Social media sites and other online resources are a gift to HVAC contractors, letting them issue tailored marketing messages to local homeowners seeking out just that information. An HVAC contractor’s online presence should amount to more than a monologue, however. The Web is the world’s widest forum, open to all kinds of voices carrying on infinite conversations. That includes conversations about home comfort equipment and services and – perhaps surprisingly – conversations about you and your business. An HVAC contractor who fails to participate in those conversations forfeits the chance to win over fans -- and risks letting others tell the story about their business.

By building your website, posting timely articles on your blog , and creating your business’s Facebook page and other profiles, you’ve planted the seeds of an online presence. To cultivate them – to continue to enhance your position as your community’s go-to resource for HVAC information, products and service -- HVAC contractors should be engaging in the online conversations that websites and social media sites are built for. That means checking in regularly to your own sites as well as outside sites, including review sites such as Angie’s List. It also means responding to your readers, to customers who sing your praises – and to your critics.

Start with your own sites. Make it easy for your blog readers to post comments. Invite questions on your Facebook page and on your website. When readers bite, take advantage of the opportunity they’ve handed you to explore specific HVAC issues and make a real connection that can be nurtured into a lead. Answer questions promptly and thoughtfully – without going for the hard sell, a turnoff. Invite more queries, and make it clear that you and your employees are available for consult at your physical store, as well.

By engaging your blog readers and social-media connections in constructive dialogue about heating and cooling technology, maintenance or service, you can demonstrate that: You listen to your customers and respond to their concerns rather than pushing your own agenda. You’re an expert in your field who draws on a broad and deep base of knowledge. And your business is run by real, local people, not some distant corporation.

Don’t stop with your own sites and profiles, however. Like it or not, your business’s online presence extends to sites that you don’t control. We know many customers consult online reviews on Angie’s List, Google Places, Yelp, Yahoo and elsewhere before they contact businesses. We also know those reviews can be negative – torpedoing your chances with those customers before you ever hear their names.

The good news: You’re not powerless on these sites. Monitor each of them (or assign an employee to check them regularly). Each of those review sites has its own policies guiding business owners’ responses to reviews. Make sure you understand them, and follow up with each review you receive. Yes, that includes the positive ones – while the need to defend your business against a bad review may feel more urgent, each positive comment offers you an opening to thank your customer. You’ll be viewed as gracious and responsive.

As for negative reviews: This is not the time to lose your cool. It is easy, in the frustration of the moment, to fire off a snide response and consider the matter closed. It may even be justifiable, in your mind – customers who complain the loudest online are also often the ones who’ve tried to break contracts, neglected to pay you, or insulted your employees. Here is the problem: That angry homeowner isn’t the only reader who’ll judge your response. While you may be willing (or even grateful) to lose that him or her, you’re probably not willing to lose all the other homeowners who will base their initial impression of your business on that poor review – and on how you react to it. You must view a negative review as AN OPPORTUNITY to influence other prospects and customers.

Rather than firing the next round in a war of words, do your best to diffuse the situation. Explain your plan – or the steps you have already taken -- to resolve the situation. Maintain a calm, even tone. If a reviewer’s comment is particularly nasty, enter a comment that says you will try to reach the customer via phone or private email. Whatever you do, avoid a big chain of nasty messages for everyone else to read.

When it comes to your marketing message, the Web offers a world of opportunity to connect with customers. As in the offline world, however, those connections require attention. The worst thing you can do to a customer or prospect is ignore them – and that includes the ones who find you first online.

Joe Pulizzi is CEO for SocialTract, the leading blogging/social media service for HVACR Contractors. Joe’s new book, Managing Content Marketing, is now available on Amazon and Kindle. Joe can be reached on Twitter @juntajoe or by email joe@socialtract.com.