LAS VEGAS, NV — International Service Leadership (ISL) Inc. members were introduced to a relatively new method of communicating ideas at their recent meeting in Las Vegas.

“Open Space Technology” was introduced and moderated by Bruce Withrow, president of Meeting Facilitators International, Toronto, ON. He described open space technology as a method to encourage people to generate ideas by taking a leadership role in discussing those ideas within a breakout group, and then presenting the ideas to a larger body of other business owners and managers.

Withrow said that he looks for “passion and responsibility” among meeting participants. “It all starts with a ‘Hello, my name is…” and ‘I want to talk about…’,” he said. Withrow encouraged members to come to the center of the meeting room and fill out a topic sheet, make a large sign with the topic name, and attach the sign with a proposed breakout meeting time, to the wall of the room. He asked the same people to take a microphone to talk about the topic and to moderate the breakout session. The moderator’s responsibility was to take notes and transfer those notes into a document format via a series of laptop computers set up in the room.

Once all of the topic discussions were entered into a document file, the file was sent to a local print shop, where results were tabulated, collated, and inserted into a wire-bound binder. The binders were completed overnight and distributed to members at a follow-up discussion the next day.


Withrow said there are four principles of this process. “First, whoever comes in to the meeting are the right people. These are people who care about the issue. Second, whatever happens are the only things that could happen.

“Third, whenever it [discussion] starts is the right time. Fourth, when it is over, it is over. When it is time and you’re satisfied that it is done, don’t drag it out.”

He added that if members at any time felt that they were neither learning or contributing to the process, it was time to move on. “You are helping no one by being there — yourself or anyone else,” he said. “Find something productive to do.”

Withrow made a comparison about people who contribute to the various breakout sessions, calling some “bumblebees” and others “butterflies.”

“Bumblebees go from group to group — ‘cross-pollinating’ and linking the discussions,” he said. “Butterflies look good and tend to socialize. They contribute in a different way.”


The theme of the open space technology session for this ISL meeting was “What are the issues and opportunities that are affecting the future success of residential HVAC contractors in North America?”

A total of 12 different reports were generated, including:

1. How to better market IAQ as a mainline opportunity;

2. Techniques for reducing advertising;

3. Employee empowerment and accountability;

4. Implementing open-book management;

5. Recruiting, retaining, and motivating employees;

6. How to become a more effective coach;

7. How to put the right salesperson into your company;

8. Adding services (i.e., plumbing, electrical, commercial A/C, mold remediation, indoor air testing, duct sealing, duct testing, and insulation);

9. Installation department: production, motivation, rewards;

10. Building urgency without weather;

11. Creating a cloneable service department; and

12. Building an ESA [Energy Service Agreements] powerhouse.

Here is a sampling of some of the sessions.

At the session on advertising techniques, one contractor suggested that since marketing is a part of advertising, it is a waste of time to try and sell a company’s products to one member of a husband/wife team. He recommended speaking to both of them at the same time. The same contractor said his company puts a special coating on coils to prevent the spread of mold spores.

“It may not make the sale right away, but the homeowner will ask the next company if they do the same thing,” noted the contractor.

In the “Recruiting, retaining, and motivating employees” session, one participant talked about the interview process. She went through a four-step process before she was eventually hired by her current employer. The process included an initial phone interview, followed by an onsite test for technical knowledge, followed by a group interview, and then the actual “welcome to the company” interview.

“Profiling a prospective employee helps to find a good match, too,” she added. “A simple behavioral test establishes a profile.”

In another session, “Creating urgency without weather,” several different suggestions were made about selling and servicing during the off season and at times of temperate weather conditions and a shaky economy, when the phone doesn’t ring as often as it should.

One contractor recommended offering 30- to 90-day financing on equipment if the customer is getting hung up on price. He said that customers can enjoy new equipment without worrying about making a payment right away.

“People with broken-down 30-year-old equipment are telling us they will buy from us eventually and are asking us to keep repairing the equipment — if we can.

“Financing is one way to pick up the slack in slow times.”

Sidebar: ISL President Urges Members To Be Leaders First

LAS VEGAS, NV — An enthusiastic group of HVACR contractors met here for a recent seminar. Their bond? All are members of International Service Leadership (ISL) Inc., a member group of contractors committed to raising the industry bar for excellence and improving their businesses’ bottom lines.

ISL president Bill Efird spoke with the 140 attendees via a live telephone hookup. He couldn’t attend the meeting due to a family illness, but he expressed a great deal of enthusiasm over the telephone line.

“I am sure that ISL is on the right path,” Efird began. “Your responsibility is to be a leader in the 21st century. We can bring you programs, but it is up to you to bring these programs into your company culture.

“You’ve all heard of FTTA — failure to take action. It is a major stumbling block to success.”

Efird encouraged members to network with each other and to get to know the ISL advisory board. He said that he has come away from every ISL meeting with several good ideas, thanks to networking with other members.

Efird noted that leadership, part of the group’s title, is perhaps the most important role that any business owner can play.

“There is one common thread that makes the difference,” he said. “It is leadership, and the level of leadership that is practiced. We all have good management — but we need good leadership.

“Growing up in the ‘early days,’ we modeled our businesses after the ‘mom and pop’ shops — which was the wrong model. We programmed ourselves to be good managers, not good leaders.

“Character and integrity are two of the most important qualities of leaders. And leaders must take responsibility for the results of their decisions.”

— John R. Hall

Publication date: 09/09/2002

Sidebar: ISL’s ‘Open Space Technology’ Results — 12 Topics Of Concern To HVACR Trade

As noted above, International Service Leadership (ISL) sponsored an “Open Space Technology” session at its recent Las Vegas, NV, conference. Below is a condensed listing of each of the 12 topics and feedback from HVACR contractors who attended each session.

Many of the bullet point items crossed over into each of the 12 topics and as a result, were not repeated each time. Some, however, made more than one appearance.


  • Educate employees by scheduling training and using the Internet as a source for information.

  • Educate the public by sponsoring free seminars and advertising through newsletters and direct mail.

  • Measures being taken now by professionals include: (1) Leave-behind IAQ brochure; (2) Collaboration with local doctors to sell IAQ products or paying doctors for leads/referrals; (3) Showing the advantages of duct cleaning; (4) Paying spiffs to technicians for leads to salespeople for closing the sale of IAQ products; (5) Telemarketing existing customers.

  • Obstacles to overcome include price/cost objections by consumers and IAQ “ignorance” by employees and consumers.

  • The next step to take is to develop an IAQ marketing plan.


  • Yellow Pages ads should not be extensive, e.g. a small business-sized ad that is favorably located in the directory.

  • Telemarketing should be a follow-up to direct mail with the following guidelines. (1) Set number of calls a day using “predictive” dialing which includes selling new equipment, clean and checks, and IAQ products; (2) Use internal staff and service techs, when not busy, to telemarket; (3) Cold call using telephone directory. If telemarketing is not successful, change the script or the telemarketer.

  • Direct mail should be used to market service agreements and clean and checks. An option is to have direct mail advertising provider give dealers the letters, which can be sent according to the existing work levels. Another method is to send direct mail pieces to homes around current replacement job, and letter of recommendation from customer (with their permission).

  • Press Releases can be sent to local media. They should be written in a simple, readable manner; and in such a way that would encourage the media to insert.

  • Newspaper advertising can be done in a way to get “front page” ads. Post-it style imprinted advertising notes can be inserted on front pages by newspaper carriers for home delivery customers.

  • Media stories involving HVACR topics can include you if you contact local station managers and ask to be put on a referral/contact list whenever a story breaks involving an HVACR topic.

  • Television ads should include employees who the public can “relate” to – the person in the ad should be an employee of the company. Look for best possible time slots, i.e. afternoon news time.

  • Bank displays are used inside banks where customers go to get financing on HVACR products. A message on the advertising should include which bank offers financing.

  • Consistency should be adhered to in any form of advertising – the same logo, message, radio jingle, etc.

  • Trucks and vans can be “moving advertisements” by using different color schemes other than white.

  • All contractors should have a website and list that site in advertising. Encourage techs to get customer’s e-mail addresses for future marketing.

  • Use manufacturers to design literature or find a local graphics designer to help with the layout and design of printed material.

  • Door hangers, post-it notes and magnets are inexpensive advertising items.

  • Try and get service techs to set up replacement sales appointments while they are still in customer’s home; usually results in a higher closing rate.

  • Two of the biggest obstacles to any of these ideas are: (1) Trying to get co-op money from manufacturer (request up-front marketing money); and (2) Training service technicians to “condition” the customer for a follow-up sales call.


  • Give employees a job to do. Be sure the employee knows what is expected of him/her. Include a job description and conduct regular reviews so employees know how they are doing and what is expected of them.

  • Employee needs to be aware of the consequences of success or failure in the position. A system of monetary or recognition awards shows respect for the employee and invokes others to be “competitive.”

  • Employees should be involved in company financials, to the extent that they understand operational expenses, including the costs of benefits – all with the goal of expanding their narrow view of what affects their take-home pay.


  • Develop a set of financials that are meaningful and understandable by all employees, so as to show how an HVAC company is run and where all the money goes, leading to better morale and ultimately, a rise in profits.

  • Post monthly P&L statements, daily reporting of sales by department; show how small changes in operations result in big gains n profits, which end up in their own pockets and how raises are based on company profits.

  • Provide simple training, which makes information understandable and useful; find adequate ways to allocate indirect overhead without making departments work against each other; be consistent when providing information – good or bad.

  • Provide a monthly narrative explaining P&L. Most employees do not have a complete understanding of the full 30-day cycle. Use an example of how many employees it takes to complete one job.

  • Show employees the corporate breakeven point and provide incentives for achieving it and going beyond.

  • Prepare graphs or charts and deliver information in a timely manner.

  • Start simple and increase information flow as understanding level increases.


  • During recruiting, sell the company! Offer current employees incentives for referrals; use the Internet; contact HR departments of local companies and leave company information and contact information, in the event of layoffs; offer spiffs to other people, i.e. supply house employees, who give referrals; hand out company cards to people in community who seem to fit your “profile.”

  • For retaining/motivation -- Acknowledge an employee for exemplary performance; get employee’s family involved by sending notes home about good work performance, send birthday or anniversary cards to employee’s family members; adopt a charity; have suggestion forms and a method to identify those who make suggestions (to exemplify them).

  • For retaining/motivation – Start an “Employee of the Month” program with cash prizes, up-front parking space, vacation; Millionaire Club for top employees which include a company jacket and patch; add bonuses to 401K for good performance; eliminate unhealthy competition between departments and foster a team spirit.

  • Respect employees by (1) Making sure everyone is aware of job duties and expectations; (2) Salary checklists to ensure employee is on right career path and showing their value to company; (3) Continuous on-going training programs show employees that they deserve the investment made in their futures, but protecting the investment by requiring employee to work at company for an expressed period of time; (4) Encourage managers to conduct one-on-one conversations with employees using non-work topics in order to foster a good relationship; (5) Drug testing helps retain employees and boost morale, too. Reward them for “negative” results; (6) Profile employees to ensure they are a good fit for the position.


  • Become a leader and not a boss; show employees you care; listen and repeat their feedback; give employee undivided attention during one-on-one discussions; know your people and their abilities; be interested in employee personal development.

  • The best coaches: (1) Track performance; (2) Measure results; (3) Take accountability; (4) Clarify goals. Good coaches set goals and enlist employees to help reach those goals.

  • Stop wanting to jump in and control each issue by yourself; allow for failures and support them; maintain technical communications with employees; don’t assume to read employee’s minds; realize each employee has different standards.

  • Be accessible and have the same set of rules for everyone; be willing to learn from employees; empower others to solve problems; cut loose employees who bring others down.

  • Develop players into captains and leaders and make them accountable; keep score and give rewards; establish clear goals and when achieved, publicly celebrate success.


  • Don’t mention HVAC is newspaper ads – use “in home sales.”

  • Hire internally from service or installation departments.

  • Require new trainees to make presentation in front of spouse (friend) with tape recorder and make same presentation at each call.

  • Ensure that salespeople aren’t “comfortable” with a salary that they believe they are only capable of earning.

  • Make sure salespeople are not just estimators giving bids.

  • Hire ex-preachers, replacement window salespeople, and real estate or auto salespeople.

  • Ask new hires what level of income they expect to make.


  • Learn from other companies that have branched off to some different areas; find out what types of cross training is available for these new areas.

  • Obstacles include hiring people with one skill level and purchasing new tools/equipment for a new venture; also understanding what it means to start a new business without taking the focus off of existing business; risk of losing old customer due to problems they may encounter with the new business.

  • Name a key person to handle this new business area and advertise to the existing customer base that a new service has been added – another example of combining marketing to reduce advertising costs.

  • Cross train existing techs; put a lot of thought into this venture before going to the point of no return.


  • Have complete paperwork turned in to production in order to schedule work and stage equipment; salesperson meet with crew in morning and do a walk-through, answering questions about the job and the customer; keep open communications between sales and installation crew.

  • Recruit specific employee to take charge of work, if none chosen; ensure an inventory clerk has a handle on all parts and equipment and use person to run parts, clean trucks, yards, etc.; ensure each job is staged with the basic materials needed for the job; ask installation crew to empty trucks and park for next day’s cleaning and staging.

  • Have the following “awards”: (1) Job of the Month; (2) Clean Truck of the Month; (3) Tool of the Month (prize); (4) Increase Christmas bonuses based on profitability of company; (5) Have picnics and social functions to boost morale; (6) Supply air conditioned trucks.


  • Get customers to make major purchases without the benefits of reactive weather.

  • Offer creative financing; market IAQ products/services; mail letters to neighbors of recent installation jobs; add value items, e.g. UV lights; offer special or deferred financing.

  • Put up yard sign with slogan like “We solved this home’s comfort problem” and put tear-off slips on sign (with company phone number); offer to reimburse repair costs to customers if they purchase replacement equipment; market duct cleaning work; be creative and think out of the box; offer free trips or CO alarms with purchase; improve sales techniques and skills; offer additional repair services.


  • Profitable future enhanced by service agreements; create more lead turnover; become more efficient with a higher first time fixed rate; happy customers means good referrals and a good reputation. These factors lead to better efficiencies, happy employees/customers and higher profitability.

  • Obstacles include: finding qualified technicians; seasonal cycles; no clear policies or standards; lack of technical training available.

  • Seek out help from other contractors; build a solid service agreement base; offer spiffs to office staff based on renewal percentages; offer career paths with plenty of training; match the right people to the job; make efficient use of advertising and marketing money in order to maximize exposure to potential new hires; attend fairs and post openings on the Internet.

  • Action steps include: (1) Standardize truck inventory; (2) Keep parts on trucks and techs out of supply houses; (3) Use parts runner or taxi service; (4) Stock parts according to seasonal demand/data; (5) Keep inventory up-to-date of truck stock and set up a simple plan for stocking inventory; (6) Use inventory on consignment; (7) Make everyone accountable – use bar codes and box tops.


  • Increases long-term business; replacement sales opportunities; encourages customer loyalty; increases opportunities to visit customer’s home; service agreement customers worth an average $720 a year.

  • Some helpful things include: (1) Offering customer cash back on new equipment purchase; (2) Offering 1-5 year plan options; (3) Discounts on extensions; (4) Direct mail postcards and tune-up letters.

  • Techs don’t feel comfortable selling service agreements or they don’t offer them on every service call or call by customer service rep, so: (1) Offer training; (2) Flash cards; (3) Spiffs for selling service agreements; (4) Offer to send people to sales training.

  • Teach techs how to use service agreement forms; role play with them; debrief after all service calls; post goal board. All may result in spiffs for sales, spiffs for renewals, higher income for techs, and job security.

    — John R. Hall

    Publication date: 09/09/2002