Selling High-Performance Audits

A panel of successful Home Performance with Energy Star contractors gives candid answers to questions about auditing homes and correcting problems in ways that make customers happy and their businesses thrive.

September 03, 2009
September/October 2009
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Many of us who have been in the energy efficiency field, or the high-performance home contracting business for some time think that this should be the time when homeowners would be beating down our doors looking for our professional advice. Indeed, the compelling and encouraging trends toward green products and buildings, the historically high energy bills and historically low interest rates, the stimulus incentives at many levels of government, and the ever more stringent building codes do make this a great time to be an energy advisor/rater/high-performance/Energy Star contractor. However, in spite of all these positive indicators, it is still unlikely that your services and products will sell themselves.

Countering these positive indicators are the current economic uncertainty, the fluctuations in energy prices, and the culmination of the normal stresses in our clients’ daily lives. Making decisions about purchasing the services and products our industry offers—services and products that are being sold by you personally as an auditor or contractor—adds to our clients’ stress levels.

At this point, consumers are predisposed to react in one of two ways. One, they may choose to do nothing, think about it longer, or put off making the decision until later. Or two, they may decide to pay the lowest or near-lowest price as a hedge against the risk of not finding the best value. For us to take best advantage of the opportunities offered by today’s positive market conditions, while ensuring that we help clients to make the best energy choices in the face of market uncertainties, we need to focus on sales fundamentals.

In this short article I would like to highlight one of these fundamentals—effective listening. Effective listening is arguably the most important skill needed in any sales effort.

First Build Trust

We need only recall our own shopping experiences to remind ourselves why a salesperson who listens is so valuable. We all have enough personal buying experience to put ourselves in the place of a typical homeowner as he or she considers remodeling his or her home. While all homeowners know intuitively that they should carefully plan ahead, do research, get at least three quotes, and evaluate each quote against their planned goals, most of them don’t have the time, interest, or patience to do so. Nor do they have the basic knowledge required to research and assess all the important information available in order to make a truly informed decision. Paradoxically, the ever-growing database of readily available (often contradictory) information, and the wide array of choices and energy-saving options that in theory should make it easier for homeowners to make an informed buying decision actually create more stress and indecision.

For a salesperson, the best way to get buyers to trust you and subsequently buy from you has less to do with what you say and more to do with what you hear the customer say. The more they talk, the more they trust you.
When surveyed before undertaking remodeling projects, consumers vow they are going to assess the quality and overall value of the contractors and their products. However, when surveyed after they make their decision, they give reasons for their choices using words like “trust,” “reputation,” and “referrals.” They have substituted trust in the salesperson for quality and value to lessen their stress. Moreover, the more they are able to trust a contractor, the more willing they are willing to pay a premium for services and products rendered.

This is an important finding for our sales efforts, for fundamentally, the task is to get consumers to trust us. Of course, this is easier said than done. We all have enough life experience to recognize that putting trust in any salesperson is quite a leap of faith on the part of any buyer. The trust-building process is built into all aspects of your marketing—signage, literature, company name, reputation, service record, telephone messaging, brand alliances, and so on. In the sales process specifically, trust building begins with the first phone call to book an appointment, and it strengthens up to the time of closing, when we ask homeowners to dip into that well of trust to sign the deal. Interestingly enough, unlike in marketing, where it is useful to talk up the company’s history and reputation, in sales the more you talk about how trustworthy the company is, the less buyers are inclined to trust you. For a salesperson, the best way to get buyers to trust you and subsequently buy from you has less to do with what you say and more to do with what you hear the customer say. The more they talk, the more they trust you. All professional salespeople have heard about the power of listening, yet it remains an underused tool. This is often especially true in the high-performance contracting business, where we are all so enthusiastic and passionate about the products and technologies that will save the world; we feel the need to talk about them—a lot.

The Phone Call

Let’s apply this fundamental principle of encouraging our prospective clients to talk to three parts of the sales process, starting with that first phone call to book an appointment. Marketing gets the phone to ring; sales converts that initial expression of interest ultimately into a buying decision.

You have advertised Energy Star audit services in a local paper. A prospective client calls and asks, “What do you charge for testing the energy efficiency of my home?” or “How much money can I get back for upgrading the insulation in my home?” You could give a direct answer as to the cost or savings and then tell the client how great your services are and ask if he or she would like an appointment. Or you could make the first attempt at building trust by asking a few questions. For example:
 
“Thanks for calling, and that is a great question. In order to make sure we find the most cost-effective approach for you, do you mind if I ask you a few questions? What prompted your interest in an energy audit? What are your plans for the home? In your research so far, what things have you heard that sound interesting?”

The answers to these questions become your reason for charging what you do, and the reason why you are the best energy advisor for this specific client. For example, a client tells you that he is thinking of replacing all the windows in a 100-year-old home and has heard conflicting ideas on how best to proceed. You could first take the opportunity to empathize with the confusion that the client must be feeling, and then talk briefly about your specific experience in an older home, recount the extra level of incentives a similar client was able to realize with your services as professional energy advisor, and then respectfully ask for the new client’s business. This can all be done in just a few extra minutes on the phone.

The same commitment to asking helpful, encouraging questions extends to any in-home visit. Proper questioning builds trust and saves both you and the client significant time, as it allows you to shorten presentations to match only what the individual client needs or wants. That said, it is important to ask permission to ask questions near the beginning of your visit. You might say something like this:

“Thank you for the opportunity to visit your home and quote on our services and our products. In order to save you a little time and to find the most cost-effective approach, would it be okay if I asked you a few questions?”
This simple approach allows you to take gentle control of the visit and gives you leeway to ask between six and eight helpful, effective questions. Be sure to design questions that are easy to answer, encourage long answers, and are of genuine interest to your client. For example, rather than asking:
  • “Would you be interested in products and services that save energy?”
Ask questions that encourage longer, more thoughtful responses:
  • “What has been your experience with your energy bills?”
Or:
  • “What technologies have you researched or heard about that save energy?”
Train yourself to use these powerful phrases when questioning clients, to show genuine interest in what they have to say about their needs and interests:
  • Tell me about …
  • Can you elaborate on …
  • What has been your experience been with …
  • In your research so far …
  • What have you heard …

After allowing your clients to talk and express their emotions, you can go ahead and present, with passion and enthusiasm, the aspects of your product and services that most closely match what the clients have told you that they need.

Talk about Price

One final—and critical—application of building trust through active listening occurs when clients raise questions or objections—usually, of course, about price. As passionate and knowledgeable advocates of energy-saving technologies, we are often taken aback when clients don’t share our commitment. While it may seem like second nature to us to bring energy savings into our homes and daily lives, remember that our clients are not just weighing the facts; they are also trying to decide if they can trust us to help them make the right decision. When clients raise questions or objections, the thing to do is, once again, simply to encourage them to talk, by asking questions—and to listen to the answers. For example, when a client asks why our price is higher than that of a competitor, we often feel compelled to start fiercely defending our price. A better approach is first to allow the client to talk about the difference in price, and then describe what your company is offering.

The client says: “It seems like your price is quite a bit higher than the price another contractor quoted us.” You say: “Thanks for letting me know that. Can you please clarify for me what the other contractor told you?”

In at least 60% of cases, the client will answer his own question for you. For example, the client may say:
  • “Well, it was just a price over the phone, and they never offered to come to the house.”

Or:
  • “Their price was lower, but I don’t think it included completing all the paperwork for the incentives program.”

In cases where clients don’t answer their own question, at least they have given you the time and information to prepare the best possible response.

These are a few examples of how enthusiastic, helpful, sincere questions can be used to help homeowners trust us more, so that we can help them make more cost-effective and timely decisions. We should resolve to be as knowledgeable and professional about the science of selling as we are about the science of building. Use your knowledge of building science to create compelling presentations—but first have the confidence to listen to the emotions and desires of your clients, so as to empower them to trust you.
 
Gord Cooke has been a professional engineer, trainer, author, and home building industry consultant for the last 25 years. He is dedicated to helping the building industry and trade contractors build, renovate, and sell more efficient, comfortable, healthier, and more durable homes.

For more information:
To learn more about Gord Cooke’s work, go to www.gordcooke.com.
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