ACCA Chairman Jim Hussey says the group has a new energy.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Jim Hussey says the ACCA used to be like Toula Portokalos, the lead character in the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding": safe, comfortable and frumpy.

In the movie, the single, shy 30-year-old Portokalos works in her family's diner and hides from the world under thick glasses and an unflattering hairstyle. She wishes her life could be more exciting, but it's easier to keep doing what she's done seemingly forever.

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America was like that, too, 2002-2003 ACCA Chairman Hussey told attendees during his speech, which opened the group's 35th annual convention.

"We were riding on the past success of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) certification. As an organization, we were stagnant. We were the 'frump ACCA,' " he said.

But just like Portokalos, who changed her life with a new appearance and attitude, the reorganized ACCA has a whole new outlook, Hussey said, and is anything but frumpy.

"Today? we are energized with a new sense of purpose and empowerment," he said.

That power comes from the group's decision to require all state- or local-chapter-only members to join the national organization, ACCA officials say. This year's convention was the first since the controversial change, first announced three years ago, took effect Jan. 1.

But if there were any contractors still complaining about the added membership fees some of them must now pay, they weren't easy to spot among the record 1,200-plus contractors who came March 12-15 to Palm Springs for this year's event, which included a small trade show. ACCA officials said it was the biggest attendance in at least a decade.

Organizers credited the convention's keynote speakers, economist Lowell Catlett and former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz with boosting this year's attendance.

The slogan for this year's convention was "Out of the Comfort Zone," with seminars designed to encourage contractors to think about new ways of marketing and managing their businesses. ACCA President and CEO Paul Stalknecht said such forward thinking is "a way of life for the most successful contractors, who realize that the old ways of doing business don't work anymore."

That may describe Dave Redolfi of Glendale, Ariz.-based Temp Pro AC, Heating and Refrigeration. Redolfi said he came to the convention looking for ideas on how to price services and better ways to promote his 5-year-old company.

"How to market - that's what I'm hoping to learn here," he said.

There were several seminars offered by the ACCA on the topic. Redolfi was not disappointed. "I'm a small contractor, but I'm seeing some big ideas here," he said.

Adams Hudson says most HVAC marketing is ineffective.

Marketing mistakes

Adams Hudson has just about seen it all when it comes to HVAC advertising. And most of it, the marketing expert says, makes him want to look away.

Too often, heating and air-conditioning companies fill up their Yellow Page and newspaper ads with smiling polar bears, blocks of ice and sweating caricatures of the sun. Such images are old, tired and they don't work, Hudson says.

"You need to be memorable. You need to be something a little different," Hudson told contractors during his seminar, "Good Ads vs. Bad Ads."

Hudson runs Montgomery, Ala.-based Hudson, Ink, a marketing company that deals exclusively with contractors.

And the way most contractors use their ad budgets, it's a waste of money, Hudson said. Most ads look alike and they're almost uniformly bad.

"You're seeking inspiration from your most un-inspirational sources," he told attendees, referring to their local competition. Hudson advised them to get rid of the snowmen, polar bears and penguins that make HVAC ads look sloppy and the same.

"It costs the same to run a good ad as a bad ad. The only difference is the result," he said. And since all heating and cooling equipment is the same in many people's minds, you have to use your ad to make your image as an HVAC expert stand out.

"If a customer chooses between basically similar products, the product with the better image wins."

Tommy Estes of Estes Heating and AC in Atlanta listens to a speaker.

Public perceptions

residential HVAC service company. It featured a drawing of an overweight technician, bent over, with his pants falling down.

"If a customer sees that, they're not thinking tuneup - they're thinking 'Dateline NBC,' " Hudson said, referring to the television newsmagazine's popular exposes on unethical contractors.

Another sure way to end up in the local hall of shame, he added, is to advertise that your company is always discounting its "regular" prices.

"You can't have a 'sale' every day," Hudson said. "You don't want to be the contractor who cried wolf."

A well-designed ad tells customers exactly what your company will do for them, he said. It should always include a headline. And make sure the headline actually says something, he added. This fact is lost on many contractors and more than a few professional copywriters.

"If you're going to spend 10 hours on an ad, spend nine on the headline," he said, adding that listing the year your company was founded in big, bold type does not qualify as an attention-grabbing headline.

And make sure the ad copy is clear and readable, he said. Hudson said he lets his 10-year-old son read the ads he creates, to make sure they're easy to understand.

Don't think once you've created a good Yellow Page or newspaper ad that you're done, however, Hudson added. Placement is critical, especially in a newspaper. Hudson recommends the first four pages in a paper's "A" section. Whatever page the weather forecast is on is good, too, he said.

To get the most value for your ad, Hudson told contractors to ask about "zoning." This means that an ad only runs in certain editions of the paper, broken down by geographic region. Such placement lets you target only those residents who are in your local area. It's also cheaper than placing an ad that runs in every edition.

Victoria Barnes told contractors that successful marketing is about "relationship building."

Relationship building

A slightly different view of marketing in the HVAC industry was offered by Atlanta-based marketing consultant Victoria Barnes in her seminar, "Marketing Matters." Barnes encouraged contractors, especially commercial contractors, to focus on "relationship building" as a way of growing their companies.

"If you're in commercial, you can forget most of the stuff about advertising," she said, adding that with large clients, it's all about relationship building.

"(Commercial customers) don't care about giving away coffee cups. They don't care about trucks that glow in the dark."

Barnes acknowledged her knowledge of the HVAC industry was limited, but her research had led her to a few conclusions.

"What used to be a very fun and laid-back business has become very high-tech," Barnes said. "When your (level of) technology raises, your marketing sophistication has to raise, too."

That means doing things such as establishing a dress code and teaching technicians customer-service skills, she said.

"Your people should be confident, and they should look confident. If they don't, they are shooting you in the foot.

"These people that come out to fix equipment are not unskilled labor. They are skilled labor, and they should look like it," Barnes said.

Consider yourself a professional, whose services are worth paying for, she added. That means rarely offering coupons and similar reduced-price promotions.

"Professionals generally don't give a lot discounts," she said.

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