In the final month of 2019, Pew Research Center released its top technology-related trend changes from the data that it has collected over the past 10 years. Two stood out: social media is now a go-to platform, and smartphones are how a majority of people currently get online. Fast forward three months, and businesses are in the midst of a global pandemic. Everyone from meat packers to HVAC contractors are searching for ways to survive the economic shutdowns and plan for social distancing when business returns to normal. The word normal, however, has shifted in the current lexicon, as it is often referred to as the new normal. Take the ideas of increased technology adoption across a broad base and a new business normal, put them together, and there contractors should find opportunities to reinvent themselves as an unprecedented digital business.
There is more to a digital business than converting all the paper records to electronic records, starting a website, or establishing a social media presence. A digital business is one that thinks about digital practices and solutions before anything else. The idea may seem like far-fetched hypothesizing for the HVAC industry, but in the midst of a shutdown and social distancing, now is the time for contractors to create a new normal for their business. Right now, customer service expectations are low. For example, order something from Amazon and it takes a week or more on average to receive “non-essential” items. Prime members pay a premium for two-day shipping, but there haven’t been enough complaints to hit mainstream news or social media. On a whole, customers seem content to do their part to help and wait patiently.
Medical facilities are another customer-based business that has changed dramatically during this pandemic. Like it or not, medical facilities are a business, and large pieces of their businesses have been set aside to cover COVID-19. In fact, many have expanded and encouraged their customers to seek their services through telehealth systems. These secure videoconferencing options don’t take the place of good healthcare, but they are being used to diagnose lesser sickness, remain in contact with patients, and reduce the spread of illness via an office visit.
There are two takeaways from these examples. The first is that customers are in an unprecedented place to accept business operation changes. The second is that digital strategies aren’t as foreign or unsuccessful for well-established businesses as one may think.
What could a digital HVAC business look like? First, consider customer interactions. What if first contact was done via video conferencing, as in a telehealth situation? In an emergency situation, an on-call technician would be able to go through some preliminary diagnosis with the customer and possibly avoid the emergency trip altogether. In non-emergency situations, the technician or a well-trained customer service representative (CSR) could discuss the problem with the customer and prepare the technician to come in and handle the problem. Although making a customer connection with the technician is still important, those valuable customer relationships would be connected to a trained CSR. Handling problems, sales, and customer needs would be accomplished through one department specialized in handling those types of transactions. How many rollouts might this save, and with the technician shortage, how much technician time could be saved upon arrival to the jobsite?
Consider too, how customers engage with websites. Yes, they are there for information, but what if contractors were able to place filters, tune-ups, and other similar services available for purchase online? Put in the model and order the items. A tech shows up — for a fee, of course — installs the filters, and disposes of the old ones. Some customers may have this in a maintenance agreement already, but for those that don’t, this is another digital access point to revenue and perhaps new customers.
Now consider the technicians. The idea of augmented reality in the workplace is not being fully taken advantage of by the HVAC industry. The veteran technicians who aren’t as limber as they once were, or those who are injured, could be sitting behind a desk with a computer while the young guns are out there navigating the stairs and ladders from behind a pair of augmented reality glasses. When the technician in the field looks through those glasses and connects to the veteran on the other side, both technicians can see the same thing and together solve the problem.
There are multiple other ways to integrate digital technology into an HVAC business, but one thing is for certain — it’s time to do it. Contractors need to be careful that this window of opportunity doesn’t pass them by as they wait for the new normal to emerge. Get ahead of the curve, embrace change, and examine every business process the company conducts in hopes of finding a digital tool to help.