"If knowledge is power, then a god am I," said The Riddler at the height of his master plan in the 1995 film "Batman Forever." Fusing the knowledge of thousands with his own brain, he was able to solve the most complex riddle of all: Bruce Wayne is Batman.

Distributors, much like The Riddler, are also in search of an answer to the difficult questions, and so are their counter people. Using talented staff and extra incentives, Kevin Morris, parts and refrigeration director for cfm Distributors, has found the answer: The Heating, Airconditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) Certified Counter Specialist Program.

Introduced earlier this year, the HARDI Certified Counter Specialist Program marks a new approach to the ever-increasing demand for more-than-competent counter personnel. In an industry where turnaround is crucial and returns are costly, this program is designed to increase distributor profitability, counterperson knowledge, and customer confidence.

Implementation Is Key

At cfm Distributors' five store locations, based in Kansas City, Mo., participation in the HARDI program is mandatory. According to Morris, "Counter people are hard to come by; you have to grow them and train them." That is why the training is not only mandatory, but it also directly affects employee reviews.

A test-proven professional at the counter, however, does not come without a price. Time and money must be spent in order to reap the full benefits of the HARDI Certified Counter Specialist Program. The initial $200 kit investment is just the beginning. Once a Counter Recognition Kit is obtained, a $50 fee must be paid for each participant. As participants continue through the four-level program, $25 level increases and outside training are also added to the overall cost.

Even so, "cfm Distributors is paying for everything and gladly so," said Morris. "The program is not expensive. It's affordable and reasonable. You get your money's worth out of it."

In fact, cfm Distributors monetarily goes the extra mile to encourage its counter people to succeed. Upon completion of each level, cfm gives a $50 incentive bonus. And, as the counter people improve their work in the company, the company improves each counter person's compensation.

Morris said it can be difficult to educate employees and can become a large burden to the company. The HARDI Certified Counter Specialist Program, however, is a home-based education program from

the HARDI Home Study Institute, allowing more flexibility. "It's almost painless," said Morris.

The distributor has been using the program for approximately nine months. Program participants are allowed time to sit and work while on the job.

Morris, who is also on the Source 1 advisory council, is definitely impressed with the program. At a recent advisory council meeting, he passed out program literature to many of the distributors in attendance.

Susie Smith, cfm Distributors’ parts manager, assists customer Lance Cacy of Benso Inc., a refrigeration contractor in Kansas City, Mo.

The Program

The HARDI Certified Counter Specialist Program was inspired by the report "Market Center Distribution," from former association president James Trusdell. Market center distribution is described by the paper as, "...the integration of information technology (IT) with regionally established distribution centers, staffed by persons familiar with local markets and customers."

According to the paper, "Highly trained personnel are an integral part of modern, information-based wholesale distribution."

Soon after the paper's release, HARDI's education committee began working on a program to provide a certification process that recognizes qualifications and experiences, measures knowledge, and meets standards. Based on the four core concepts of competency, knowledge, skill, and attributes, the HARDI Certified Counter Specialist Program is designed to prepare an employee to, "Match technical wits with the customer and build their [the employee's] confidence," said James Healy, HARDI's director of education.

Offered to HARDI members only, Healy reasoned that, "Since this is a HARDI program, we see this as a form of branding to set them (HARDI distributors) apart from non-HARDI distributors. Technicians go to the distributor where they can get the most help."

Of the 415 HARDI companies, 130 have requested a counter recognition kit, one of the highest number of requests for any HARDI education program ever offered. Once a distributor has assigned a training coordinator and obtained a counter recognition kit, it can begin the program. The counter recognition kit includes documentation forms, step-by-step instructions, and program requirements.

According to HARDI, a company actively participating in this program benefits from fewer returns, reduced warranty expenses, decreased customer wait time, increased customer dependency, increased repeat business, and increased employee satisfaction, which helps reduce employee turnover.

Once certified, employees have two years to continue education before having to renew their certification. HARDI mandates that 20 additional education hours per year be completed before it will recertify any employee.

"We wanted to set a standard that is not a pushover," said Healy.

Personnel Experience

Susie Smith, cfm Distributors' Kansas City location manager, has already obtained the second-level title of associate counter specialist. Smith has worked in the HVAC industry for 33 years, 14 of them have been at cfm. Soon she will have completed her third level and be one step away from being a HARDI-certified counter specialist.

"Now when people call I understand what they are talking about and what they are actually asking for," Smith said. "I don't have to run and ask someone else in the company a question. I already know the answers, saving both the distributor and the customer time and money."

Smith reported that HARDI's curriculum is intense and unique. "I sell stuff every day," she said, "but I didn't know how it worked until now."

For more information, visit www.hardinet.org.

Publication date: 10/24/2005