Below is an expert from The Book on Digital Marketing: For Plumbing & HVAC Contractors. You can learn more at

Running a successful HVAC or plumbing business—or any small business, for that matter-—involves a lot of moving parts: human resources, accounting, sales, customer service, inventory, marketing, and more. Ignoring or mishandling any of those elements can sink a business in a matter of months.

In fact, most small businesses experience a swift and painful death. After five years, only about 50% of new ventures are still afloat; five years later, another 15% have gone belly up. For HVAC and plumbing companies, those numbers are even more dire, resulting in the worst failure rate of any industry in a five-year period.

Businesses fail for multiple reasons, of course—the most obvious being a severe imbalance in their income to expense ratio. But negative account balances don’t just happen. They’re caused. Perhaps a service business dramatically underbid one too many jobs because they have a bad habit of undervaluing their time. Or they hired the exact wrong technician, and one unimpressed homeowner launched a negative word-of-mouth campaign. Or they lacked systems and processes to keep expenses under control. Or they too often missed converting leads to customers.

To be fair, some things are beyond your control. Natural disasters, political agendas, and severe market swings can knock you off your feet, regardless of how thoughtful and strategic your business plan might be. Recognizing that reality should compel you to be even more intentional with what you can control.

While there’s no magic pill to guarantee business success, there’s a secret sauce for maximizing your chances of making it past your first two years—and thriving well into the future.
The Secret Sauce: Being an Expert On Your Customers
Obviously, your shop wouldn’t exist—and won’t exist for long—without customers. While it’s important to know everything there is to know about your trade, it’s equally important to be an expert on your customers. You need to “get” them—not just what they need from you, but also what they want from you.

Now, let’s be clear: It’s not until something goes wrong that someone becomes your potential customer. Whether their sewer’s backed up or their air conditioning has called it quits or they need upgraded units for their business, they have a problem.

For your business to thrive, you need to solve their problem.
To truly solve their problem, you’ll need to correctly identify your ideal customer base.
To do that, you have to understand your ideal customer base.

As veteran marketers Larry Weber and Lisa Leslie Henderson put it: “To attract and sustain our prospects’ and customers’ attention and win their business, we have to offer products, services, and experiences that meet their needs or desires.” [emphasis added]

When your customer picks up the phone, what are they thinking? What are they feeling? What’s motivating them in the current moment? What are their fears? How you can move them from a potential customer to an actual customer?
How Your Customers Make Decisions
Believe it or not, people make decisions for only one of two reasons. That’s it. Once you understand those two reasons, you’ll be better equipped to meet your customer’s needs and wants.

Think about your personal behaviors, and see how this stacks up:

Money. People who are financially motivated are more likely to become customers if they make money or, more relevant to HVAC and plumbing problems, they save money. Their decision to engage your services will come down to dollars and cents. So, you’re likely to be successful with these types if you offer things like coupons, rebates, promotions, or other incentives.
Emotions. People who are motivated by emotion make decisions because of how something makes them feel: stronger, smarter, safer, sexier, etc. These customers tend to make subconscious, involuntary, emotionally charged decisions that often defy pure logic. In fact, they often don’t know why they’ve made the choice they have, and when pressed to explain their decision, these folks may actually change their mind.

Of course, people don’t necessarily make the same decision for the same reason all the time. There are probably some decisions you make in your life that are motivated entirely by money—a mortgage refinance or investment choice, for example. On the other hand, you’ve likely made more emotional decisions; maybe you rescued a dog from a shelter, got married, or moved across the country to be nearer to family.

Let’s pick a specific example we can all identify with: Smartphones.

Chances are, you use a smartphone nearly every day to play games, respond to email, text your team, and, from time to time, even make phone calls. Most smartphones are made up of very similar features: they have touch screens, apps for productivity and entertainment, and cameras for taking photos of your lunch.

For the bulk of the past decade, the smartphone market has been dominated by two main heavyweights: Google and Apple. Their two products, Androids and iPhones respectively, offer basically the same functions, right? But they’re marketed in quite different ways.

If you go look at any store that sells Android phones—whether Pixels, Samsungs, or LGs— you’ll likely see something like this:

See that? That ad’s promoting a sale with an additional 5% cashback. Money trigger.

Now, let’s look at Apple:

Nothing about price. Nothing about rebates. But notice what it does do? It strokes your ego that you’re better than everyone else when you have an iPhone. Emotional trigger.

You can find examples like this everywhere. Steakhouses. Car dealerships. Clothing.

People will only respond to one of those two triggers—either money or emotion. Period.

How does this apply to your plumbing or HVAC company? Simply put, you’ll successfully reach more customers if you understand their primary decision trigger. For example, if you’re heavily focused on service, chances are your customers—at least your preferred customers—are going to be more emotionally motivated than they are financially motivated.
Having Empathy for Your Customers
So, your customers are motivated by either money or emotion. They have a more fundamental need, too: they want to be understood.

Empathy, or the ability to understand another person’s experience (feelings), isn’t often listed among the top 10 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. Why? Because until relatively recently, marketing has been business-focused, not customer-focused. We’ve spent years telling customers about ourselves, rather than inviting them to tell us about themselves.

The digital space—social media, in particular—has changed the game. Customers expect to be engaged in conversation, not talked at. What’s more, people are generally pretty skeptical, and they’re looking for evidence—believable, “feel-able” evidence—that a business can be trusted. Companies that yammer on and on about themselves fall to the bottom of the pile. Companies that take the time to ask questions, listen, and express some give-a-damn? Those companies win.

To be clear, this isn’t just about social media engagement. Let’s say a customer calls you with a problem. I’m guessing you’ve heard about and seen everything. From kids’ toys down the toilet to birds nesting in the air conditioning compressor, it’s just another day at the office for you. But to the customer asking for an estimate, it’s an entirely different matter. What’s routine for you is an unexpected, undesired, likely expensive, inconvenience-bordering-on-disaster for them. And they need to know you hear them, you care about their experience, and you can do something to make it all better—without breaking the bank.

What does this have to do with digital marketing? It may seem like the only way to express empathy toward customers is when you’re having a conversation with them in person or on the phone. But empathy is more foundational than that. If you’re constantly thinking about your business from your customer’s perspective you’ll change how you communicate with them—not only in person, but also online and in print—even before they become your customer.
A Practical Example: Your Website
I’ll take a deep-dive into your website in Chapter 7, but let’s take do a quick empathy evaluation:

When a potential customer lands on your homepage, will they think, “This company ‘gets’ my problem”?
Can customers easily navigate your site? Have you removed every possible obstacle to them finding what they need?
Do you have a hassle-free way for people to reach you?
Is your website mobile-friendly?

Let’s pause there a for moment: That mobile-friendly question isn’t a technical one; it’s an empathy-related one. Right now, more than 52% of web traffic happens from mobile devices, and the desktop-to-mobile margin is expected to widen. If your customer comes home during a record-setting heat wave to an air conditioner that’s gone kaput, they don’t need the additional frustration of having to deal with your antiquated website. So they won’t deal with that frustration; they’ll move on to your competitor. Empathy requires that we offer “the right experience, in the right format, on the right device(s), when our customers are ready. From our customers’ point of view, [empathy] means feeling known, not in an invasive or creepy way, but in a way that says, ‘Can we be of assistance?’”

OK, let’s get back to our empathy evaluation:

Is your copy authentic? More than that, is it disarming?

For example, you might assume customers care how much you charge for a service call because they’re strapped for cash. In many cases, that’s true. But more often than not, what they’re actually concerned about is getting ripped off—regardless of their economic reality. How should that change the way you communicate your pricing?

Here’s a good example of a plumbing company who expresses empathy around pricing:

For decades, plumbers have played the same tired game. You call, they show up, they track mud all over your carpet, and after a few minutes, they quote you a figure based on hours to fix your problem. Plus parts.

Magically, it seems that every “45 minute” repair job blossoms to a two- or three-hour service call. So now, your original quote has risen three times.

Here’s how we’re different: We’ll call you when we’re on our way to your home or business. We’ll take extreme care to enter your property carefully and cleanly. And, after evaluating the problem, we’ll give you one price for everything. No bloated hours. No hidden equipment costs. Just simple, stress-free pricing.

This shop clearly understands the state of mind their customers are in when they’re looking for plumbing help.
How Empathy Can Guide Marketing Decisions
There’s no shortage of advertising opportunities these days, and it’s easy to waste money. By understanding your customers’ mindset—by having empathy for their experiences—you’ll naturally spend your marketing dollars and energy in the most advantageous direction and avoid wasting any money where it’s not going to be as effective.

I mentioned earlier that emotion is a trigger for many of your customers, and research has uncovered eight different emotional states that guide purchasing decisions. Two of those eight are particularly relevant to your HVAC or plumbing company.
Needs Validation
Customers in this emotional state need to know they’re making the right decision, and they value others’ opinions. How can you show them you’re the right shop to meet their needs? What marketing strategies best address this emotional state? Online reviews, interaction on social media, and expert advice will address customers’ concerns about making the wrong choice.

Decision Anxiety
Some customers get overwhelmed not because they’re afraid of making the wrong decision, but simply because there are too many options. By optimizing your website for search and by investing in Google AdWords or Google Local Services, your business will rise to the top of search results, rather than floating somewhere in the middle of “too many choices.” In fact, Google itself recently acted on this by changing their map-pack listing from seven companies down to only three. (See Chapter 7 for more on all things Google.)

By the way, given that it’s more expensive to gain new business than to keep current customers, it’s helpful to remember that some people experience decision anxiety even after they’ve already made their choice. Maintaining a connection after your work is complete (i.e., continuing to “market” to people whom you’ve already served) can confirm to anxious customers that they made the right decision in hiring you:

“By inviting engagement throughout the customer experience journey [before, during, and after a sale], we can develop relationship-based loyalty, rather than the more fickle transaction-based version.”

Being Human
Really, what all of this empathy stuff comes down to is remembering that, at the end of the day, your business is made up of human beings dealing with other human beings. And this isn’t just touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo from a tender-hearted marketing guy; this is an actual business practice known as human-centric marketing.

Four attributes of human-centric marketing are particularly helpful for plumbing and HVAC shops:
Sociability. Companies with good sociability display excellent verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Listening well, engaging in conversations, resolving differences, and sharing meaningful information are helpful to fostering healthy relationships—and that goes for business relationships, too. Having an active social media presence offers all sorts of opportunities for you to interact with your potential customers in meaningful ways—one-on-one. (See Chapter 8 for more on this.)
Emotionality. We’ve talked about emotion quite a bit already, but it bears repeating that companies who can connect with people on an emotional level will earn customers. Empathizing with people’s frustration when they have a plumbing or HVAC problem is important, but so is showing your human side through inspiration and even humor.
Personability. Another word for personability is authenticity. Plumbing and HVAC shops with personability are real. They know what they’re good at, and they’re not afraid to admit when they’ve made a mistake. For example if a customer were to post an unfavorable review on Facebook, they wouldn’t get defensive or simply ignore the criticism; they’d address it carefully and compassionately.
Morality. Given that many of your potential customers are just certain you’re going to rip them off, fine-tuning this aspect of human-centric marketing is particularly important. People want to know your values, and they want assurance that you’re an ethical company.

In short, authenticity about who you are as a person and transparency about who you are as a business will go a long way toward gaining trust—which will earn you business.
The Difference Between Install and Service Customers
Obviously, not all of your customers are seeking help in emergency situations. You also have an opportunity to serve homeowners and businesses who are replacing, remodeling, or upgrading equipment and fixtures.

Without question, these leads are also concerned about being taken advantage of. But they have a significant leg-up over your leads with a dead furnace during a blizzard or an uncooperative toilet an hour before the in-laws arrive. They have time.

Prospective install clients will take all the time they need to thoroughly vet contractors. Sure, it’s still important to have a disarming, mobile-friendly website that appears “above the fold” on a search engine results page (SERP). But you can’t stop there. These customers aren’t just looking for someone to fix their problem; they’re looking for a bona fide expert to fix their problem.

Yes, expertise is important to service clients, too. Of course it is. But those customers are more concerned about fast. Most installation customers also have a timeline, but they’re more willing to extend it to find the exact right shop for their job.

So how do you show service customers you’re the best choice? By publishing (free) expert content; having loads of authentic, complimentary reviews; getting trackbacks to your website, and more. We’ll get to all of that later in the book.

For now, here’s the most important takeaway—for both service and install customers: Get outside yourself and your business goals and objectives, and think about what it’s like to be the customer reaching out for assistance. Then treat them how you’d hope to be treated.

Just like your momma taught you.

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