The Season of Stings: Ten Tips to Stay Out of Trouble

March 7, 2012
Get ready. Your local news station is already frothing at the mouth, just thinking about the potential to make your company look bad during a sting of air conditioning contractors.

Get ready. Your local news station is already frothing at the mouth, just thinking about the potential to make your company look bad during a sting of air conditioning contractors.

We make good targets for the news media. We provide service in-the-home, simplifying the process of hiding cameras. It’s far simpler than targeting, say, automotive dealers.

Training and skill levels vary. The technology is evolving at the fastest pace in decades and not every technician is up to speed on the state-of-the-art. Moreover, it’s increasingly complex. Seemingly simple faults can be a challenge to troubleshoot. It’s likely that one or more techs will screw up a diagnostic, which can be twisted to look like premeditated fraud.

There’s huge variation in pricing practices. Call enough companies and sooner or later you’ll catch a pricing discrepancy, which can be exploited. How dare you charge more than the cheapest guy in town!

Once confronted with cameras, technicians and contractors can be counted on to freeze at best (looking guilty) or often, say the wrong thing.

Finally, as an industry we do have our share of corruption. There’s far more incompetence than larceny. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s a complete absence of sleaze.

When a sting is on, don’t expect help from the saintly looking contractor, trade school educator, or distributor trainer playing the role of Judas to the industry’s reputation by setting up the sting. They’re brought in to play a role. If they dare offer mitigating explanations that circumstances are not as sinister as they appear, the exculpatory comments are likely to fall victim to the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.

Even if the contractor designing the sting is your buddy, you aren’t off the hook. In a recent well-documented sting, the setup contractor told a couple of his friends what to expect. One took the call and passed with flying colors, which may or may not have happened without being tipped off. The other deferred by proclaiming the job board was full for a month.

As often happens, the truth came out and all three contractors got drug through the mud by the news station like they were the scummiest scums in the pond. The media hates getting deceived in the midst of one of their deceptions and totally misses the irony.

The fact is when a television station wants to make an industry, any industry, look bad, they will. By definition and design, stings are designed to accomplish just that.

If the media learns about a truly bad egg in the industry, I’m all for a media investigation. However, tricking a company with a sting strikes me as the journalistic equivalent of a bait and switch. It’s wrong. Even if everyone passes, someone will be made out to be a fall guy. And even if there’s only one rotten player, the entire industry ends up smelling to consumers.

What Can You Do?

1. Coach your team to treat every call like it’s a potential sting. This still won’t protect you from the sin of recommending optional repairs, suggesting it might be time to replace antique equipment, providing incentive pay, or charging more than the cheapest guy in town, but it will minimize your risk.

2. Flat rate. Hopefully, you already use flat rate pricing. If not, you’re opening yourself up for the media or the latest local Elliot Ness looking to make a name for himself. Make sure that everyone is charged the same price for the same repair.

3. If you hear about a sting, tell everyone. Remember, stings don’t merely tarnish a few, they stain the industry. If you think a sting might be about to take place, call the executive directors of all of the local trade associations and suggest they might spread the word. Email or call area contractors with a heads up. Hopefully, the media will get frustrated and find another industry to pick on.

4. If asked to set up a sting, refuse. Recognize that refusing to set up a sting might put you in the cross hairs. Nevertheless, by refusing and spreading the word, you’re defending the industry.

5. Sting yourself. From time to time, have a friend mystery shop your company. Consider secretly recording the interaction with the technician for training purposes. Let everyone in the company know to expect a mystery shopper from time to time. The knowledge that someone might be watching is often enough motive for techs who are sloppy in their attitude, approach, and methods, to clean up their acts.

6. Protest borderline counseling. Our industry isn’t helped when shady operators are given industry platforms to preach about their practices to contractors. While I’m one of the most laissez faire, libertarian, capitalists in the industry, even I’ve found myself appalled by speakers at industry events who advocate selling a three-ton system for $50,000 simply because you can get away with it. Tell event organizers and trade publication editors you want the highest standards applied to the speakers and writers who are given inherent credibility through their platforms.

7. If caught, confess. When a friend of mine learned his technician was caught urinating in the customer’s bushes on camera (honestly, this is not the worst offense in the world) AND doctoring invoices to pocket the difference between the standard charge and what the tech charged the customer, he immediately dismissed the technician. When the TV crew showed up, he met them at the front door with a big smile and open hand. He was forthright. He expressed horror about the situation. He explained that he had already handled the situation by dismissing the technician and refunding the customer. He hid nothing and came across so honest and sincere that he saw a spike in calls following the show because people wanted to do business with him.

8. Never lie. Never. Ever. The truth has a way of surfacing and the media can take the slightest slip or prevarication and make you seem like HVAC’s version of Enron executives.

9. Remember, no one will remember. Fewer and fewer people watch the local news real time. Except for your mother, the vast majority of people who do see the news won’t remember what companies were mentioned, whether good or bad after a couple of news cycles. The bigger concern is the online videos, but that will quickly fade into the past. Since most news stations keep their videos proprietary, they won’t appear on YouTube where they are more likely to be highly indexed by Google.

10. Don’t fight anyone who buys ink by the barrel. The old warning about trying to take on the newspaper, applies to the media too. If you feel you’ve been unfairly victimized, get over it. You cannot win. You can only keep your name in the news in a bad way by trying. You cannot win if you sue. Only the lawyers will win. Just let it go. Remember, no one will remember, except mom and she loves you unconditionally.

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable, HVAC’s largest business alliance. In addition to writing for Contracting Business and Contractor Magazines, Matt also publishes his own email newsletter. Subscribe at

About the Author

Matt Michel | Chief Executive Officer

Matt Michel was a co-founder and CEO of the Service Roundtable ( The Service Roundtable is an organization founded to help contractors improve their sales, marketing, operations, and profitability. The Service Nation Alliance is a part of this overall organization. Matt was inducted into the Contracting Business HVAC Hall of Fame in 2015. He is now an author and rancher.