If you are anything like me, you have a lot of people in your life telling you how to do things. It might be your wife telling you how to act, your kids telling you how to dress, or the police officer explaining how fast you should drive. If you are going to constantly hear how you should be doing things, wouldn’t it be nice if it came from someone who could help your business? That would be the perfect reason to join a peer group.

As editor-in-chief of The NEWS, I am called upon to travel to a lot of industry events. At more than a few of the events I’ve attended lately, a lot of contractors have been raving about the positives of joining a peer group and what it’s done for their business.

Find a Group

I heard contractors singing the praises of peer groups at events like the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Conference and Indoor Air Expo and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) Annual Meeting. It did not matter if they were residential contractors or commercial, new construction or service. There were a few common denominators brought up when I discussed the peer groups with contractors:

• It is best to be in a group with about five to 10 members;

• Everyone should want to both learn from each other and improve the operations of everyone’s business;

• Contractors should match up with fellow contractors who are similar in size and the type of work they do; and

• Contractors should not be direct competitors of anyone in their group. Apparently the U.S. government can put you in jail for that, so this is probably good advice to follow.

However, the most prominent recurring theme in these conversations was the point that the only people who truly can critique your business are those who are also in the business. You might get some decent tips from attending your local Chamber of Commerce networking sessions or picking the brain of a neighbor who is also a small business owner. However, their knowledge of the HVACR industry is obviously very limited. Those individuals probably do not understand the unique challenges to your business as well as a fellow contractor from another region would.

Bring a Helmet

The concept is two to three times a year one of the members of the group gets evaluated. That means approximately every three years you will receive a full evaluation from five to nine HVACR contractors. The two-day event takes place in person and sounds like it is not for the faint of heart. As one contractor joked (I think), some of the contractors in his group take sick pleasure in pointing out the errors of the businesses in his peer group. But he was also quick to point out that is the entire reason for doing it. Where else would he find an independent group of experienced contractors willing to be honest about how this contractor is running his business?

And it is not just the owner who is gaining the knowledge — every department in the business can get matched up so they can participate in the learning.

It is important to point out that this is not a free lunch. There is obvious cost involved in both time and travel expenses. As you would obviously want your group members to prepare well for your evaluation, you need to prepare just as hard to evaluate them. But that time is very well spent because the general consensus is you will receive quite a return on your investment.

My advice would be to check your ego at the door and prepare to hear about every wart you have in terms of running your business. Getting involved in a peer group should be as easy as contacting any association you are a part of to find out how to get started.

If you are going to be constantly bombarded by people telling you how you should be doing things, why not have some of those people be individuals who actually know what they are talking about? It is a lot easier to take constructive criticism when it is improving your bottom line.

Publication date: 04/09/2012