Becoming a strategic partner to sell compressors

Dec. 11, 2009
Give your customers more than hot air.

They are the heart of almost every independent repair shop. Providing the power necessary to a shop’s productivity, air compressors enable shops to do business; running everything from impact wrenches and ratchets to sanders, grinders and paint sprayers. Perhaps more than any other piece of equipment, air compressors hold the key to a shop’s profitability; they are critical to the bottom line.

For jobbers, opportunities to spec in a compressor at a brand new facility are rare. Often, by the time a customer expresses a need for a compressor, it is immediately before or after a major failure. And when turning off the air means turning off revenue, knowledgeable jobbers who can quickly provide their customers with a solution become an invaluable asset.

However, many jobbers are wary of selling compressors. They are more complicated than most sales, and with many factors to consider — from the number of bays and technicians, to the application, usage type, frequency and even the location of the compressor — jobbers can feel under-equipped or be afraid they are taking on too much liability in a product category without enough knowledge.

But for knowledgeable jobbers, even though the margin on compressors is lower than other product lines, the sale price is high enough that a sale can represent a very significant commission, not to mention the good will that comes from helping a customer in need. Keeping these factors in mind will help you better understand air compressors — and gain the trust and confidence of your customers.


In most situations, the sale begins with effectively diagnosing the situation. Knowing how shops intend to use the air is one of the most critical components to closing the sale. For established relationships, this may be easy; but for newer customers, make sure you understand the necessary requirements prior to the sale.

Ask customers what their experience has been like with their current compressor, and whether they feel like it has managed their air needs adequately, even during peak usage. Never assume that a 1-to-1 replacement of the current model will be sufficient. Shops may not have purchased the correct air compressor to begin with, or they may have since added technicians or services.

Among other issues, jobbers need to know what applications air is needed for, how frequently it is needed and by how many technicians. Air requirements for a typical repair shop are different than the requirements for body shops or quick lubes. An understanding of each of the relevant applications may help you determine not only the necessary volume of air, but other factors as well, like air purity.

Another factor affecting the demand for air that is easily overlooked is plans for the future. It’s important for jobbers to help customers think of not only the immediate demand for air, but also how their air demand might change over time.


Basic air compressor components include a pump, motor, tank and magnetic starter. Nearly all compressors include these; however, knowing additional features that can be added to the compressor — or bought standard when a customer purchases a new compressor — helps jobbers to upsell.

Though central to the shop’s daily operation, too often compressors are “out of sight, out of mind.” Shops sometimes install compressors in enclosures to muffle noise or out of the way to maximize floor space for other equipment and shop functions. Operation in close quarters, where they are liable to overheat, can be extremely damaging for air compressors; particularly for reciprocating air compressors. In addition, this often creates a maintenance hazard. Compressors installed away from the main activity in a shop frequently are not adequately lubricated. Low oil level switches can monitor compressor lubrication for shop owners, shutting the compressor down and preventing it from “running dry” when lubrication is not adequate. Jobbers need to help customers understand how this helps to prevent extremely costly repairs, and even air compressor replacement, as a result of poor maintenance.

Automatic drain valves also do not usually come standard on air compressors, but provide additional value to shop owners by automatically draining the water from the tank where the compressed air is stored. As air undergoes compression, water separates from the air and settles at the bottom of the tank, decreasing compressor efficiency and introducing moisture to the air lines, which can damage tools. Automatic drain valves include electronic timers that open the valve at preset intervals throughout the day to allow air compressors to empty moisture from the tank.

Air-cooled after-coolers also help to remove moisture from air lines. On standard air compressors, air goes directly from the pump into the tank. Compressors with air-cooled after-coolers pipe the air through a thin copper cooler mounted on the belt guard, reducing the temperature of the air and removing approximately 70 percent of the moisture content.

While these features can be added on to an air compressor after the sale, it’s much more cost-effective to purchase a compressor that has them factory installed. Jobbers that understand these components will be better able to consult with customers, and ultimately recommend a better solution.


While horsepower is an important indicator of a compressor’s ability to meet shop requirements, it is not the most important. Jobbers looking to size the compressor for a customer need to pay close attention to its volume output — how many cubic feet per minute (cfm) it is capable of.

A 3.5-to-1 ratio generally describes the relationship between cfm and horsepower — 3.5 cfm for every 1 horsepower. Be cautious with compressors that do not show this ratio. It may mean that the advertised horsepower is peak or max-developed horsepower, which is the value the compressor is capable of before failure occurs. Running horsepower is the value that a shop can comfortably operate on.

If a customer challenges your offer with other compressor options in the area, particularly those offered through retail outlets, it may be because he is looking at peak horsepower, instead of running horsepower. Always look at cfm first to make sure the air volume is sufficient for the shop’s requirement.


The No. 1 troubleshooting issue for compressors is an incompatible electrical supply. Identifying incoming electrical service is critical prior to purchasing a compressor. This will determine the horsepower capacity available without requiring expensive modifications. Many shops have a 230V, single-phase incoming supply. However, prior to selling a compressor, jobbers should always ask shops to have a qualified electrician confirm the incoming electrical supply.

Selling a compressor is a different kind of sale than most others a jobber will make. When a shop needs a compressor, especially in an emergency situation, price is not the key driver. Shops need someone knowledgeable and close by who can help get them back up and running quickly. Jobbers who know how to guide customers through the purchasing decision can become a trusted resource in their territory, giving them a strategic advantage over competing distributors.

Mike Purtell is the Strategic Channel Manager for Ingersoll Rand.

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