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    Plan A Plan B Alex Millos

    A Unique Perspective on the HVAC Equipment and Materials Shortage

    July 9, 2021

    We spent most of the morning testing and diagnosing a poorly functioning HVAC system in an office building. It was 90⁰F+ outside with 90 percent relative humidity. Inside, it was above 80⁰F with 80 percent RH, and 40 sweaty office workers were praying for cool air. Get the picture?

     We made a material list of items necessary to get the system repaired and performing well. I handed the list to the service supervisor and said, “Get us the stuff on this list, and we’ll get these folks cool by the end of the day.” Suddenly, five huge men broke out in laughter that sounded like Jabba the Hut from the Star Wars movies.

    There was a problem. We were enjoying in-field, hands-on training in American Samoa. The equipment and parts we needed were not available anywhere close to us. (About 2500 miles south of Hawaii.) The service supervisor informed me he could order the equipment and materials on our list that night from Syracuse, New York. They should arrive in the Samoan port in about six months (after making it across the USA and onto a boat).

    Let’s take a look at how you can successfully greet today’s industry shortages as you deal with your customers and escort them through these unusual times. 

    Time For Plan B

    Such a situation had never crossed my mind, and I couldn’t contain my expression. My big Samoan brothers made fun of the shocked look on my face for nearly 10 minutes. When we settled down, I asked what they did when equipment and parts were unavailable.

    The biggest technician explained that they faced this problem daily throughout his career. “We explain the problem to our customers and then describe a two-part solution. First, we propose the best temporary solution we can deliver today using what we have. Second, we make a proposal for a permanent solution we will make when the equipment and materials arrive in six months.”

    So, we studied the system, scrounged together the materials we could find, and put together a temporary solution. We gave them a cost for a quick fix and a permanent system upgrade in the same proposal. They approved both solutions.

    The lesson I carried home was how the company involved their customer in the problem and solution. 

     Within two hours, we had airflow, cooling, and dehumidification. Near the end of the day, we all walked down the hall and saw dozens of happy ladies smiling and bouncing their forearms up and down on their desks. I asked what it meant. The guys told me, “The ladies are showing you their arms no longer stick to their desk. That means we did a good job.”

    The system was far from perfect, the two-step repairs were more expensive, but we had done the best we could with what we had.

    The lesson I carried home was how the company involved their customer in the problem and solution. Neither of them could get what they wanted, so together, they swallowed the bitter pill and made the best decision possible.  

    What We Can Learn from Our Samoan Brothers

    Right now, our industry is in a tough spot with equipment and material availability. Fortunately for us, rumor has it; our shortages may ease up soon.

    Don’t miss the opportunity to appreciate that we usually have equipment immediately available. Be realistic with your customers about problems you must face together right now. We can learn valuable lessons from today’s shortages if you learn to make the most of what you have and create great experiences for your customers. 

    What I learned that day in Samoa still makes me grateful when I walk into a store and grab what I want right off the shelf. I often sincerely appreciate the abundance we enjoy in this country. 

    It’s Not Only Your Problem; It’s Theirs Too

    During rare seasons, like the one we’re passing through now, some industry rules change. To serve well requires you to be very upfront with your customers and explain the predicament you’re both in. You have the opportunity to unite so you can discover the best possible solutions together.

    To serve well requires you to be very upfront with your customers and explain the predicament you’re both in.

    Consider doing some research. Speak to your manufacturers and distributors and collect the facts about the actual effect of equipment shortages on your company. Organize the facts until you can explain the current situation to customers. Be realistic, factual, and speak positively. 

    If you’re honest and work with your customer towards a solution, you can provide an initial and long-term solution that makes the best of today’s circumstances. 

    Do not make things worse by complaining, whining, and laying blame on everyone else. Do not explain how hard it is for you to disappoint your customers all day long. Nobody cares. All your customers want is cold air. Your honesty will make the best of a challenging situation.  

    When you explain the dilemma to customers, show your concern for their circumstances and offer your commitment to meet their needs as soon as possible. 

    Your Obligation to Provide Solutions Continues 

    Despite industry shortages, you’re still the one your customers look to for a solution. In difficult conditions, you are not relieved of your obligation to do what you can for them. I hope you feel and appreciate the weight of your duty.

    Even though the usual changeout may not be an immediately available option, offer what you can do for them today. Your solution may be a temporary fix coupled with a permanent solution when the products you need become available later. 

    Does this type of approach require more work from you and a higher cost to your customer? Yes. Paying a higher price and waiting are a reality of today’s marketplace. 

    When equipment is scarce, you’re not dead in the water. Remember my Samoan brothers. It’s your customer’s arms that will stick to their desks if you walk away.

    Propose and Agree on a Permanent Solution

    Do not make a temporary repair without making an agreement for the permanent repair when equipment and materials are available. Create a proposal that addresses both the temporary and permanent solutions.

    After the temporary repair is complete, order the materials and equipment and move ahead. It’s OK if the equipment is on backorder, the solution will soon be on the boat and heading your way.   

    Create an Exquisite Customer Experience.

    Equipment shortages may drive you crazy, and you may be grumpy and short-tempered. Are you dragging your customers with you on that downward spiral? Sure, you are. How’s that working for you? 

    On the other hand, if you choose to embrace the current state we’re in, you can turn challenging situations into exquisite customer experiences. 

    Becoming successful during times like now is the material for inspirational stories and life lessons. Is there a chance you can break through and discover a new level of customer service that may become legendary?    

    It appears our equipment shortages will subside soon.  But what if the shortages come back in three years and this article suddenly becomes relevant once again? None of us know the future. But whatever you learn from this challenging season will impact your relationship with customers and your career for a long, long time. 

    Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute, Inc., an HVAC-based training company and membership organization. You can contact Doc at ncilink.com/ContactMe or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles, downloads, and current training opportunities