Residential water heaters have come a long way since 1868, when the British painter Benjamin Waddy Maughan invented The Geyser, a cylindrical heating chamber equipped with spiral wires, heated by gas, which carried water downward to a tap.

Just as surely as advancement in technology has changed water heaters over the past 150 years, it’s also changed the way customers interact with plumbing contractors.

From manufacturer websites and expert reviews to social media and message boards, customers today have more resources for product research — literally at their fingertips — than ever before. This easy access to information about water heaters creates a challenge for the modern plumbing contractor who installs and services a wide array of water heaters far more complex than Maughan’s Geyser.

New sources of information provide Google-minded customers ample fodder for questions related to product performance or benefits that can sometimes be difficult to address in the field. No contracting business owner wants their team to be caught flat-footed in front of customers.

How do plumbing contractors keep themselves up to date on product trends and armed with knowledge to manage their tech-savvy customers? Manufacturers play a critical role in achieving this goal, and there are several questions that every plumbing contractor should be asking them.


Do you offer accessible online education?

Sending a team of plumbers to an offsite training session isn’t always affordable or feasible for small and mid-sized mechanical contracting firms. Still, meaningful online educational opportunities are available from an increasing number of their manufacturer partners.

In order to provide greater value to the customers they serve, contractors are expressing great interest in opportunities to gain in-depth knowledge about installing and servicing the right hot water products for each job they work on.

One helpful tool is free online training that includes certification and continuing education courses on both residential and commercial water heating products. For example, A. O. Smith University offers video-based courses that can be viewed on a PC, Mac or mobile device equipped with speakers and a high-speed internet connection. Contracting firms that want to take their education to the next level can also receive customized, direct live video training via Internet.

In just the past two years, we’ve seen interest in easy-to-access trade education grow rapidly, which indicates that contractors will continue to value the kind of in-depth trade education that will help them better serve their customers.


Can you make the latest technology affordable for my customers?

Recent consumer trends show that Americans are adopting a mentality of quality over low prices, especially when it comes to home improvement. Tech-savvy consumers want products that feature great energy-saving benefits, are easy to use and will last a long time, regardless of upfront costs.

However, the average consumer only carries $3,500 in his or her savings account and typically finds it difficult to write a check for more than $2,000, according to research from GE Capital. Without the right financing options available, contractors often have no choice but to eliminate their most advanced products before their customers truly have a chance to consider them.

The ability of manufacturers to offer financing programs that fit nearly every customer, from cash buyers to those who need a low monthly payment option, directly impacts the ability of contractors to increase their profit margin. More specifically, it makes the jump from a standard electric water heater to a tankless, heat pump or another high-efficiency option easily within reach. In many cases, the energy savings alone will help cover a large portion of your customers’ monthly payments.

To answer this call, contractors should look for manufacturers aligned with home improvement financing companies to access this kind of purchasing power. In addition to offering a variety of financing options, these programs can be used to get a snapshot of customers’ credit approval ratings, time left in their purchasing windows, and other important details that will make the sales process seamless.


Can you provide new sales tools to serve my mobile business?

Integrating technology into a water heater purchase experience to meet the digital behaviors of tech-savvy shoppers is a challenge, but it’s a goal that contractors should embrace to ensure a positive customer interaction.

It’s critical not to underestimate just how much the internet can empower customers. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans are incorporating a wide range of digital tools and platforms into their purchasing decisions and buying habits: “The survey finds that roughly eight-in-ten Americans are now online shoppers: 79% have made an online purchase of any type, while 51% have bought something using a cellphone.”

Contracting firms can stem this tide — and save their clients from potentially costly mistakes —when equipped with instant access to well organized product information. Armed with this information, contractors can expand the services provided to their clients by helping them identify the best product to suit their needs.

For instance, virtually any tech-savvy contractor can walk a residential customer through a water heater purchase with the help of a mobile app that can cross-reference existing products with suitable replacements. Additionally, contractors can quickly validate their decisions in face-to-face situations by using a product selector tool, such as A. O. Smith’s Xpert App, that displays a step-by-step process for picking a heater that meets a homeowner’s needs. Even commercial installers have access to similar online water heater selector tools for those applications.

Just as products evolve to meet the needs of 21st century consumers, so too must our approach to selling.