As seen in the September 2007 edition of HVACR Business magazine.

The four basics of customer service.

If you are an hvac retail company, your present customers, as well as any new customers, are looking for four items — and they are not complicated. In fact, they are very basic. Yet, most companies do not understand and/or do not perform accordingly. As an hvac retailer, you must focus on these items: quality work, on-time delivery, ethical corporate behavior, and convenience. You may be thinking I am naive in not mentioning price. Isn’t price important? I am not ignoring price; I will address it later in the article.

Quality work. The word quality is an overused, misunderstood, and abused term. Often it mistakenly is associated with price. Is an 18 SEER air-conditioning system higher quality than a 13 SEER air-conditioning system? Maybe it is, and maybe it is not. From a customer’s perspective, the definition of quality simply means the product or service did what you said it would do, and no less. If the 13 SEER system was installed correctly and delivers what the customer was told it would deliver, it meets the customer’s expectations and is a quality installation.

This means quality — whether it is a system replacement, an accessory product, a service call, a precision tune-up, or any other product or service — is affected by the type of equipment and material you use; the processes you have in place; the skill level and the training of your installers, service technicians, and other coworkers; and the supervision of the work.

On-time delivery. This certainly is easy to define. It means the representative of your company arrived at the customer’s home when the customer was told a representative would arrive. Many contractors are not in compliance with on-time delivery. In fact, some contractors do not even show up on the appointed day, let alone the hour. If your sales representatives (we call them comfort consultants) are late for their presentation, your company has already made a negative impression that you may not be able to overcome. All representatives, including installers, service technicians, and maintenance technicians (we call them precision tune-up specialists), must arrive at the customer’s home when the customer expects them.

I’ve often been asked, particularly in service departments, can the appointed time be changed? Normally, the answer is yes. But, on-time delivery can only be changed when your representative phones the customer — not when the customer has to phone you. You are on the offense, not the defense. For example, your service dispatcher has told a customer that the technician will be at the home between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., but the technician is taking longer than expected on a present service call, which will make him late. As soon as this is determined, the dispatcher must phone the customer before 2 p.m. and say something similar to: “Mr. Jones, our service technician has run into some difficulty with the service call prior to yours, which means we will be there between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. We apologize for your inconvenience. However, I’m sure you can understand we always want to make sure that everything is fixed properly before we leave a customer’s home.”

Ethical corporate behavior. This term has to do with the impressions your company makes with customers. Impressions are formed from the appearance of your vehicles and co-workers; the customer-relations and technical skills of your co-workers; the clarity of your documents; how quickly and how well your staff answers phones; your advertising and marketing; your participation in community affairs; and whether your pricing is easy to understand and fair.

For example, I’ve always maintained that a company truck can form one of two impressions: good or bad. Trucks that are washed, waxed, cleaned, and well identified make good impressions that in a customer’s mind translate to clean and neat work in their home. Dirty, sloppy-looking trucks translate to dirty and sloppy work in their home. It’s that simple.

Convenience. Are your phones answered promptly and properly? Contractors (who work with builders and general contractors) can operate much differently than hvac retailers (who serve consumers). Contractors can answer their phones with an automated system. Retailers should not. If it is 95 degrees outside, and a customer’s air conditioner just quit working, it is certainly more comforting to speak to a real, live person that can empathize and arrange the required service. Retailers who use automated telephone systems are not easy to do business with. Contractors can answer their phones from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Retailers who answer their phones only 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and are only working those hours are practicing a contractor mentality, not a retail mentality — they are not easy to do business with. Most non-hvac retailers who are your competitors (because they also are competing for consumers’ dollars) are open for business long after 5 p.m. and are not closed on Saturday. In fact, most are open on Sunday.

Also, having easy-to-understand and reasonable consumer financing programs as well as accepting all credit cards makes it easy for your customers to do business with you.

So why is price not on my list of what customers are looking for? Because if your company consistently provides quality work, on-time delivery, ethical corporate behavior, and is convenient to do business with, the subject of price often does not come up. Price becomes an issue when a company fails to provide any or all of the four items that customers want.