Want to Sell an HVAC System? The Rocky Mountain Institute Has Some Advice

Screen capture. Rocky Mountain Institute

It does not include "hire a professional" or "do what's best or what's right."

The Rocky Mountain Institute is well known to TreeHugger readers; we have long admired them for their “mission to transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future.” On their about page they quote co-founder and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins:

At Rocky Mountain Institute we are practitioners, not theorists. We do solutions, not problems. We do transformation, not incrementalism.
So, it was with some dismay that I read the latest report out of the Rocky Mountain Institute, The consumer connection: A consumer-centric approach to delivering home energy services written by Dr. Lauren Cheatham, Jacob Corvidae, and Laurie Guevara-Stone. This study, and the previous one we wrote about last month

The study purports to be trying to understand “why the market is failing to convert more homeowner interest in energy efficiency into action despite increased spending and efforts to do so.”

One problem is that providers of energy upgrades often fail to take a consumer-centered approach. Products are frequently marketed according to the framework or interests of the provider, not the consumer. For example, many home performance contractors start by trying to explain building science to potential buyers, and then find that they get much farther when they switch to providing examples of comfort benefits. The contractor has to understand the building science to execute the upgrade, but that often isn’t what motivates the customer.
The 3 I's

Rocky Mountain Institute/ The 3 I's/Screen capture

Then they talk of three pathways: Interest, where family and friends are the top messengers; Inform, where they get the information: “The majority of consumers felt that a contractor is the most likely person to provide them with reliable information, followed closely by friends and family and the local utility company"; then, of course, there is implementation, usually by the contractor who was the most likely person to tell them what they should do in the first place.

The messengers they include to give information to the consumer include:

  • Company salesperson
  • Contractor
  • Family member
  • Friend
  • Home appraiser
  • Home inspector
  • Local government
  • Local utility company
  • Homeowner
  • Real estate agent

This is where I first get upset, since not one of these messengers is necessarily educated or motivated to give the right information, the most cost-effective information, the most carbon-efficient information. A professional like an architect or an independent energy consultant, of which there are many, don’t even appear on the list. The study never even asks, “Is the customer getting good advice?” or “Is this the most effective way of meeting our mission?", which was “to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future.”


Rocky Mountain Institute/via

It does none of that. It then surveys motivations, triggered across the top by various reasons for making this investment. The leading one is long-term savings, followed closely by greater indoor personal comfort. Probably to nobody’s surprise, environmental benefits never rises above the 5th rank.

One that I thought was the hot marketing tool these days was “personal health.” To my surprise, it barely beats out environmental benefits. RMI writes:

Note that “improved personal health” ranked in the middle (fifth) for HVAC motivations. This is noteworthy since many practitioners consider selling efficiency upgrades with a focus on health a best practice. The middling results in this survey may be the result of a variety of reasons, such as: a) the need for education for consumers to make a connection between HVAC systems and personal health; b) anecdotal evidence that suggests health may be of higher importance to women, while 61 percent of the respondents were male; c) personal health may be more of a “closing” clincher than a primary motivator.

The RMI concludes:

RMI believes that if solution providers take a consumer-centric approach using RMI’s findings of where they fit on the 3i pathway, they can unlock US homeowner investment in energy efficiency. Failing to design services that meet consumer interests and needs can lead to lost sales, increased acquisition costs, and failure to meet community targets for energy efficiency or carbon reductions.

This is the point where I stop tearing out my hair and simply conclude that the Rocky Mountain Institute has gone completely off the rails, and has lost sight of its original purpose. I mean, who is the RMI working for here?

Not once did they ask whether changing up an HVAC system actually helps secure a “clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future.” Nor did they ever question the issue of the messengers.

Now I am biased here, and angry; I used to be a messenger of this kind of information and I am not on the list. I am trained as an architect. I went to architecture school at a good university and then worked for other architects and then wrote exams to show that I was reasonably competent to practice my profession. When something was outside of my field of knowledge, I hired other professionals, like mechanical and electrical engineers. I think professionals know stuff that friends, neighbours and real estate agents don’t.

So when I see the conclusion I get cranky: “RMI believes that if solution providers take a consumer-centric approach using RMI’s findings of where they fit on the 3i pathway, they can unlock US homeowner investment in energy efficiency.” They are basically saying ignore the professionals, who might tell you that there may be better ways to get long-term savings for less cost than replacing an HVAC system (which could be as simple as a couple of tubes of caulk), and that HVAC systems do not deliver comfort, they deliver Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning, which are two very different things. Be “customer-centric” means “tell them what they want to hear about what you, the salesperson or contractor, are selling.”

If the RMI was really interested in transformation instead of incrementalism, they might do a study showing how doing a professional evaluation of the entire home -- a look at the big picture by a disinterested third party who doesn’t have a particular system to sell or a vested interest, saves far more energy -- delivers far more comfort and takes us to a low carbon future more quickly and efficiently than calling up any of their ten messengers.