Sheet Metal Industry Week welcomed hundreds of members of the SMACNA and the Sheet Metal Workers union to discuss issues ranging from safety to media relations.

LAS VEGAS - "What happens here, stays here" may be this city's visitors bureau slogan, but it wasn't the goal of Sheet Metal Industry Week organizers.

No, they were hoping the contractors who attended the May 2-8 event at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino would take everything they had learned back to their shops and businesses.

About 400 members of the Sheet Metal Workers union and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association were scheduled to attend the weeklong meeting, which included discussions on issues such as safety hazards and media relations.

And dealing with the media is an issue that construction workers historically have not done very well. Few contractors brag publicly about their work and many have a general distrust of the media, in part from the stories on crooked HVAC, plumbing and other trades workers shown on the local and national TV news.

Despite such misgivings about the media, contractors need to work with them, Joe Salimando told the audience at his May 3 seminar, "Media Relations: Our Story is Great - Let's Tell It!"

Joe Salimando told contractors they need to cultivate a relationship with the local media.

Telling the story

Salimando is the marketing and public relations coordinator for several union-affiliated sheet metal groups and a onetime newspaper reporter.

"You need to be talking about this industry's stories, which I think are just incredible," he said.

Salimando suggested contractors try to present themselves to local reporters as an HVAC "expert" source, referring to the "HVAC Expertise" marketing program the union and SMACNA recently launched.

He told the audience that like marketing and advertising, a good media campaign could lead to more customers, although media relations are handled very differently.

"It (media relations) is called ‘free' media by some people, but really, nothing could be further from the truth. You have to work" for the coverage, he said.

And the work isn't easy, he added. You have to find something about your business that's interesting enough to pique an editor's interest and then get news about it out. Salimando suggested hiring a person to handle your company's media efforts, or at least pick a spokesperson. Have him or her practice being interviewed by a reporter. Remember that nothing is "off the record." Focus on your message and do not answer "trick" questions that have no good answer.

"If you say something wrong, that's what they'll show for the next week," he said.

Even if you do follow his suggestions, Salimando acknowledged that you might still have a lot of work before you see your company's name in a positive news story.

People in the media are not naturally HVAC industry boosters, he said. Most report on dozens of stories a month and aren't experts on any of the issues they cover. Many are quick to dismiss a lot of the stories they're pitched, believing they're boring. If you can foster a relationship with a reporter, such as by taking him or her to lunch occasionally, you might become a source the reporter goes to for information.

Salimando also advised avoiding industry jargon if reporters tap you as a source. Most won't know phrases such as "HVAC" or "sheet metal." Focus on simple terms like "too hot" or "too cold." If possible, arrange the interview at a visually interesting location, such as a training center or a jobsite. And remember that what you're wearing when you're interviewed matters. It could show up on television or mentioned in the story, so make sure it projects a positive image.

SMACNA officials are considering putting the information from Salimando's presentation in a media relations kit for members.

Tom Piscitelli says contractors should think of their customers as “clients,” which implies they’ll have an ongoing relationship with them.

Relationship rescues

Some contractors in the audience may have been a little worried when Tom Piscitelli started his May 5 presentation on service-technician training by making the 90 percent male group say the word "relationships."

But Piscitelli wasn't trying to get the contractors in touch with their feelings or improve the state of their marriages. What the sales-training expert did want to do was change the way many HVAC contractors think about themselves and how they relate to their customers, especially homeowners.

It starts with understanding how the public sees HVAC service companies, he said. Many homeowners perceive repair technicians as all being the same, and a group not to be trusted.

"The reality is we're as different as could be, but they don't see it," Piscitelli said, adding that since the public sees HVAC companies as a commodity, most choose a contractor on price alone.

"You can't really blame the customer for thinking low price," he said. "Essentially, they don't see what you do and they don't feel what they get," since a proper heating and air-conditioning system will keep them from being too hot or too cold.

Despite being a price-driven market, contractors must court homeowners. "The residential service and replacement market is where the gold is going to be," Piscitelli said.

But to mine that "gold," he said, HVAC contractors needed to change the way they think of - and interact with - customers. Piscitelli doesn't even like the word "customer." He prefers "client."

"A ‘client' (says) we have a relationship into the future," he said, adding that if the relationship is a positive one, a typical client will tell nine people. If it's a bad relationship, they'll tell a lot more.

For a good relationship, customers - or clients - expect their service technicians to be friendly, polite, on time and have a professional appearance, which means they're well groomed, he said. Piscitelli gave a few styling tips.

"If you've got enough hair to trim - I don't - it should be trimmed," he said. And if the service technician has any tattoos or body piercing, they should be covered.

When technicians go in a house, they should wear boot covers to keep from tracking in mud or debris. It shows customers that you respect their property, he said.

And while it's OK to be a little early, 10 to 15 minutes, Piscitelli said, you shouldn't be late.

(For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail