During my nine years in HVAC sales, I've improved my selling approach through training, a willingness to change, and persistence. I've used three different selling styles during that time, and for the last three years, have settled on a method that has brought me the most success. It's based on taking the time to know the customer, and in understanding their comfort needs, not on “making a sale.”

The Early Years: Whatever Works

Before I started at Cropp-Metcalfe, I had no real selling process. I had a product to sell, and would sell it any way I could, which was usually by focusing on product features and benefits. I talked a lot about the technical side of equipment, and provided customers with numerous options. I proposed a solution on every initial call, but had very few closing meetings, and therefore, very few sales. Because I didn't get to know my customers, or learn what they were really concerned about, I never heard any objections — over price, or other issues — until the job was lost.

In my early years of selling, I often used discounts to get the customer to buy at a time when it was good for me, not good for them. My sales were also weather driven, and I didn't have any rollover from previous months.

A New Start

After I started at Cropp-Metcalfe, I was introduced to a needs analysis, consultative selling method. I still focused on product features and benefits, and actually included a greater amount of technical information in my presentations. This included information about variable speed systems, thermal expansion valves, and other technical information I thought would be of interest to customers.

I tried to limit buying options to a “good/better/best” arrangement, but still had a favorite product in mind that I wanted them to buy.

I started to ask more questions, to get to know my customers better. I asked comfort-based questions, to understand what they did and didn't like about their home. I took more time to obtain information related to their financial situation, and monthly budget. And, to position myself as a key player in the sales process, I spent more time selling the company, and myself showing the customer value, and why they'd want to buy from Cropp-Metcalfe.

Soon, the value of building rapport with the customer became evident to me. I let the customer know that I cared about them. I began scheduling more second appointments rather than dropping a price on every first call. If they told me they were gathering estimates from more than one company, I made a tactical effort to try to be the last salesman in the door. If I knew the customer was shopping prices, I politely insisted on a second appointment, and usually knew what they were being quoted by other contractors.

I found I was getting more objections, especially objections related to price. However, by framing the discussion around an analysis of their needs, there was less urgency. I also found I didn't have to rely on the weather to make a sale. The weather would change, but their need would always be there, until I provided the solution.

My closing percentage rose to 50%, from previous lows of 20 to 40%. As each new month rolled around, I was no longer starting with zero leads or active proposals.

Value in Asking Questions

A solutions-based selling process isn't about “equipment.” I provide solutions to my customers' real needs. I learn their needs by asking questions and listening to their answers. When they ask me a question, I restate it back to them. I want to learn their true concerns, not just the fact that their house is hot and they need a new system.

I've discovered that most customers don't care about product features and benefits. The customer doesn't care about two-stage equipment or variable speeds. Yes, it's important to know how the system operates generally, but all that the majority of them need to know is that I know what I'm talking about, and that I'm committed to solving their problem.

One of my goals is to discover — as I call it — their “pain.” If they say the upstairs it too hot, I ask how that affects them. For one customer, his core pain was that the warm bedroom made it tough for him to get a good night's sleep, which caused him to be late for work, which made him afraid that he'd be fired. His true pain wasn't the warm bedroom; it was the nagging fear of getting fired. By knowing his deepest concern, I was able to say during the second appointment, “I have an option here that's going to help you get to work on time.”

How to Talk Price

When I was new to the business, I never wanted to bring up price. Now, I always want to be the first to address price. I get that information by controlling the interview and asking questions. You can address potential financial objections and manage the “price shopper” if you ask questions about their budget early.

Here's one way to ask the budget question:

“Mr. Jones, have you thought about how much you're willing to invest for this system?”

About 85% of the time they'll say no. Or, they'll just make up a number, not having anything to base the figure on.

If the customer starts talking price, you've got to get it on the table, and understand where they need to be.

If they're unsure about price, I may respond: “Generally speaking a system like this could cost between $5,000 to $6,000 on the low end, and $8,000 to $10,000 on the high end. Where do you think you see yourself in those ranges?” They'll answer you in one way or another.

But you have to be careful. If you're planning to show them a heat pump system, and you know it will cost $6,000 to $9,000, you don't want to tell them “$6,000 to $9,000.” Because you've just given them the price, whether you know it or not.

Precise price quoting has no value. You have to present a wider price range, such as $5,000-$10,000. If you give a price-conscious customer a $6,000 quote on the low end, and then someone else comes in after you with a $5,500 price, you'll more than likely never have the opportunity to get back in the door.

On the brighter side, customers tend to overestimate what equipment costs. They may be thinking the system will cost much more than it will actually cost. Sometimes their budget is a lot higher than what it will cost, and you can close it on the first meeting.

Customer Participation is Key

Your sales process has to be compartmentalized based on the issues: bonding, their concerns, their budget, and time frame, all of which require customer input.

You have to allow them to think they're in control when, in reality, you're the one who's guiding the process. If you ask the right questions, customers will tell you how they want to be sold.

I will not provide a quote unless they're in a position to buy. I need to know when they plan on installing that system, and when they plan to make that decision. If they tell me they want to make the decision on Monday, and have the system installed on Friday, I want to be there on Monday. I don't want to approach that job today, because two other contractors might be there on Monday. If I set that appointment, I call that morning.

If they say they're looking into the next week, I need to find out why.

The Right to Walk Away

Within the first 30 to 45 minutes of an appointment, I can usually get on a good footing with the customer, although some can be more withdrawn than others.

Unfortunately, however, there have been times when we've had to “fire” a customer or prospect at one time or another. At any time during the process, you always have the option of disqualifying the customer, if all the good things you're doing just aren't working.

If a customer is unwilling to share information, or I don't have the product they want, or can't establish trust, and show value in a higher- priced product, there's no point in presenting a proposal. I've wasted their time and my time, which could have been used to follow up with a better prospect.

The Importance of Trust

My boss always tells me: “When all things are equal people will buy from someone they trust. When all things are not equal, people will still buy from someone they trust.” Price isn't always the focus. If the customer has not established trust with the other contractor, then all they have to work with is price. If you can establish trust and rapport with them, then budget and price is not as big of a concern.

Care about your customer more than making a sale. Sometimes installing a new piece of equipment isn't the thing to do. Sometimes a repair is a better solution. Don't try to find a reason to sell them a new piece of equipment.

Key Points to Remember

Have a process. Have a way to understand what you did right and wrong, and don't deviate from it.

Stop ‘quoting and hoping’. If you have an overabundance of leads, you might not have time for second appointments.

Follow up, and follow through. Follow up with customers. If you tell them you'll call on Friday morning, call them on Friday morning, not Friday afternoon.

Make the most of your relationship with the customer. If you sell them a system, check in with them to see how it's working. If there are problems, address them, and you'll be the one they think of in the future. Sometimes character is built off of your mistakes.

Make them your customers for life.

Donny Buckingham is the top residential sales representative for Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning and Heating Co., Fairfax, VA, the ContractingBusiness.com 2008 Residential Contractor of the Year. His sales have increased by at least 15% each year, and in 2007, he became Cropp-Metcalfe's first $2 million sales representative. He can be reached at dbuckingham@croppmetcalfe.com. This article is based on Donny's presentation, “Can You Sell $2 Million in System Replacements?”, which he gave at HVAC Comfortech 2008 in Atlanta, GA. HVAC Comfortech 2009 will be held in Nashville, TN,Sept. 23-26, 2009. Visit comfortech.com for information.

There's Value in a Process

Having a well-defined sales process gives me a way to learn what I've done wrong, and eliminate it. And, it helps me see what I did right, and what I should continue to use. Without a process, you'll never know what you did wrong.

How many times have you said, “I was so sure I had that sale,” only to lose it, because something happened along the way. Most likely, there was an objection you didn't answer.

The customer and I always know and agree where we are in the process. That's accomplished through up-front “contracts,” which begin as soon as you walk in the door. After you've entered the home, and begin to talk, you ask permission to ask questions, and reach an agreement as to what has to happen next. Throughout the meeting, you enter into a series of small agreements so that, when it's time for closing, you shouldn't have to ask for the sale.

It starts when you ask to sit down. We then make an agreement as to what's going to happen, or what needs to happen next. When you get to the closing stage, you don't have to close it, and price is just a formality. It's not perfect every time, but for the most part, if you make those mini-agreements, and the final agreement is deciding on a system within his budget that will get him to work on time, “are we going to be able to do business?” More often than not, the answer is yes, and you've sold the job. At that point you're not competing against the other guy. You're giving them the solution to their pain inside of their budget. — DB