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Recommendation Vs. Requirement: Don’t Get Stung!

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Last summer’s Today Show segment, which aired questionable air conditioning estimates for a home repair, sparked many in-depth conversations — some heated — within the industry. One topic of conversation that arose was, “How can ethical contractors recommend improvements to home comfort without making their suggestions sound like requirements?”

With that question in mind, IE3 Magazine asked four contractors from around the country to share their practices.

“That’s easy,” insists Jim Barry, president, Doctor Cool and Professor Heat Inc., League City, TX.

“The way we operate, we do a trip and diagnosis. We devote up to an hour and a half, even two if necessary, to find out what’s wrong with the system. We report what’s wrong to the homeowner using a fl at-rate pricing guide. We can open the pricing guide and tell the homeowner the equipment needs a motor on the outdoor unit, for example, and the repair will be $450 — or whatever it would be. It’s written right there, along with the guarantee. Once we put the motor in, we get the system running and go over it again to make sure nothing else will shorten the life of the equipment or cause excessively high utility bills.”

Barry believes questionable estimates sometimes stem from the way technicians are paid. “If you pay your technicians on a percentage of the ticket, you are asking for trouble,” he says. “We pay our technicians by the hour. We do give them spiff s if they sell maintenance agreements, which we call cool clubs. If they sell a motor, they get paid by the hour to install the motor and to get the system going again.”

No Threats, Please

Bonnie Bornstein Fertel, vice president, Bornstein Sons, Inc., Fairfield, NJ, shares similar convictions. “I do know for a fact there are contractors that do not pay their technicians an hourly wage,” she says. “They are on commission only. If they don’t produce, they don’t get paid. Alternatively, many contractors employ salesmen, and a salesman’s job is to sell. We’re old school. We don’t have salespeople. We have trusted technicians who have been with us for a long time. They are trained our way.”

In this case, the company way is firmly spelled out for workers. “We tell our technicians ‘Don’t ever — and that’s ever with a capital E — go into a customer’s home and intimidate them into thinking they need an emergency repair, unless you find a situation with a furnace with a cracked heat exchanger and therefore a potentially dangerous situation. Then you make them aware, you quote them on what needs to be done, which is typically the replacement of the furnace, you turn it off for their safety, and you mark the paperwork accordingly.’”

Contractors must be careful how they phrase their recommendations, Fertel cautions. “We feel every opportunity with a customer is a constant regaining of trust,” she says. “We don’t believe in pinning somebody against the wall. Transparency is really the answer. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Know what repair has to be made, know why it has to be made, and relay that information to the customer. Give them a firm price for the repair or give them options. We can’t do more than that.”

For example, according to Fertel, a technician might say, “I’ve checked out your air conditioning system, Mrs. Jones. It seems to be working fine today. It’s starting to show some signs of age and therefore is losing some of its efficiency, but it’s not time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The other side of the coin, she says, is the contractor who claims, “Oh, Mrs. Jones, your air conditioner is in really bad shape. I don’t think it’s going to make it through the week.”

When you have a customer with an older piece of cooling equipment, you can talk to the customer about options, she says, by saying something like “This is what you could have in near-term future problems, but your equipment is working fi ne today. Your cost to make this repair would be X. If you have problems, call us back and we will make the repair. Or while I’m at your house today, I can take care of it for you.”

Giving Customers Options

David E. Jackson, vice president, Jackson & Sons, Dudley, NC, is another proponent of giving the customer choices. “If a part is broken, we show the customer that it’s broken,” he explains. “We don’t do any repairs until the customer approves them. We have the pricing on our tablets. We open our PCs, and say ‘T is is what’s wrong with yours, and this is how much it will cost.’ Everybody sees everything upfront. We educate our customers. We don’t sell our customers. There’s a big difference. There’s a lot of show and tell. We give the customer options.”

When they go on service calls, Jackson’s technicians carry their laptops, which are loaded with a flat-rate pricing guide. “The invoice allows you to make multiple recommendations,” he says. “We give customers the option to decline or accept them. They see everything upfront. It captures their signature. There is full disclosure. We put all the power of decision-making in the customer’s hands.”

By creating a written record of your recommendations and letting the customer decide how to proceed, you avoid future confrontations with a customer who calls six months after a service call asking, “Why didn’t you tell me this could happen?”

“It can be a catch 22, unless you give them the options and let them make the decisions,” Jackson says. “Your technicians might say, ‘This is all we found wrong today. However, here are some recommendations you may want to consider.’ By making the recommendations and giving them the opportunity to decline them right on our PC, if they later find they do need these things, we’re not the bad guy.”

Jackson emphasizes that when his technicians show up at a customer’s home; they arrive in a clean truck and are wearing a uniform with a name badge that clearly identifies them. “Our professional technicians are paid by the hour with incentives for new maintenance contract customers,” he explains. “That’s a win-win all around. They’re not paid anything additional to replace a capacitor or put on a new fan motor. That’s their job.”

Like other contractors, Jackson places a high value on his technician’s communication skills. “We hire based on a person’s ability to communicate and interact with the customer,” he says. “We can teach the technical skills. Being able to repair a piece of equipment properly is only part of what we have to do as HVAC contractors. The other half is winning over the customer and earning their trust. That requires communication and interpersonal skills. Those things are much more difficult to train and teach. You can have the greatest technician in the world who can fix anything blindfolded that loses you more business than you’ll ever gain because of the way he interacts with your customers.”

Keep Training Your Employees

To avoid problems, Ron Hatley, owner, Comfort Mechanical, Crawfordsville, IN, ensures that his employees receive ongoing training. “You as a business owner are liable for training your employees to function how you want them to function,” he says. “It is all on you all the time. You can never stop training.”

Hatley recalls an experience early in his career in Dallas when he was part of a television sting. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “I showed up on a job that was obvious from a technician’s standpoint. One wire was disconnected that kept the air conditioner from running. All you had to do was put the wire back on, and the whole system took off . When I told the person—and I don’t know whether it was the homeowner or a reporter—that a wire was off , I put it back on, and the system was running fine, I bet for three minutes that person kept trying to talk me into something with questions like, ‘Are you sure I don’t need a new system? I think I really need a new system. Don’t you agree?’ I said, ‘No, not at all.’”

The experience illustrates how the Today Show interview could have — and should have — gone, he says, even if it meant reporters didn’t get their desired story. “If you don’t have ethics as a technician, it shows in your work, whether you’re getting stung or not. It doesn’t matter if there’s a sting operation if you’re ethical. You can’t fall into their trap. As a business owner, not only will I not do it, but I will not tolerate employees that do. Just think about it. I have spent my entire life building my business up, and one employee can literally ruin it. You can’t tolerate it.”

To avoid compromising situations, Bornstein Fertel offers this advice. “Pretend there is a camera on you every time you walk into a customer’s home,” she advises. “I raised my children by saying ‘Wherever you go and whatever you say, make believe I’m on your shoulder asking: Would you would want me seeing that?’ As a result, I have two very well-behaved children.”

Mistakes Happen

What happens if you or your technician makes an honest mistake? Contractors emphasize that you need to make it right with the customer.

Barry recalls a situation last summer when a customer called complaining that his air conditioner was causing the breaker to trip. His technician diagnosed a faulty compressor on a rooftop air conditioner and received approval for a $1,600 repair, because the compressor was out of warranty.

“We sent a different technician back with the new compressor the following day or two,” he explains. “He installed the compressor and when he started the air conditioner, the breaker tripped again, so he started looking into things. He found a faulty part. The technician on the job called me and said, ‘Jim, I found out there was really nothing wrong with the first compressor. What are we going to do?’”

Although he had approval for a $1,600 repair, Barry called the customer and explained the first technician had made an incorrect diagnosis and the repair would cost only $350. “We proved our honesty,” he says. “We made a mistake, and we corrected it. You can get a wrong diagnosis, but there’s no excuse for not doing what’s right for the customer.”

Margo Vanover Porter
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Management, Residential Buildings, Sales & Marketing

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