In-home HVAC sales has evolved significantly over the years. Most sales training that was predominant until the mid-1980s taught high pressure tactics — don't leave without the order. This hardcore approach, which has all but vanished with better companies, was to close, close, close — at all costs.

The next wave of sales training taught us the importance of building rapport and asking questions. Much of this approach was good and still applies today. It centers on performing a needs analysis, along with best practices such as doing load calculations, proper equipment selection, etc. The primary focus with this approach is still on selling equipment to match loads, with emphasis on the box as the solution.

The most recent evolution of this kinder, gentler sales approach is the emphasis on "system selling" — in addition to the rapport building and needs analysis, this method calls for putting together a system involving more than just main boxes.

The idea is to build up the sale by adding humidifiers, air cleaners, programmable thermostats, UV lights, and other IAQ products. While an improvement over just selling boxes and a step in the right direction, this approach still misses the opportunity to truly teach customers about their systems.

The newest frontier, one that top contractors should strive for is educational selling. This approach truly involves the customer in identifying problems and offering solutions. It entails educating the homeowner about "their" system, how it's currently operating, and the causes of its deficiencies. A very different level of selling is needed when you're solving real problems and teaching the customer how their system is working — or not working.

The primary objective is not necessarily to sell new equipment. Often that is part of the sale, but not the primary solution. In some cases, equipment becomes secondary to other needed improvements that can greatly increase comfort and reduce energy costs.

Some such improvements often include a complete duct renovation. Even in renovationonly sales, which when priced properly far exceed typical gross profits of box sales, new equipment is often sold after the needed repairs to the "system" are completed.

The educational selling process goes far beyond teaching customers about your products and/or services. It involves instructing homeowners on how the existing system actually operates in their home. You know you've succeeded when the homeowner becomes more knowledgeable about their system than the next salesman coming through the door. The trick is to do it without getting too technical and by using lay terms anyone can understand and relate to.

A Typical Educational Sales Call
The educational sales call begins with properly qualifying the lead up front. This usually happens via your dispatcher or customer service representative. A well-prepared script helps the caller identify hot buttons your sales person can focus on. This could be in the form of a quick comfort survey or perhaps more specific questions based on how the lead came in.

For example, if the lead was generated by a service tech who identified specific system deficiencies (like high static pressure, low airflow, comfort issues, etc.), the script would differ from one where the lead came from a Yellow Pages or newspaper ad. The script for the latter would be more exploratory in nature, trying to zero-in on comfort problems or high utility costs.

Armed with some basic intelligence on the homeowner's initial needs, you can begin the visit with additional questions that lead to uncovering what's important to the homeowner. This often includes digging deeper to unearth some, perhaps, long-buried pain they've been living with and didn't know could be fixed.

The next step is the most critical in the educational sales process. It involves performing your investigation of how the system is working, identifying potential problems, and figuring out how to address them. It's imperative that the homeowner walks through this process with you. Physically engage them in the initial assessment by having them participate with measuring rooms and helping you with the load calculations — more specifically, with the room-by-room required cfm. Remember to keep it simple and as non "techy" as possible.

One of the values of estimating room-by-room cfm is you can have the customer help you measure air flow at the registers with an estimate of what should be there. This applies to both supplies and returns. Let's say the master bedroom should have approximately 200 cfm, from two registers, and the homeowner "helps you" measure a total of 120 cfm. If during the interview they told you that at 2 p.m. that room just won't cool, how hard will it be for them to draw their own conclusion that there's a problem with their ducts?

As these discoveries occur, try to say as little as possible — let them do the talking. It's a great learning experience and you've now achieved nirvana in the selling process: real customer buy-in. Because they're involved in diagnosing the problems, they have a great deal of ownership in it, and they look at you very differently than the last guy who came through the door. The other guy maybe did a quick load, or maybe not, and it's very unlikely they taught the customer much about their system.

Here's the bonus: If by chance you don't get the sale right on the spot, and you're followed by one or more other companies, there's a 95% chance the homeowner will know more about their system than the other contractors coming in.

If the customer does want to get other estimates, be sure to explain that you've made them very knowledgeable about their system, and it would serve them well not to let on what they know. They will have the upper hand in evaluating whether the other guys know what they're doing.

Essentially, you're empowering customers to be very discriminating buyers, and you've put your company front-and-center as the best one for the job. Unless they're strictly a price shopper (about 20% are), if you've done a good job identifying the issues, offering solutions, including painless ways to pay for it, there's very little reason for them not to do business with you.

Your closing rate should be somewhere between 50 and 80%, depending on your skill in customer education throughout the buying process. Will this skill happen overnight? Of course not. There's no silver bullet here. It takes hard work and persistence to get good at this selling approach.

The beauty of it is you don't have to be a hard closer. Most of the folks in our industry don't enjoy the hard-close approach. As virtually everyone has internet access, people are predisposed to make informed decisions – they don't want to be talked into buying – they'd much rather learn enough to make an educated decision on their own. Your job is to help them gain enough knowledge to make the right choices – including choosing you to do the work.

Dominick Guarino is chairman/CEO of National Comfort Institute, a national training, certification, and membership organization focused on a variety of expertise including carbon monoxide, combustion, air diagnostics and balancing, performance-based contracting, and more. Contact him at domg@ncihvac.comor call NCI at 800/633-7058.