NEW ORLEANS - Open the telephone book and take a look at the number of HVAC contractors in your area. What makes them different from each other? Why should customers choose one contractor over another? More specifically, why should customers choose you to service their HVAC system instead of your competitor?

These were questions asked by International Service Leadership (ISL) during its recent 2004 conference.

The answers to those key questions were presented to over 200 ISL members in attendance at the event. Through a series of motivational speakers and team-building exercises, ISL members learned that they need to differentiate their business and focus on customers if they want to eliminate the competition.

Marketing expert Ray Jutkins presented a seminar entitled “Hawg Wild Marketing: 28 Things To Know About People.”

Success In 2004

Mike Moore, vice president of ISL, opened the event and welcomed old, new, and prospective members to the latest conference, as well as a new year of doing businesses. Moore said that 2004 could be a successful year for all contractors present at the conference if they are willing to make changes and take charge.

"Leadership can lead you to a better 2004," he said. "Leadership is everything."

Moore also said that many ISL members have implemented a number of business practices since the last ISL meeting in 2003, with excellent results. He encouraged the newest contractor members to take advantage of ISL offerings and tools in order to make 2004 a better year.

"We are only successful if our customers are satisfied," he said.

Moore, along with several ISL advisory board members, gave attendees a preview of the organization's customer service DVD. The finishing touches are being added to the DVD and will be available to all ISL members later in the year. The preview included a look at how to handle customer calls in a professional manner.

Breakout sessions were also held during the conference. Attendees worked together in small groups to handle hypothetical business issues. The first breakout session dealt with handling customer complaints, while the next asked members how they could take their company to the next level.

According to the speakers at the conference, in order for companies to reach the next level of success, customers must be at the forefront of any business plan.

Customer-Driven Success

One of the keys to better business is understanding customers and people in general.

Marketing expert Ray Jutkins presented a seminar entitled "Hawg Wild Marketing: 28 Things To Know About People."

Jutkins gave members insight into how customers make buying decisions and the type of marketing they are most likely to respond to.

Companies fail when customers are not a part of the daily business equation. That was the message brought to ISL members by Sue Hershkowitz-Coore, the author of Power Sales Writing.

Hershkowitz-Coore posed this question to the ISL members in attendance: "Are you loyal to your customers, and if so, how?"

She explained that many businesses suffer because they do not strive to keep existing customers.

"There is apathy after the sale," she said. "We are so busy getting new customers that you forget the old ones."

In order to avoid this pitfall, Hershkowitz-Coore gave the members some tips to keep customers loyal and raise profits.

She explained that systems need to be put into place that will make the customer's life easier. For example, this can mean scheduling maintenance and service appointments at times that are convenient for the customer, not the company. It also means re-minding customers with a letter or a phone call that their HVAC system is coming up for its regular service checkup. This takes pressure off the customer to call and make the appointment.

Hershkowitz-Coore recommends that contractors strive to improve customer care, keeping the company at the top of the customer's mind.

"Thank [your customers] at every opportunity," she said.

This can be as simple as saying thank you as you leave a customer's home, or it can include a thank you letter following a service visit or after the purchase of a new system. Hershkowitz-Coore explained that these simple gestures can make or break future service calls. In fact, she noted that many customers do not know the brand of heater or air conditioner they have in their home, but they do know if the service and treatment they received was good.

Hershkowitz-Coore also emphasized that contractors must keep all customers happy; this includes external and internal customers. She said that it is very important to treat employees like any customer in the field. Besides thanking your employees for a job well done, make sure that you get their input on how they are progressing and what they would like to see differently in the company.

She told the contractors in attendance that this is vital because employees may have the answers that could help the business run more smoothly.

Hershkowitz-Coore also challenged the contractors to take a look at the way they are currently doing business and to think about what they could change. Specifically, she challenged the members to think about raising their prices. She explained that many businesses do not charge enough to make a profit. And for many businesses that offer great customer service, the customer is willing to pay a little more for that experience.

"Search for the sweet spot between price and quality," she said.

Finally, Hershkowitz-Coore challenged contractors to find something that would differentiate their business from all the others. She said that one unique thing can make all the difference when it comes to customers.

A Category Of One

Marketing expert and business consultant Joe Calloway was the keynote speaker for the ISL event. Calloway expanded on Hershkowitz-Coore's message that contractors must differentiate themselves from other businesses. To do this successfully, Calloway said it is as easy as "becoming a category of one."

In his book of the same name, Calloway explains that it is not enough to be the leader in your field, but to create a whole new field and be the only one in it.

"What is it you are literally willing and able to do [for customers] that your competition is not literally willing and able to do?" asked Calloway.

He explained that once a contractor figures this out, he or she is no longer like every other contractor in the area. But before a contractor can be in a "category of one," he or she must make a conscious decision to create a better company.

"Most companies never go through the process of trying to be great," he said.

Calloway also told attendees that they must think in terms of selling a "brand." But having a brand is more than company logos, he stated.

"Your brand is who you are, what you promise, and your ability and willingness to keep that promise," said Calloway.

Furthermore, Calloway told attendees that a company's brand is all about customer perception.

"Your brand is the customer's idea of what it is like to do business with you," he said. "It's not so much what you sell, it is who you are and what you are about."

This is where customer service plays such an important role. Calloway said that if customers are satisfied with the way they are treated, and feel good about the service they have received, chances are they won't only be a return customer, but would not imagine doing business anywhere else.

The ISL Challenge

The ISL event wrapped up with a challenge from the organization. Moore challenged ISL members to go back to their companies and implement the tools that ISL has made available. He explained that the numerous ISL offerings will help contractors take their business "to another level."

Jackie Bradbury of Coastal Comfort in Ventura, Calif., a member of the ISL advisory board, also addressed the ISL members on the last day of the event. Bradbury challenged each member to attend the next ISL event and to bring their employees along so that they too can learn what ISL can do to help businesses thrive.

ISL's next event is the Peak Performance Conference, scheduled for May 7-8, in Nashville, Tenn.

For more information on ISL, visit

Sidebar: ISL Honors The Year's Best

NEW ORLEANS - International Service Leadership's (ISL's) Contractor of the Year awards banquet was held in conjunction with its 2004 conference. The recipients honored for their work in 2003 include:

Contractor of the Year - Under $2.5 million
Winner: Milton Baum, Keil Heating and Air Conditioning (Riverdale, N.J.)
Runner-up: Bob Wilkins, Wilkins Mechanical Service Inc. (Bedford, N.J.)
Honorable mention: Ric Schorer, Wighton's Inc. (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

Contractor of the Year - Over $2.5 million:
Winner: Michael Cottle, Cole Services (Garden Grove, Calif.)
Runner-up: K.C. Arnold, Air Best Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. (San Diego)
Honorable mention: Mark and Cynthia Schneider, Pacific Aire Inc. (Ventura, Calif.)

Contractor of the Year - Over $5 million:
Winner: Leland Smith, Service Champions Heating and Air Conditioning (Yorba Linda, Calif.)

Contractor of the Year - Over $10 million:
Winner: Jeff and Mark Ballard, Dial One Ballard Plumbing, Heating, and Air Conditioning (Riverside, Calif.)

Comeback of the Year:
Winner: Dan Foster, Jackson & Blanc (La Mesa, Calif.)

Rookie of the Year:
Adam L. Hill, Palm Desert Air Conditioning (Palm Desert, Calif.)

Service Experts Contractor of the Year - Under $3 million:
Rick Houchens, Chief/Bauer Heating and Air Conditioning (Champagne, Ill.)

Service Experts Contractor of the Year - Over $10 million:
Thomas D. Brake, Roland J. Downs (Scotia, N.Y.)

Publication date: 03/15/2004