NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A new format and a new location worked well for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s 2014 convention, according to the association. Attendance was up 6 percent from the estimated 2,500 who attended last year, making it one of the largest meetings in recent memory, association officials said.

The group overhauled the March 17-20 conference’s educational offerings, renaming them “MainStage” events and recasting the “learning lab” sessions to fall along educational “tracks.” This allowed organizers to book speakers who could delve into issues such as regional efficiency standards, energy consumption and communication while tailoring them to residential or commercial contractors, as well as company managers.

“ACCA’s conference brings so many contractors together in one place to learn, share and grow together, which ultimately makes the entire industry more professional,” said the association’s president and CEO, Paul T. Stalknecht.

On the ‘MainStage’

For the keynote March 17 “MainStage” event, ACCA brought in Larry Winget, a business-oriented motivational speaker and the author of Shut Up, Stop Whining and Get a Life. In his presentation, titled “Success Starts Here,” the bald, plain-speaking Winget told attendees that they need to stop making excuses for their failures.

The message from closing MainStage session speaker Doc Hendley was everyone needs to make a difference in the world. Headley went from being a bartender who also liked to drink what he sold and playing in a band to being named one of the “Top heroes of 2009” by CNN. 

In between, the ACCA brought in lots of exhibitors for its Indoor Environment and Energy Expo, as well as a large crowd for the annual CEO/Contractor Forum, sponsored by Snips’ sister publication, the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News.

The new session format was a hit with many attendees.

“It is really helpful to hear from experienced business professionals sharing their thoughts on important subjects that affect all contractors,” said Tim Duggan of Shawsheen Air Services Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass. “The speakers engaged the audience and that makes for really good sessions.”

Jonathan Evancik of Ree Mechanical Inc. in Temecula, Calif., agreed.

“The learning labs brought up a lot of key points on how I should be guiding my leadership team and things I should be implementing in my business,” he said.

Communicate with me

One popular session was hosted by Kelly Dougherty, a service manager at Air Ideal Inc. in Mineola, N.Y. Proper communication in business is a top concern at many companies. Too many fail at this critical task, Dougherty said during “The Operations of Communication.”

Poor communication leads to employees feeling undervalued and unappreciated, she said.

“Our greatest asset is our people. How many people know that?” she asked the crowd.

Managers need to embrace diversity in their staffs, whether it’s by age, race or sex.

“You can learn a lot from somebody who is older or younger than you — even if you are too stubborn to realize it,” she said.

Also important is the way you choose to communicate, Dougherty said. A simple bit of advice: “Shut up and listen.” Too often managers choose to lecture rather than have a conversation.

“Lectures are not the best way to convey a message,” she said.

Neither is hiding behind a cellphone’s text messaging function the right way to address an issue. Employees deserve face-to-face meetings for important discussions — especially disciplinary issues.

“You should never have a conversation over text messaging,” she said.

And when an employee leaves — voluntarily or otherwise — the exit interview is a great time to learn important feedback. But because it’s often uncomfortable, too many employers skip it.

Communicating with your customers is just as important, Dougherty pointed out. You need to have a good policy in place.

Email is a very popular way to communicate with potential and current customers, but it can be easily abused. If you’re sending daily or even weekly emails to customers, it can be considered too much.

“Don’t fall into the trap of being a spam mailer,” she said. “I don’t know what you could even talk about weekly in our industry. Keep it (communications) seasonal.”

Marketing missteps

Adams Hudson is a longtime presenter at the ACCA’s annual gatherings. The Montgomery, Ala.-based owner of a contractor-oriented marketing firm, Hudson, Ink, said after years of talks with members of HVAC industry associations, “Contractors are still confused about marketing.”

That’s why his March 17 presentation, “If it’s Not Your Product, Service or Price… Then It Must be Your Marketing,” was a rapid-fire list of what to do and what’s a big mistake when it comes to selling your HVAC services to homeowners.

Using the season’s temperature fluctuations to sell your company won’t work, he said.

In a market crowded with HVAC repair firms, you need to stand out.

“If you are not getting noticed, you are not getting leads,” Hudson said.

Too many companies spend more than they should on marketing efforts that have poor returns, such as painting their service vehicle fleet.

“We love our trucks in this industry,” he said. “People, not so much.”

Email and Internet-based marketing has forever changed HVAC marketing techniques, although contrary to some other experts Hudson said there is still a place for traditional advertising such as postcards and the Yellow Pages.

 “What you have to be doing is what works for you,” he said.

Another way in which Hudson deviates from the advice of some marketing experts is that he doesn’t think it pays to constantly tweak or overhaul your company’s website. It’s more important that it be clear and easy to navigate than showcasing the latest technology.

“If you have a decently designed website, you can generate traffic,” he said.

And while many contractors now have Facebook pages to communicate with customers and boost their social media profiles, Hudson urged caution. He doesn’t think asking customers to “friend” or “like” your company accomplishes much.

“It’s old. It’s outdated,” he said. “You sound a desperate 9-year-old at summer camp.”

Oftentimes, email marketing is more effective — as long as you don’t overdo it. The vast majority — 70 percent — of your messages should be advice and not trying to sell something.

For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email