What Many Contractors Have in Common

Published: October 5, 2015 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating

complex math

I've been thinking about the tens of thousands of contractors I've met in my travels since 1970.

I love these people (some more than others) and their tenacity. There's not much they won't take on (for better or worse). Here's a short list of things I've found that most of them have in common. It's what makes them so special, and always interesting. If you're a wholesaler or a manufacturer, I hope you keep what I've learned in mind. 

Most aren’t engineers.  Contractors think in pictures; engineers think in numbers. Question members of either group and they'll tell you that this is true. A good contractor can look at an empty room and visualize all the mechanical equipment to come in its proper place. They'll know what will fit and what won't, what will be in the way of something else when it comes to service.  An engineer will need a blueprint for this, and the service aspects of the job won't show up on those blueprints.

        Consider that engineers write most of the technical books and instruction manuals for heating systems, and they write for engineers, using lots of numbers. That's why contractors don't read those tomes. Contractors are visual. Engineers are digital. Big difference.

Most contractors love stories. I learned this early in my career by listening to them talk about the jobs they did. They'd weave people stories into the mechanical equipment like a gorgeous tapestry. It's not just about the heating system to the contractors. It's about the wacky things the people in the buildings do to those heating systems. Want to reach contractors? Do it through story.

Many are dyslectic. This has come up many times here on The Wall, and in the thousands of seminars I've done. So many contractors have told me that they can't read well. Some can't read at all. The trades attract these people because it's tactile. You feel it, and again, you think in pictures. I've had wholesalers complain to me about contractors who constantly call to have them explain something again and again, or size something again and again. Some of these wholesalers view those contractors as being stupid. I see those contractors as people coping with dyslexia. The letters are upside-down and inside-out. And engineers are writing the words.

            This is widespread challenge in our business. If you realize that and help those contractors they'll love you for it.

Many hate math. There are mathematical formulas in the heating world, and even lots of numbers in something as simple as a heat-loss calculation. There are even more numbers on the financial side of the business. You can't put a wrench on any of this.  Again, it's pictures vs. numbers. If you're presenting information in a purely mathematical way, don't be surprised if many contractors just ignore what you're saying and try to work around you. That's why they ask you for rules of thumb. How many Btus per square foot of space? That's why they oversize equipment. Over-sizing seems safe to them. They hate math.  

Most love challenges. And this is a great thing. They love being able to fix the system that the other guy couldn't fix. Heating isn't just a profession to many of them; it's a blood sport. "Get outta my way, kid. I'll show you how it's done." And most of the time, they will.  

Most build knowledge like a brick wall. Those bricks at the base? They could be something that their father or grandfather told them, or something that their first boss mentioned. That first brick goes down and everything else rests upon it. And if that first brick is a strong one, the wall will be fine. But if that first brick is faulty, so will the wall be faulty. I have told the story about where the circulator belongs in a hydronic heating system thousands of times, yet each day, contractors will argue with me about this because it's not how their pappy did it. Understand what's going on here and be gentle in how you teach people. And please be patient. There are a lot of bricks in that wall.

Most make up their minds and stick with it. This, too, has to do with the teachers, be that person a grandfather, father, mother, or some old guy as the shop where the contractor first worked. An idea got pounded into his head and reinforced over the years and it's not going to come out of that head easily. If you need to change someone's mind, persuasion works better than arguing. For instance, whenever I talk go contractors about pumping away from the compression tank, I tell them that if they do it that way, they will never again have to bleed air from a radiator. And since not having to bleed air from radiators is in the contractor's best interest, most are willing to give it a try. And once they do, they believe me, and they trust me to tell them more.

            Stop arguing. Start talking about what's in it for them.

Most are loyal to products. In this industry, when a new product arrives, it had better be as gee whiz as the iPhone, or way cheaper than what the contractor is currently using.  This is because they like to stick with what works for them. If they buy a product, get used to it, and it's not bringing them callbacks, they'll buy it again and again and not want to try anything new. You can try to change their minds but what they're doing works for them. If you talk to them about saving energy, they'll be thinking that it's the customer's energy and not theirs. They're looking to save the energy required to go back and fix a product that's not working as it should. So to get their attention, you'd better be much cheaper or iPhone incredible. And if you're that much cheaper, chances are your product won't last, so you'll lose them forever. And let's face it, being iPhone incredible doesn't happen very often.

Some will defend the problem product rather than be wrong about their decision.  This is human nature. We choose, and sometimes poorly. But then an amazing thing happens. We feel stupid that we're having a problem with (fill in the blank), but if we admit that the product is just plain lousy, that means that we were stupid to buy it in the first place. So we will defend the faulty product and try to make it work. We make excuses for it. We'd rather live with it than admit we were wrong. It's human nature.

Many let politics lead them. A contractor (or anyone dealing with the public) will feel strongly about a political party or a cause. This, too, is human nature. But then that contractor will plaster his work truck with stickers that support his cause. He'll drive around town, showing his cards, and as time goes by, thousands of townies will know where he stands. Half of those people will probably never hire that contractor simply because they disagree with his politics. They don't want that guy in their house. They don't want him to succeed.

            I've never understood why anyone in business would do this to themselves. There's a place for politics and it's not on the work truck. But if you mention this, that guy will argue with you.

            Go figure.