Over the first half of 2016, The Insulation Institute conducted qualitative research with builders exploring a few areas, including the changing dynamic between home builders and home buyers. The “Google Era” has changed the way homebuyers enter into the buying process and is reshaping their interactions with builders. They are researching more; more about homes, more about building products, just more in general. This leads to new opinions and new questions for builders, including about energy efficient homes. These opinions and questions can be a problem, if not responded to effectively. Our research found that builders can employ three effective techniques when faced with a buyer (or prospective buyer) who has ideas about energy efficient homes that may be a challenge if not properly addressed.
Talking with Customers About Energy Efficient Homes
The array of questions a homebuyer could ask about home energy efficiency is nearly endless, but a great many look something like this: “I want product/brand X because I heard it is the best type of Y”. Sometimes this is about insulation, more often its windows, HVAC or more visible energy related building components. Air sealing will be broached by very few homeowners (though many builders we heard from wished it would be more often). Many builders might be tempted to try and accommodate the buyer, especially if they (as a builder) have the flexibility and the customer has the money. However, giving in to this temptation ignores a crucial fact, often missing in all the discussion about today’s self-educated, Google-savvy homebuyer: they have more info and opinions than ever, but rarely are they strongly held opinions. Ultimately, homeowners still trust you as a builder, but you need to respond the right way.
The 3 Techniques
Below are the 3 effective techniques we heard builders say they employ:
- Refocus. When it comes to energy efficiency, what homeowners really want is an outcome, not a product. They may think a certain product is the way to get there, but they are rarely locked in on that product. Builders can respond by saying “what exact outcome do you want that you think this product will provide?” This allows for a conversation to instead focus on positive homeowner outcomes, which in turn allows you to discuss your approach to delivering these outcomes.
- Reorient. Builders who market using HERS scores or Energy Star said simply pointing to a low score (for HERS) or a certification (for Energy Star) was often enough to shift the conversation away from specific products. Both have the advantage of greater consumer recognition and understanding than any product specific metrics do (customers know Energy Star more than they do SEER, HSPF or R-values). Also, this moves the focus back to home outcomes and away from products, so in that regard it is like Refocus but with a more defined and tangible goal in lieu of the product. Another advantage here is the possibility to have another party, such as the HERS Rater, be the face to the customer on the subject. Raters are viewed as separate from the builder, so if they carry forward the builder’s reasoning on a product choice a homeowner may view that as more impartial than hearing it from a builder himself.
- Remind. Builders are the experts on homes and products, not prospective buyers. Because of this, some builders respond to this question by gently (or not) reminding buyers of their greater expertise. They do this by providing chapter and verse on how the house is a system of interdependent parts, not a collection of products. In short, they use their knowledge advantage to get all “building sciencey” on the customer to explain the impacts of their preference. Sufficiently overwhelmed, the preference for the product vanishes. This technique can work, but done improperly it could have a real downside. Customers don’t like to be told no, and they definitely don’t like to be made to feel stupid. However, using building science basics to really educate the buyer on the impacts of their choice can be a good thing. Doing it to overwhelm them and shut them up may be a short term win but could be a long term loss for your relationship and trust with your customer.
Is the Self-Educated Buyer Good or Bad for Builders?
In hearing all this, we wondered whether or not the trend of homebuyers being more educated was more hindrance than help for builders. It clearly results in new questions, more questions and maybe new headaches. However, when we asked this directly during the focus group one builder replied “any question is an opportunity”. Heads around the table nodded in agreement. It is an opportunity to educate them, to show your chops and reinforce your expertise. Like most opportunities, capitalizing on it requires some degree of preparation. This means training your teams to be prepared with the right responses to the kinds of questions homebuyers are asking more today than ever before.
Want to learn how to talk about the basics of Building Science to your customers when they ask questions? Download our free Building Science 101 guide to learn how.
 This research included a focus group of 10 builders and a set of ten one-on-one interviews with different builders. The participants were from various regions of the country and ranged from small custom to larger tract builders. Both the interviews and the focus group were conducted for NAIMA by a 3rd party.