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With an iron will and “hillbilly flair,” this master of sales is on the rise. Meet David Cunningham, the $14 million dollar man at Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical, who beat cancer to become one of the most resilient, skilled, and successful men in HVAC. Read on to learn why David can’t be stopped.

Q: How did you get into sales?

I started at 18 years old, before the internet and cell phones existed. If you wanted to find a job back then, you had to respond to classified ads. One ad caught my attention: “monster bucks, in-home sales.” I responded to the ad and got my start as a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into… but eight training hours later it was time to roll-up my sleeves and get to work. 

Q: What motivated you?

A blue Camaro – IROC – on a rotating platform inside of a showroom near our office. My sales manager pointed it out and said, “if you sell one vacuum per day for 30 days, I’ll buy that car for you.” Man, that got me motivated, so I set out to get my first sale. It was a different game then, we had to generate our own leads. I started walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors with 3-liter bottles of Coke that I would offer to anybody who would let me in for a sales presentation. 

Q: How long did it take to get your first sale?

The free 3-liter helped me get in the door, and I thought I had two sales on the first day. With the Camaro in mind, I talked passionately about what my vacuum could do for their floors, quoted how much it would cost to replace dirty carpet, and demonstrated the power of the vacuum on the dirtiest floor in the house. Both customers filled out paper applications for financing. I was sure the Camaro would soon be mine. On day two, both credit apps were denied. That was a hard lesson to learn.

Q: Did you ever get the Camaro?

No, I did not. But I did enjoy some success before moving on from vacuum sales. After that I went to college to be a chef, but wound-up playing professional sand volleyball for the Mountain Dew team. I loved being a pro athlete, but my body wore down, so I had to get back out and look for work. My father was in construction. He hired me to carry wood and do grunt work while I learned carpentry. Then I started building my own houses, built 15 by the time the 2008 credit crunch happened. I lost 5 houses, including my own, and again had to go out and find work. Decided to try and get back into sales.

Q: How did you get into HVAC?

I thought to myself, when it’s cold, people want to be warm and when it’s warm, people want to be cold. I figured there’s job security in HVAC sales. I did some research and discovered Mr. Hiller’s business. Took it upon myself to write a letter and describe why they needed me on the sales team. Mr. Hiller responded to my letter and the next month I started working for him. Seven years later, I’m still at Hiller, still loving what I do.

Q: What challenges did you face at Hiller?

Getting back into sales in an entirely different industry felt like starting over again. It was challenging to learn the language and grasp the technical knowledge that I needed to be successful. But I focused and worked hard daily, so it didn’t take long to clear those hurdles. Just as I was starting to solidify my sales technique, I faced the biggest challenge of my life. I was sitting in my office, just got off a sales call, and I found a lump in my throat that turned out to be stage three cancer. I had to start chemo immediately and was told there would be no treatment if the cancer was able to spread to my lungs or brain. 

I set-up a meeting with Mr. Hiller, told him about my diagnosis, and turned-in my work gear. I’ll never forget this… he took a personal check out, slid it over to me with all of my work gear and said, “Don’t let the insurance kill you son, do whatever you need to do to get your health back and I’ll see you when you’re ready.” Eight months later and seventy-five pounds lighter from chemo, I went back to work, cancer free. Mr. Hiller gave me something to live for. I beat cancer. Now I’m ready to handle anything.

Q: Walk us through your sales process.

With marketed leads, as an example, my process starts before I get to the home. I do some research and see if there is any history associated with that customer or a previous homeowner at that same address.

When I arrive at the house, I turn off my cell phone, park where visible, and make sure that I am not blocking the homeowner. At the door, I address the customer by name, introduce myself, put on shoe covers, enter when invited, and try to start our conversation with something discussed on the phone.

In my experience, the best way to build a rapport with the customer is to start asking them questions. My philosophy is to “stick my finger in the bullet wound,” because then I will learn about their pain. People want to talk, and if they talk enough, they provide the answers that I need to alleviate their pain.

After some conversation, we move around the house together and I evaluate the equipment, duct work, and the quality of the air inside the house. I remind the customer that it’s not the equipment that keeps them alive, it’s the quality of the air they are breathing. I show them the quality after running an analysis on my tablet, which usually causes a surprise and leads them to an agreement to clean up the air.

Next, I do a heat load calculation, and take measurements with a laser tape measure. I scraped some floors with a physical tape measure early on, so I switched to a laser, and I like to give that tool to the customer, which makes the process more interactive and engaging for them. We’re working together.

Throughout the entire process, I take notes as the homeowner talks, which validates their concerns, and when my evaluation is finished, we sit down at the table. I take about 10-15 minutes on my own to put together some package options and provide solutions, and I refer to my customer notes during the package presentation to use the customer’s words as often as possible. I finish with financing options.

Q: What do you do if the customer requests a discount?

This absolutely happens, but not often, because Mr. Hiller runs great promotional offers. I love that strategy, because a good promo redirects the customer’s thoughts away from the word discount. If the word discount does get mentioned, I usually don’t drop the price. Instead, I do the takeaway approach. If my package options are too pricey, I work with the customer to separate their wants from their needs, take a closer look at their budget, and guide them to a decision that doesn’t take food off of the table.

Q: What has been the key to your success?

I think the biggest key has been using what I like to call “hillbilly flair” when I am inside the home. By that I mean in the South we talk a bit slower than most places. I slow things down as much as I can in favor of keeping it simple. Sometimes it’s like drinking from a firehose, it can be too much at once, so I turn it down. I’m also very empathetic, listen closely, and ask a lot of questions like “what in the world are you dealing with this situation for?” or “How can you stand to live in this heat?” And I am never afraid to get dirty during the inspection to show that I am fully committed to providing a solution. Most importantly, my philosophy is that I don’t need to preach, I need to teach, so when I give my sales presentation, I turn the tablet around where the customer can see it and learn. 

Q: Is there any particular sale that makes you the proudest?

Sure is, it was a survey call, meaning I joined a tech who was out doing scheduled maintenance. I got there quick to have time to do my own inspection and build a rapport with the customer while the tech was at work. During my inspection, I noticed the customer had three 12-year-old systems. With that in mind, I asked how long the customer expected the units to run, how long he planned to live there, and the average monthly cost of utilities. Based on the information he provided, I was able to determine that even if we replaced the 3 units with the cheapest equipment Hiller had to offer, the customer would save around 20% on utilities. That part of the conversation helped me learn that the customer was an engineer, so I started talking geothermal, which opened the door for us to discuss ROI and energy efficiency. I mentioned the tax credit he would receive for doing geothermal replacements and validated the cost by showing him the break-even point on a timeline. The customer was sold. He bought 3 units - 10 tons of geothermal - 2 tankless water heaters, a generator, every single product Hiller offers except for one small ticket item, and I’m talking about that item with him tomorrow. It was a $127,000 sale.

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