The sleeping giant has been stirred into action. The plumbing and HVAC space does not grab the headlines when it comes to innovation and disruption. And yet the last few years have seen a tectonic shift in this landscape with the advent and accelerating adoption of advanced, energy-efficient products. Consumers traditionally limited by choice are now spoilt for choice. Opportunities abound but so do challenges for every link in the value chain. Contractors, by virtue of being closest to the end consumer, face the strongest headwinds — how they choose to respond will define them forever.
Contractors must recognize that the industry shifts we are witnessing today are permanent and irreversible. Green is not a fad anymore. Households want to save energy and save costs. Products are available today that can achieve this. The question then is how to bridge the gap and deliver genuine value to clients.
Raising consumer awareness and creating a market pull for these products is a long-term phenomenon. The only way the industry can jumpstart sales is via a grounds-up push strategy with emphasis on word of mouth. There is no one better place to achieve this than contractors.
Whether a product is new or semi-established, whether the brand is unknown or recognizable, consumers will ultimately seek validation from contractors who have installed the product or have seen it in service.
You may not know it yet but you, the contractor, are the harbinger of change. Far from being at the receiving end, you can be the one in charge. The question is: Are you prepared?
Contractor role: Technical or techno-commercial?
Energy-efficient products are typically more advanced and complex. There are more moving parts that need to be understood — both for upfront sales and down-the-road repairs. A matrix with competing technologies (solar vs. geothermal vs. heat pump) and competing brands (solar brand A vs. solar brand B) presents a mind-numbing array of choices. Since product and installation costs are significantly higher, consumer decision cycles have become longer and multidimensional.
To succeed in this new environment, contractors will need to step outside the conventional “install, repair, repeat” mode. On one hand, they will need to enhance their technical skills to keep pace with advanced products and systems. On the other, they will need to venture into nontechnical areas to deal with the full spectrum of consumer issues.
As products evolve in complexity, technical knowledge and skills will need to keep pace. The challenges are multifold.
• Whole home integration. Increasingly, products are not being viewed as an end in themselves but rather as a cog in the overall household energy conservation wheel. This requires a holistic or a building-science approach to energy audit and conservation. For instance, a heat pump water heater has significant implications for home heating and cooling, and the product cannot be assessed in isolation.
More and more products are now being embedded with communication capability, allowing systems to communicate with each other. The Internet of Things will take product interoperability to its logical conclusion. Contractors will need to train themselves to become home or energy experts instead of product experts.
• Installation and programming. Not only do advanced products call for more installation expertise, many of these systems require programming that goes beyond the on-off switch or default controls. Contractors will need to customize product settings based on the local environment as well as the behavior patterns of individual users to deliver maximum benefits to end users. Manufacturers may provide guidelines, but the onus of optimal product programming still falls on the installer.
• Handling product failures. Advanced products require enhanced expertise for troubleshooting, repair and maintenance. Contractors also need to realize that the definition of product failure has changed. Today, a water heater that continues to provide hot water may still be regarded as a failure if it does not deliver the energy savings it promised. In other words, product performance or failure assessment is not binary and contractors must prepare accordingly.
Beyond the technical: Consumer-centric vs. product-centric
Contractor training needs a rewiring of sorts to put the consumer at the core — instead of a product or a technology. This requires a 360° approach to look beyond the technical know-how and delve into every pertinent issue for the consumer.
• Consultative selling and consumer education. Contractor roles are seeing a shift in weight from executing the buying decision (installation) to shaping the buying decision (consultative selling). As product lifecycles move from the tech-savvy, early-stage adopters to mass consumers, increasing emphasis has to be placed on educating consumers. Contractors can execute this effectively only by breaking down the product benefits into measurable metrics the consumer can understand.
The most pertinent of these are financial in nature — total outlay or upfront investment, annual cost savings and payback. Reliability and maintenance issues are equally critical. Positive externalities such as a cleaner environment also need to be presented. The bottom line is that contractors need to know more than they ever did and articulate more than they ever have to convert prospects to clients.
• Localization and the human factor. Consumer situations are unique and a one-size-fits-all approach falls short in practice. Contractors should seize the initiative and localize their approach to best suit the end consumer. Client interaction should not be so process-driven or regimented that they lose the human touch.
•Managing increased consumer expectations. Multiple consumer satisfaction surveys have pointed out that homeowner dissatisfaction stems less from contractor’s technical capabilities and more from nonproduct issues such as scheduling conflicts, billing and punctuality. These areas will come into sharper focus as consumers spend more on products and expect more from service.
The new training multiplex
To develop the multidimensional skill set that encompasses technical know-how as well as soft skills, contractors will need to adopt a new mindset and identify quality training sources. To begin with, they need to assimilate the directional shift in the industry and find their place in it. If you see yourself as an important sales conduit, you should train accordingly. If you view yourself as an energy expert, then focus on obtaining comprehensive knowledge that is not confined to a narrow product category.
Treat training as a perpetual work-in-progress by continuously assessing your gaps as well as changing industry dynamics. Since technology is always in a state of flux, keeping oneself updated on trends and innovation is critical.
In terms of resources, leverage manufacturer training to the maximum. Well-trained and competent contractors are in the best interest of manufacturers, too. Many of them view contractor training and loyalty as a strategic asset. Your interest and initiative will be reciprocated.
Participating in industry conferences, company events and webinars, as well as membership in trade associations, is a good way of keeping oneself abreast with the latest technologies and best practices.
Going the extra mile and upgrading skills with external training specialists or skills development institutes may pay rich dividends. The goal is to widen horizons as much as possible and having an open-minded, ready-to-soak approach to training is your best bet.
It seldom happens that you find yourself at the right place at the right time. The plumbing and mechanical space is ripe with product lines that promise more projects and higher returns per job. And with increasing public awareness about energy efficiency and solid industry support (product rebates, tax incentives), the timing is perfect. If contractors upgrade their skills and put their best foot forward, the opportunity to find, win and grow business is unprecedented.