Special Feature Article

Dave Yates

Master Plumber and owner/operator of
F. W. Behler, Inc., one of the oldest plumbing, heating and air conditioning service companies in North America (est. 1900).

...ok we couldn't find the traditional head shot but this actually is Dave playing around as usual...and the holiday season is just around the corner.










People Ain’t Dumb by Dave Yates
Copyright (c) Dave Yate
s, First World Serial Print and Electronic Rights

If I live to be 200, I’ll never understand why so many in this trade treat customers as if they’re a box of rocks incapable of comprehending equipment, or, having a pretty good feel for when they’re being hoodwinked. I wasn’t the contractor-of-choice bidding the new boiler replacement, but I was referred to the customer by one of her friends. People talk to each other – especially when they’re under stress, and, major work in a home creates a great deal of stress. She’d been lamenting her situation with her circle of friends and that’s how it was she came to call for a fourth opinion.

You have to like people if you’re going to sell anything. Selling, for me, is more of a social experience than it is presenting products while touting their features. If you’re going to fix the problem, you’ve got to fix the customer too. Before we made it to the basement to inspect the boiler, I asked about room-by-room comfort and sought out her opinions regarding any issues with the baseboard heating – and there were a few that she’d never really given a great deal of thought. But they were the kind of small details that irritate and ones people eventually resign themselves to putting up with. All of them could be addressed and we discussed how that could be accomplished.

By now, I’d already accomplished the first challenge to making the sale – I’d gained her confidence. While descending the stairs to the basement, she began detailing how stressed her personal life was at that moment: her mother was dying of cancer; her sisters and brother not willing to lend a hand, or visit; a close friend having recently died from cancer; and she having been laid off from work, so money was tight. A close friend of mine recently succumbed to his battle with cancer, so we were able to share sympathies. I had the impression no one had listened very carefully to her need to unburden her troubles for quite some time. Listening is a learned skill and an important one if you’re in sales. If you’re not listening empathetically, and emphatically, client(s) will instinctively know that and be insulted: no sale. While we’d been talking and exchanging information (never dominate a conversation with a client – listen), we’d arrived at the reason for this sales call – the boiler.

As she talked about the other firms who’d been there to either perform work on the boiler or for an estimate, I listened intently for clues as to what they’d done wrong (in her opinion) and filed each flub away to ensure I wouldn’t step on any land-mines! The first outfit had been their plumber for more than ten years. But, they’d had a draft problem that eventually set off a carbon monoxide detector and he left them in the lurch without resolving the problem. Failure to address things that frighten clients results in a loss of confidence and opens the door for competitors. A second outfit, one that buys a full-page ad in the phone book, was called in and they decided her draft issue required a flue-mounted draft inducer. Never mind the gas-fired gravity vent flue from the water heater that offered a by-pass route for back-drafting the combustion products – the pathway of least resistance! A third outfit moved the water heater’s flue to an adjacent chimney flue that also serves a fireplace on the floor above – another safety hazard. She and her husband had spent years being concerned and somewhat frightened by not knowing if what had been done was a valid correction. There’s been a growing awareness of CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning and they had a nagging doubt about the three separate contractor-based solutions. An inspection from the chimney’s clean-out doors revealed both flues were terra-cotta lined and adequate in dimension to safely carry away flue gases. I told her I thought the draft problem might be apparent once I had an opportunity to check the chimney from outside the home.

I asked her to detail all of the problems they’d experienced with the boiler and continued to study it and the near-boiler piping as she spoke. There were two older-style circulators: a B&G 100; and an old Thrush. Both had leaked and there was ample evidence of that on the flanges and piping from the minerals left behind as water evaporated. In addition, the gas conversion burner (a cheap off-brand that has long been a source of aggravation for service techs to maintain and keep running), had failed three times the previous winter – each call had been after-hours at overtime rates. All of the firms preceding me had condemned the boiler.

The boiler itself was an older cast-iron sectional unit manufactured in the 70’s. Its efficiency would turn out to be just under 84% (with its original oil-burner installed) according to the catalogs we have in our files. It was not leaking and did not exhibit any visible defects. The pressure gauge on its front indicated it was holding just over 12-PSI. It wasn’t the boiler leaking, it was the circulators and the only other problems were draft and burner related. And that’s where the other contractors went wrong in their sales calls. It’s not up to them (or me) to decide how clients should spend their money. On the other hand, it’s our collective responsibility to guide customers towards the best decision while educating them about why any given choice is in their best interest.

It’s also my responsibility to begin detailing what it is we do that separates us from others who sell these same products. If I fail here, I become just another contractor selling the same apples and once that happens, price is the only thing left in the apple barrel. I led her through a tour of the piping system and pointed out several dozen things we would change, and, more importantly, why each change was something that would enhance system performance while reducing the possibility they’d need us in the middle of the night – thereby saving money in the long run. None of my competitors had bothered to point out any of these issues and because I’d gained her confidence earlier, she knew I was telling her the truth.

She mentioned that each of the previous contractors had insisted she purchase the most expensive, top efficiency, boiler and she had tried to tell each of them how strapped for cash they were. No one listened or gave her a choice: it’s our way or the highway approach to sales! Thus began the detailed levels of service/sales we could provide.

Options: get your red hot options!

She was stunned to hear that we could repair the existing problems. The circulators were not at all troublesome to replace and new wet-rotor maintenance-free circulators could easily be utilized with a new boiler – should this boiler actually fail in the near future. The conversion burner? Well that’s the rub, isn’t it? I know it’s going to leave them without heat due to the pilot getting drawn away from its thermocouple, which results in the gas valve’s internal safety shutting it down. A new conversion burner (one of moderately good quality) would not be a wise investment on an appliance of this vintage and it would be money wasted if the boiler itself failed. I offered to give them both lessons on re-lighting the pilot, but advised against a new burner. But, I also told her my estimate would include the costs for one – “It’s your decision to make.”

The oil tank was still in place, so a new oil boiler was something we could consider. They did not want oil, so that option (I would include several oil boiler models in my menu-driven quote) wasn’t likely to be chosen.

A number of gas-fired boiler options were discussed – from ones offering virtually identical efficiencies they presently had, to the ultra-high-efficiency models. They would get to read through the information, study the projected annual costs (I include those costs based upon our area of the country and projected degree-days), contemplate their return on investment (another number provided in our estimates) and then they decide which course best suits their budget.

Outside, it was immediately apparent why they had a draft issue: the chimney’s termination was too low in its relationship with the roofline, causing intermittent downdrafts to occur from wind impacting the chimney’s outlet. In addition, the conversion burner was over-firing a wee bit and no one had ever bothered to check the combustion performance. I explained that we always test and adjust a heating appliance while utilizing combustion analyzers that are calibrated and certified for their accuracy. A print-out of the results is given to the owners for their records.

The proposal/quote sent was four pages long and reads like a menu. No hype from manufacturer’s glossy literature, just plain English absent esoteric technical contractor jargon. She called yesterday to say we’ve got the job and they’ve decided which path to follow. I didn’t sell them a product; I sold myself and our company. Providing we back that up with good service and reasonable pricing, they’ll never have a reason to look elsewhere.


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