one level and a bit more complex on another. HVAC contractors are in a unique position as they are constantly entering people’s homes. Frequently, they won’t know what to expect until they walk through the door. As a result, contractors can expect to deal with a wide variety of customers including those with special requirements.

The bottom line is that HVAC contractors should treat those with special needs in the same manner that they themselves would like to be treated, with respect and kindness. Following this very simple rule may at times be difficult for some contractors due to a lack of experience. It is this lack of exposure to special needs clients that can oft en lead to fear and, in turn, a mishandling or awkwardness in certain situations. However, with the proper forethought and information, contractors can expect to drastically reduce negative incidences and misunderstandings when dealing with those with special needs.

We will be discussing several interviews taken with a range of individuals possessing unique insights on the topic of HVAC contractors and the best protocols they should use when working and interacting with special needs clients. It is important to keep in mind that when we use the term “special needs” we are using it to cover a wide range of conditions ranging from physical and mental disabilities, such as deafness, blindness, and paralysis, to mental disabilities or even situations that could interfere with  communication, such as a customer who speaks a different language. For our purposes, a special needs customer is one that may at times, but not always; need extra attention due to his or her particular life situation.

Anticipating Situations and Using Awareness

Richard Dean is one of the owners of Environmental Systems Associates (ESA) in Columbia, Maryland. Dean is an industry veteran who has unique insight into the issue of how those with disabilities should be treated, as Dean himself has two daughters with special needs.

ESA has a great deal of experience dealing with these types of clients, and one of the reasons that this is the case is they support a local service organization that owns over 40 group homes. Dean points out that customers with disabilities should receive the exact same care that any other client would receive. He states, “You can always be surprised by some new situation. It helps that you keep in mind that whether in a 2 million dollar house or a group home the goal is to give good service to customers.”

However, Dean also points out there are special considerations that must come into play in order for any contractor to successfully serve the disabled. Preparation, forethought, and training are essential. Many contractors may not be prepared for the variety of problems that they may encounter, for example, some customers may not be verbal and may be under 24-hour a day nursing care. If clients can’t speak, it might be very difficult to know if you were disturbing them in any fashion during a repair or installation visit. As it turns out, loud noises could be very problematic for such customers. Yet, many contractors might lack awareness that this is the case.

Much of Dean’s advice and recommendations for contractors working with the disabled is to employ as much common sense as is possible for every given situation, regardless of whether or not a client has special needs. This approach and tactic when combined with exercising care and professionalism will go a long way towards avoiding problems.

There is also an issue of awareness, which can be heightened via sensitivity training, and, once again, common sense. Contractors should constantly strive to be aware of what is happening around them. When it comes to working with the disabled, being observant of the situation you are walking into can be of immense value.

Contractors should realize that on rare occasions some highly unusual situations could occur just as with any job, but different factors could come into play when working with special needs clients. ESA contractors have effectively dealt with issues such as extreme clutter due to clients who are hoarders, homes with 20+ dogs, and working in unfinished basements that could not be serviced due to flea infestations. Ultimately, Dean feels that it is essential that everyone interacting with special needs clients realize and act on the straightforward, but powerful, premise that every person should be treated like a valued customer and, of course, with respect.

The Value of Patience and Kindness

Sue Meacham from Mark E. Meacham, Inc. in Chatham, Massachusetts, discussed how her company has successfully navigated communications issues with customers with special requirements. Oft en technology has proved to be a viable solution. For example, her company has had several deaf clients, and that speaking with a TTY phone system with an interpreter has worked out well. She also commented that communicating through email is a good resolution for dealing with hearing impaired customers. Of course, when contractors are on the job, the customers can write down their thoughts.

Meacham’s company also successfully handles the needs of many customers who are originally from India and are not fluent in English. She explains, “Most families have children that speak English, so some relative can assist them.” Above all, Meacham points out that “patience and kindness” is key, as the goal is to “try to be empathetic to the needs of customers and make their lives better.”

Dealing with Special Needs at the Workplace

Toby Taylor is general manager at AirRite A/C in Ft. Worth, Texas, and has been paralyzed from the chest down since a motorcycle accident in 1999. His years of experience in the industry coupled with his own disability give Taylor a highly unique and valuable perspective that can offer a good deal of insight on working with special needs clients.

Taylor uses a wheelchair to get around the office and can also use a cane. AirRite A/C modified their facilities after his accident and initiated a range of facility improvements. Today, Taylor feels that technology has helped bridge many of his personal mobility gaps, but there are still issues relating to his wheelchair that must taken into consideration.

Taylor’s has seen first-hand that his wheelchair can do more than catch people off guard, as it can even scare people. Unfortunately, Taylor has also observed that many people associate being physically disabled in some fashion with being mentally disabled.

Again, the issue of care, concern, professionalism, and placing the needs of the customer, regardless of who they are, at the forefront. Further, it is important for employers to take the needs of employees with disabilities into consideration. These modifications can include everything from environmental changes to ensure facility mobility to common sense moves, such as removing power cords and other potential obstacles.

The Importance of Treating Special Needs Clients Like Regular Customers

Sharon Roberts is President of Roberts & Roberts Associates in Plano, Texas, and is a leading expert on the topic of serving the disabled. She has made numerous media appearances including on CNN and has held positions at   Xerox, Raytheon, and Lennox Industries.

Roberts notes that people tend to act abnormally when they are around individuals with disabilities. Clearly, this can lead to a breakdown in the normal flow of communication and interactivity and thus generate problems across the spectrum. According to Roberts, it is key that contractors, as well as the general public, realize that individuals with disabilities ultimately want to be treated like everyone else.

Additionally, Roberts has noted other reoccurring and problematic themes with how special needs clients are treated. One factor, also noted by Toby Taylor and others, includes the factor that many assume that those with a physical disability are also mentally disabled in some fashion. Clearly, this assumption is quite problematic. Roberts advises HVAC contractors to avoid directly bring up the disability when working with special needs clients.

Roberts wants those servicing the disabled to understand that disabilities run the gamut. There is a great deal of variation. However, she cites the fact that being paralyzed impacts a person’s body temperature, which clearly places maintaining the desired temperature of a room at a very high priority.

The “Please Talk to Me–Disabilities Aren’t Contagious!–How to Sell to Customers and Families With Special Needs” presentation at ACCA’s 2013 Conference in Orlando, FL, recently featured a panel with Sharon Roberts and Air Rite A/C’s Toby Taylor. Roberts points out that HVAC industry businesses need to realize that the aggregate income of those with special needs is roughly $1 trillion dollars and that they have a massive $220 billion in discretionary spending power. Therefore, understanding how to meet those needs and meet them effectively is of great importance for every HVAC company.

Roberts, also noted this buying power is further amplified when coupled with the fact that people with disabilities oft en have strong ties to others in the community. They will consistently recommend those that provide them with quality service.

Wisdom and Reoccurring Themes

Through interviewing subjects for this article, numerous commonalities and reoccurring themes emerged regarding the steps that contractors should adopt when working with individuals with disabilities. First of all, there is no uniformity in regards to special needs as they can vary tremendously from one person to the next. Additionally, experience, logical thinking, common sense, professionalism, and respect are all essential ingredients for working with those with special needs.

It is vital for all contractors to remember that these clients wish to be treated like regular people and afforded respect. While disabilities can produce fear and fear based reactions, there is nothing to fear as these issues are not contagious.

Ultimately, contractors must think before taking action and proceed with professionalism and care. When this is successfully achieved, HVAC contractors will serve their customers in the manner and fashion that will lead to positive outcomes across the board.

Marisa Alexander

Posted In: ACCA Now, Customer Service

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