Back in April 2002,The Newspublished an article about a "new contractor group on the horizon" - one that planned on achieving success by focusing on four key elements: a large number of contractor members, no exclusivity, low cost, and Internet-based technology. The goal of Service Roundtable, the contractor group formed under the umbrella of Service Nation, was to sign up a few thousand contractors who would pay a low monthly fee to learn about business programs and network with fellow contractors across the country via cyberspace.

Matt Michel, president and CEO of Service Roundtable, recently spoke with The News, summarizing the first year of Service Roundtable.

"We finished our first year with about 85 percent of our most optimistic projection," Michel said. "We have exceeded everyone's expectations, with the possible exception of my own. We were on the mid-range plan and have grown mainly from word-of-mouth from our contractor members."

Michel said that the success of the Roundtable has proven that HVACR contractors will embrace the Internet, despite the contrary view expressed by others in the industry. "You just have to give contractors a reason to use the Internet," he said.

Some of those reasons include the products and services that are available to contractors. The Service Roundtable program contains tools developed to help in the following areas: sales, management, pricing, public relations, training, business opportunities, buying, and marketing.

Working Together

"The content is solid and the contributions from the members have surprised me," Michel said. "The networking that has occurred through the roundtable groups has been stronger than expected."

The networking that Michel referred to includes the e-mail-based discussion groups that incorporate both HVACR contractors and plumbers. Roundtable members sign up and ask questions or exchange information and ideas, including successful marketing projects and technical tips.

"There is an emotional involvement on the part of members," Michel said. "We have met people at shows who have walked up to us and said thank you and walked off."

Michel said that while the discussion groups have been beneficial to the members, people on the "outside" don't fully understand their usefulness. "People who are not familiar with what we are doing are thinking that this is some type of chat room - which it isn't," he said. "The core value comes from the content that is developed and delivered. Much of that comes from the contractors."

Members contribute ideas about newsletters, service agreement forms, press releases, etc. The Service Roundtable works with graphic designers to add some "zest" to the ideas and then repackages the products for other Roundtable members.

"The Roundtable is reaching people who have not been reached elsewhere within our industry," said Michel. "Most of the focus of the major contractor groups is the top 5 to 10 percent of contractors in the industry. What we are trying to do is to reach the rest of them."

Michel said the funny part is that some of the top contractors are networked into the Roundtable, too. But he said the smaller contractors are benefiting from the cumulative knowledge gained by membership. "One smaller contractor said that we helped him double his sales," Michel said. "That's pretty gratifying."

Members have also been grateful that the price for membership has remained modest - $50 per month, with no obligation or commitment to renew. (If contractors want to sign up for an annual membership, the cost is below $50 per month.)

Creating The Model

With one year of Roundtable experience behind him, Michel is looking forward to other projects, now that the model has been established. "We have a scaleable model that won't take a lot more to grow to two or three times our size in terms of overhead," he said. "We have been able to add plumbing to the model with relative ease, which opens the door for bringing in other trades."

Michel wants to establish alliances between the trades "so that guys can start cross-marketing and lowering their total marketing costs and increasing their effectiveness."

One of the most recent additions to the Roundtable model is a discussion group formed with contractors who are selling products and services through Home Depot. The request was made by a contractor who wanted a separate discussion group and who volunteered to monitor the group.

Regarding the Home Depot discussion, Michel said, "Some contractors are wary of the big boxes [Home Depot], while others are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of incremental business through them. If we can facilitate the efforts of the contractors who are selling through the big boxes to sell even more, we will certainly give it our best efforts."

The Service Roundtable does not take a position on contractor sales through retailers. Said Michel, "We simply try to be responsive to member needs and requests, whether it's the creation of a software user group, the development of a specific marketing piece, or something like this."

Michel isn't the only one blowing the Service Roundtable horn. Several members responded to a request for feedback from The News. "I have found the Roundtable to be well worth the money," said Tom Calhoun Jr. of Calhoun Heating & Air Corp., El Dorado, Ariz. "The ready-to-use marketing materials are easy to edit and print. They are also very professional and generate positive results. It also provides an easy-to-use method for contractors to share information. I got my money's worth within the first 15 minutes."

Mitch Cropp, president of Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning & Heating, Fairfax, Va., said, "It doesn't matter how old you are or what size business you have, the Service Roundtable has something for all of us. Cropp-Metcalfe has used many of the marketing and business ideas from the Service Roundtable posting. Dollar for dollar, you can't find anything that is more beneficial for a contractor."

Publication date: 12/22/2003