Stand on a busy street corner. Ask a passerby, “What name comes to mind when I say hamburgers?”

He’ll say, “McDonald’s.”

Ask him, “What name comes to mind when I say soft drink?”

He’ll say, “Coca-Cola.”

“How about doughnuts?”

“Dunkin’ Donuts.”

“What about air conditioning and heating?” * * *

You see, in the hvac world, that top-of-mind market position is still up for grabs.

Right now, the consolidators and large service providers are making plans to get to the top of the hill. They understand the power of brand naming.

McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Dunkin’ Donuts sell a lot of product. Do they make the best burgers, sodas and donuts? No way. But they are consistent. Consumers know what to expect, so they buy. It might not be the best product but it is better than the unknown product.

To become the national brand, the big companies will have to clone their services from shop to shop, in every major city across the country. It’s no small task, but it is possible.

Picture McDonald’s with wrenches and volt meters. When somebody pulls that off, they are going to sell a lot of furnaces and air conditioners and capture a bunch of customers.

Differentiate yourself

Does that make you nervous? Do you see the demise of the small shop operator in the shadow of a nationally recognized hvac super-power?

Fear not. You have the one thing that the national company doesn’t have:


Maybe you aspire to sell your small company to a big company. That’s cool. But if you would like to maintain your independence a while longer, play your trump card. Brand yourself.

What is it that makes you unique? How can you market that to your customers? How can you establish yourself as the brand name in your customer’s mind?

Start by identifying what it is in your business that you absolutely love to do. Does radiant heat make you hot? Are you a wizard at replacements? Can you fix anything? Are you the absolute best at making customers feel comfortable and cared for?

If you love it, you are probably very good at it. Make this your niche business.

The big companies will be generalists. You can be the specialist.

They will be very good at handling 80% of their customers’ problems. You can be the master of the 20% that they don’t know how to do, or choose not to do.

If they do it, don't you do it

Now, look at how a national brand markets. The national brand will communicate its consistency and efficiency — and perhaps low prices. Don’t even think about going head-to-head with them on these issues. You can’t beat them there.

Do the opposite. Communicate to your customers how you are different from them.

Recently, I read an article about a computer consulting company. It’s slogan was “business at the speed of molasses.” They positioned themselves squarely opposite Bill Gates and Microsoft’s “business at the speed of thought.”

The ceo pointed out that if you move too fast you might go speeding over a cliff. Better to slow down and think things through.

Customers who are uncomfortable with today’s light-speed pace might choose the “molasses” brand.

Be exclusive

Deer Valley Ski Area in Park City, UT, strictly limits the number of skiers they allow on the mountain every day.

They sell a preset number of tickets and then cut it off.

Skiers pay a hefty premium for the exclusive use of the slopes. They love racing down the lightly populated ski trails.

You could tell your customers that you only work with a select few homeowners. That way, you can promise unbeatable service.

It is amazing how limiting supply increases demand. When you start saying, “I’m sorry, we are only taking new clients on a referral basis now,” customers are going to sign up on a waiting list.

Get personal

When you work for a limited number of customers — and as a small shop operator, you can only handle so many anyway — you can treat them very well.

Learn their names, nicknames, and kid’s names. Remember to ask about their recent trip to Italy. Buy Girl Scout cookies from their kids. Keep meticulous records on their equipment and service history.

If you have a software system that can handle this kind of data, great. If not, use a notebook and write down pertinent information about each customer.

Treat them respectfully. Look them in the eye. Seal each deal with a handshake. Let them sleep on it if they don’t want to buy today.

Love them like family. Your personal touch will keep them calling you, even when a national brand catches on.

Be a personality

You are unique and wonderful. Let your customers see you and get to know you.

If you want to brand yourself, then you must be yourself for the entire world to see. Put your picture in your ads. Offer to work on local charity and community projects. Wear your company jacket wherever you go.

Assure each customer that you are the “buck stops here” guy. Promise that you will personally handle and resolve any problem. If you are a small shop operator, you would do this anyway.

Note: Never, ever promise more than you can deliver.

Tell them stories. You’ve been working in this industry how long? You have rare and useful knowledge. Educate folks about the skill and art of cooling and heating. Remind them of the industry’s contribution to their health and safety.

As you work, share the oral history of the trades. People will hire you for the entertainment value alone!

Be discreet

A few years back, “Hot Rod” and I attended a swanky charity function in Park City, where we had our plumbing and heating company. It was a very high society affair. Local politicians, celebrities, and prominent business people had assembled to raise money for a worthy cause.

As Hot Rod scanned the room, he commented quietly to me, “I have been in the basement of the home of every person here.” I bet there are things in those basements that those folks would not want everyone in the world to know about. But Hot Rod is a man of well-selected words. He never gossips and he is trustworthy. These are two very attractive traits — not only to high-visibility customers.

Develop a trusting and respectful relationship with your clients and they will never dump you for a lower priced service. Say only nice things about people and never discuss one customer’s home or hvac equipment with another customer.

Be sane

The word sane means, “mentally sound and healthy; sensible; rational.”

Don’t laugh — you can differentiate yourself from most of the world by being a sane and reasonable person.

Would you agree that life is chaotic? War, disaster, violence — kids shot down by fellow students. Even simple things, like renewing your driver’s license, can feel like a page from a Kafka novel.

What if you brought order and sensibility to each business transaction? Doing business with you would be like a breath of fresh air. A big company often offers “Bermuda Triangle” voice messaging and “Urban Legend” follow-through.

You could create and maintain neat and simple systems for handling customers’ hvac problems. You could use reason in the moment of decision. You could provide the sanest moment in your customer’s day — and that would be something special.

You've got what it takes

I just subscribed toFast Companymagazine. In a recent issue, I read an article by business guru Tom Peters. He was discussing the concept of branding yourself as an employee, so that you could expand your career options and move up the ladder.

His words work well for you, too, as you look at branding yourself in the hvac world.

Peters writes, “No matter what you are doing today, there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted ‘imagineer.’ Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.

“It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.”

The big companies have nothing on you. Brand yourself and your customers will stick to you like the strongest glue.

After creating your brand, return to that busy street corner. Ask a passerby, “What name comes to mind when I say air conditioning and heating?”

He’ll say, “Yours.”