By Bryan Orr

I run a local air conditioning and heating business and train technicians from all over the world on my website and podcast. Needless to say, I’m  passionate about excellence in the service trades.

I have a story about a problem that affects many kinds of service businesses.  The usual narrative doesn’t add up, so I have a different explanation, and I came away with an important lesson.

I was sitting in a session at the HVAC Excellence Educators Conference (which was excellent by the way) and my phone buzzed. Like a typical punk kid, I looked down at it to see that my friend, Josh, had sent me a Facebook message asking if we served the East side of Orlando, because he wanted an A/C maintenance on his home. I told him that we did not serve that part of town, and I didn’t think anything else about it.

Then I see a post from Josh stating that a technician came out for his “tuneup,” spent 20 minutes looking at the unit, and then told him it had a refrigerant (freon) leak and he needed a new system for $5,400.00.

I had my suspicions, and told him we would go out to look at it. Sure enough, the system was BARELY low, like 3 degrees of subcool low, and we added 1/2 of a lb of R22 (freon). A leak detection concluded that, yes, there was a TINY leak in the evaporator coil so Josh will probably need to end up getting a system at some point… However, the other tech did not do maintenance at all, he didn’t quote a coil or anything other than a system. He literally showed up, saw the unit was 14 years old, pulled out his leak detector, found a hit, and wrote up a proposal for $5,400. He tried to close the “deal” right on site. No load calculations, no looking at the ducts; just a leak detection, a proposal, and run.

He didn’t clean the drain or the condenser coil, he hardly even checked the charge. Heck, Josh has a UV light that wasn’t working due to a simple loose connection, and the guy didn’t even look at, or notice that.

Unfortunately for this company, Josh is a local consumer advocate who goes on local TV news REGULARLY to talk about ways to save money and EXPOSE SCAMS. I bet you can see where this is headed.


The Start of the Process

The standard narrative is that there are just a bunch of greedy scammers out there trying to take advantage of people. Clearly this is true sometimes, but many times the story is longer and sadder than that, often this type of thing happens when well meaning people get worn down.

This is regarding air conditioning services, but it applies to many businesses. Tell me if this sounds about right.

A new tech gets hired into the trade, maybe he has some schooling, maybe he doesn’t, either way he gets his EPA license and starts riding around with another tech. The tech he rides with spends most of the day complaining about his boss, dispatch, other techs, customers, and politics but almost no ACTUAL training. When they arrive at the job there are two main objectives:

#1 – Get in and out as quickly as possible with as little work as possible. Being a “profitable” tech means being quick, and an emphasis here means avoiding anything that costs extra time, like getting tools out of the van, and having to pack them back in later.

#2 – Sell as much as possible during that short time. This could include parts like hard start kits, capacitors, and surge protectors in places. Others might focus on indoor air quality products. Some are just out to find a way to push an entirely new system. For many, it’s all three.

Usually this makes the new tech feel at least a little uncomfortable, but this starts to fade as the days of riding around whining broken by short stints of selling continue.

After a few months the new tech is put into a van with some parts, pamphlets, invoices and proposal forms and set loose on the world. If he is smart, he realizes pretty quick that when his bosses talk about customer service what they really mean is making as much money as possible in a day with as few customer complaints and call backs. Usually, the easiest way to do that is to condemn everything; when a system is replaced nobody ever knows if your diagnosis was correct or not. When you are focused on speed and selling, doing a PM becomes a game of pointing out a major issue that gives you an easy out. After all, cleaning does not ring the register.

People justify their bad behavior.

When I was still in trade school back in 1999 I participated in a skills challenge against other students from schools across Florida. There was another guy who was already working in the field and I remember him saying “I never just change one part, I change as many as I can and the customers never know the difference and their unit will last longer.” I was as appalled then as I am now by this type of thinking, but I’m pretty sure he honestly believed he was doing the right thing. He had been brainwashed into thinking that this was what being a technician meant.

So this all begs a question, who is to blame and what can be done about it?

The Root Cause

It is just easier to make money when you focus on selling instead of technical excellence. You can be great at what you do and still not make a profit, but when you FOCUS on profit at every level you will usually make more of it…. for a while.

I actually blame the quality techs and companies who don’t charge enough for what they do as one reason this happens.

I have been one of these contractors for years. We squeaked out a meager profit every year driving used vans, using cheap tools, trying to make ends meet, and praying the vans don’t break down. All the while, the sales-focused businesses have new trucks and spiffy, clean uniforms.

The good guys need to stand up and stop apologizing for what we charge and what we do. We need to CHARGE for the high quality services and products we provide, so that we actually make a profit on it. We need to make quality recommendations to our customers based on the solid and complete inspections we perform. There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to afford quality tools and a well stocked vehicle, if we are the ones WHO ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO USE THEM.

Instead, we beat one another up on price and undercut one another, calling another good, quality company who charges more a “rip off” or a “scam” just because they have their pricing figured out to where they can actually make a profit.

This company who went out my friend Josh’s house was going to charge $5,400 for a 3.5 ton 14 SEER Heat Pump system. That isn’t a crazy price, but to some it may be seen as a “ripoff” because they would charge $4,500. We might charge $6,000 for the same system. We need to charge more, because we have to cover more training costs, which gives the customer a better chance at having 10-15 problem-free years with their new system. That “same system” includes everything installed properly by qualified techs, and with a warranty we will stand behind 7 days a week.

The “ripoff” is the one who doesn’t deliver on their promise, not the one who charges more.

What To Do About It

If you are a manager or owner of a service company support your employees in becoming more TECHNICALLY sound, and support them as they use those legitimate technical skills to translate into profitable repairs and quality workmanship. Communication skills are key, but excellence in the hard skills of the business are also crucial. This is long road and there are no shortcuts.

If you are one of the good service providers — let’s band together, keep our heads up and charge enough to live a good life.