What if the secret to solving the labor shortage was simply to take on more work? That seems like an impossible feat, but luckily — for the HVAC industry, at least — things aren’t always what they seem. Take the smart thermostat, for example. It’s more than just a box on the wall that controls the temperature. For many, it’s a portal that opens up to a world of opportunity for consumers and contractors alike.
“Customers seem to equate people that are technically savvy as being more intelligent and capable,” said Mike Ritter, a Michigan-based contractor. “There seems to be a misconception of HVAC techs not being as well educated as programmers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. While all those professions are well-educated, the knowledge combined with motor skills that HVAC techs acquire is of equal value.”
He believes that the more integrated HVAC becomes with other smart home technologies, the more appealing the trade will be to those who are considering it for a career as well as those who are outside looking in.
They say smart thermostats are the gateway drug that leads to full-blown smart device addiction. So why wouldn’t contractors go beyond the WIFI thermostat and offer to install other smart home products that can be integrated, controlled, and monitored anytime, anywhere?
Butch Welsch, a St. Louis-based contractor, said his fear has to do with the security angle of it and the potential liability they would be taking on.
“On the one hand, I don’t want to be limited and say ‘We are never going to change,’” he said, “while on the other hand, there are still thousands of furnaces and air conditioners in the St. Louis area that we haven’t replaced, and that is what we know and do well.”
Though Ritter doesn’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, he does acknowledge that breaking into the smart home market is not for everyone.
“It’s a completely different business model, and home services contractors are going to have to change their way of thinking for it to take off,” said Chris Hunter, a contractor in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Both Ritter and Hunter agreed that contractors who are considering expanding their services but don’t know where to start should seek advice from Service Roundtable.
“They have a connected home program with a dedicated person who has really been instrumental in sourcing vendors and training,” Hunter said.
While there’s a lot of talk in the industry about the connected home, there hasn’t really been that much action. Due to regional requirements for licensing and several other variables, owning the connected home has been more of a challenge than it sounds.
“The downfalls are if contractors decide to offer multiple services, they need to make sure to educate and train their technicians, so they won’t be done at a subpar level and damage the relationship they worked so hard to capture with the main trade offering,” Hunter said.
Contractors who aren’t offering these services run the risk of losing their customers to other home services companies that are in the home providing the services that they don’t.
“Having one professional that you know, trust, and can depend on and can make one call to fix it all — that’s a huge benefit for today’s consumer and the busy lifestyle,” Hunter said.
The customers love the convenience, but they love the technology, too. The fact that the equipment notifies them when it needs maintenance also builds more trust between the contractor and the customer.
One of the trends that Rob Minnick, a Laurel, Maryland-based contractor, sees is the decline of service agreement, since the systems will be letting the customers know when they need maintenance.
“The old way of needing it done two times per year may not be the need for half of the customers anymore,” he said.
In response to this, since he sees the smart home market doing nothing but growing, he ended maintenance agreements back in 2012. They now offer a pay-as-you-go VIP program.
Ritter has also switched up his business model in such a way that he tries to use his smart home sales as a way to fill the shoulder seasons.
“You want to build a database and plant seeds with customers showing interest to be contacted during those shoulder seasons,” he said. “You can’t just suddenly contact homeowners thinking they are going to do something the first time they hear you offer it.”
Additionally, they install Wi-Fi-enable thermostats with every new install they do — a basic digital thermostat is no longer an option for their customers.
“It’s simply part of the system,” Ritter explained. “We work toward getting them used to controlling it with their phones. The idea is, when we offer them the ability to control more of their home with their phone, they have experience with it they now love, so adding something else is seen as exciting.”
And the demand is there, according to Hunter.
So, along with opening up new sources of revenue, becoming well-versed in smart home technology makes the trade more appealing to possible recruits as well as potential customers.
“By being seen as someone that is higher educated, you can demand the price you and your team deserve with less resistance,” Ritter said.
And contractors are in a unique spot because they already have the customer, Hunter said. They just need to introduce the new services.
“Someone’s going to,” he said. “Do you want to be the one connected to your customer or let someone else in?
“That’s what I thought,” he continued. “It’s go time.”
Contractors can choose to be a player or a spectator in the connected smart home product category. Players get paid.