“I know a guy that’s cheaper”. You’ve heard these words before, in some way, regarding how “high” your prices are. Homeowners and property managers seem to be always seeking out the cheapest heating & cooling solutions when it comes time to service or install new systems. On one hand, it’s understandable that HVAC prices are high, and sometimes it’s not easy to pay thousands of dollars to fix something that was just working yesterday. On the opposite hand, skilled trade contractors in the HVAC+R industry are just that – skilled. You don’t want some crock pot ripping out your reciprocating compressor and replacing it with a scroll, or vice-versa, just dishing out damaging services. They’re the notorious unlicensed contractors.
There is a community of “contractors” that are unlicensed, untamed and feel their owed the work that licensed, reputable contractors work so hard to obtain and maintain. They bypass the channels it takes to become a quality technician/installer, and from the wholesaler side of the counter, it’s transparent. They see right through that shit. The counter professional posses a unique and insightful view of these wild, corrupt scoundrels. Too many times have I seen (maybe you too) the Facebook post about some jerk blowing off a job or doing it completely wrong and becoming unreachable. Unreal.
The Counter Expert
I worked a supply house for 7 years and spent a couple of years in the field as an apprentice and sheet metal mechanic. From the contractor side, I directly never witnessed the average unlicensed contractor, but when I started working behind the counter I started to see some wild things in the industry. Not a day went by where I didn’t encounter a strange, new “customer”. I would often question if there were licensed to work with the parts and equipment we offered to the trade ONLY. All distributors and supply houses are required to ensure that they’re selling equipment and parts to licensed contractors only. The liability could then be placed on them following a botched job that leads to damaged property or injuries. The screwed up thing is that sometimes these contractors did provide us with licenses and CFC certifications, but the things they told us is down right terrifying.
I remember that time when…
I recall one guy buying a replacement R22 dry Rheem unit and installing it near Baltimore. A couple of days later he informed us it caught on fire and wanted it replaced under warranty. We fought and fought that guy until we eventually caved in and replaced his unit (upper management decision). That’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
A less abrasive incident I recall, which made me chuckle a little just now, was a wild, interesting guy who used to work with a well-know, reputable customer. Over the years after leaving the company, he got involved with things that weren’t the best for staying out of jail. So, as expected, he was in and out of jail, and yet still found work for people changing out compressors and miscellaneous parts. One day he started a warranty claim for a scroll compressor and we, reluctantly, replaced it for him. The way we did things was done out of trust among our customers, and we had a process that started with verify the model and serial number of the unit and ensuring it was valid for a warranty claim. Then, we give the part to them to swap out and in a timely manner receive the old compressor. This guy put bringing us the old compressor on the bottom of his to-do list and became unresponsive to calls. Finally, I got a hold of him and politely asked for the old compressor so I can close out the claim. He responded politely as well and informed me he would bring the compressor back the next day.
Problem was, it was mangled up. Dented, scratched, suction and the discharge lines were practically missing. I wasn’t happy about that at all. I asked him, “what happened to this thing, it looks like it fell off a truck and was dragged around for miles!?”
His response? “It was”.
I cant make this shit up. Ever. These guys are far more worrisome than the average Harry homeowner. Yikes.
The Counter Experience
I have tons of interesting stories from the years behind the counter, and my insight to the industry is unique. The most dangerous individuals to licensed contractors is the unlicensed jerk. They underbid real skilled workers and create liability issues for whoever sold them the piece of equipment in the first damn place. Asking for a copy of a license or a CFC certification can be like pulling teeth. People become angry and defensive, like we are disrespecting their entire being. My manager would tell me if they act that way, it proves that we shouldn’t be selling to them. Which is true, yet a lot of them present us with real licenses and CFC certs. Some don’t, and can get away with buying equipment by saying “oh I know this guy” or “I worked for so and so”. Most who walk through the doors were legit, starting their own companies, doing side work and just getting things for their company jobs.
The issue is it’s hard to know who to really sell to, because even those with licenses can prove to be some of the worst technicians out there. The majority of customers are the core of the industry, but many aren’t. Repeated warranties, nickel and dimin’, not knowing exactly what they need, asking us for shit that they should know, buying a part and returning it for a full refund with the old part inside, these are all indicators of shitty contractors with a license. That’s on one side of things, the other side is those with nothing that are always trying to pull one over on the counter professional. Constantly swindling their way into jobs. Often we would run serial number checks that often lead back to some other branch of our company that sold the equipment. Was it the equipment, or the work itself? It wasn’t always clear, especially if the originally installer is questionable as it was.
The restaurant/bar owner
OK, this is one of the most interesting groups of people I encountered during my counter days. They become irate and threaten to call the BBB on you if you demand a copy of their license and/or CFC. These are some of the worst unlicensed people that call, and even worse, walk through the doors. They act as if the wholesaler should be privileged to have their business by cutting out the middleman (the core customer) and basically taking money right out of their pockets. Contractors will become furious when they find out that you sold to one of their customers or unlicensed competitors, and rightfully so. The restaurant/bar owner has tons of refrigeration equipment, and will try to constantly buy motors and thermostats to keep them running. Instead of going to their refrigeration guy, they go directly to the distributor. Some times things get ugly and argument ensues, demanding that they show their licensed or we refuse the sale. That never works out well.
The property manager
“I have a rental unit I need to replace the HVAC unit on”. OK buddy, first of all, if I’m going to believe you’re able to buy this stuff, calling it an “HVAC” unit is the first red flag. I can’t remember or even start to guess how many times I’ve encountered this. The first thing I ask, uncomfortably, is ok, do you have a license? The answer is always no. I refer these guys to our favorite customers for referrals, and hopefully they leave without a fight. That’s rare, however, considering having tenants without cold or hot air is something that puts a lot of pressure on them. It’s not our fault you don’t choose to use a contractor, which remember, are also OUR only customers! People don’t understand what “wholesale only” means, as they ignore the big sign that Cleary states we can deny sales to anyone we choose. Do it the right way.
The right way
When someone unlicensed comes in to buy something, the right thing to do is to deny them the sale in the nicest way possible. When it escalates, which it often does, refer to the manager and let him deal with it. That’s it. We have to protect the livelihood of our customers or they’re going to go to another contractor. It’s as simple as that. Honestly, it didn’t happen that way 100% of the time, because people have a way of tricking and manipulating you. Putting your foot down and ensuring these policies are kept is vital to wholesaler > customer relationships. It’s important to stand by that and make sure that the business is flowing in the direction of real customers.
The wrong way
Another branch of the distributor I worked for needed extra help for a Saturday morning. I helped out, and one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen considering unlicensed patrons happened. A counter veteran, who we’ll call Jeff, who had been working there for almost 20 years, handled a disgruntled customer in a crazy, satisfying yet incorrect fashion. A frustrated “customer” came to the counter with a blower assembly asking for the motor replacement. Jeff politely denied him the sale unless a license was shown. The blower motor was sitting on the shelf, 1/3hp, 1075rpm, and cost around $65.
The customer was pissed and frustrated turned into downright angry. He begun to yell, cuss and threaten Jeff that he would take action to get him fired. Jeff calmly said “ok sir, let me take a look”. he walked over to the motor aisle and grabbed a box, bringing it back to the counter. He sat down and started to type on his computer. “That will be $300.00 sir”. The man paid and left without saying a word. The shelves don’t have prices on them for a reason. So we can mark up anything we need to for customers that are new, unknown and a pain in the ass. That’s a wild thing, isn’t it?
What You Should Do
If you’re a licensed contractor and have a couple of moments, ask your local distributor how they’re handling the unlicensed ones. Tell them your business depends on their methods to deter and reject those who don’t do quality work. It’s to discourage the efforts of the shady maintenance guy that wants to save someone a little bit of money by installing a new compressor incorrectly. They have to be vigilant in order to protect themselves and your business. Trust me, they’re selling things to people that shouldn’t be doing the job that you do to make a living. It’s not always the wholesalers fault, but they can steps to prevent these clowns from buying shit for their circus while you’re running a legit business.