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Keeping Educated in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Failure to keep abreast of recent developments such as changes in building codes, new regulations, new building materials, new software, and new business models and marketing tools can blindside a successful business - be in the know to stay in business and gain a competitive edge.

September 04, 2009
September/October 2009
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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What if I told you that in less than a year, it might be illegal for your company to perform retrofit services on the most energy-inefficient homes? When would you like to have this information? Now? Or when the new rules go into effect? How does your company capture this type of market intelligence, and how would you prepare your company to continue performing work on those homes? Identifying new opportunities and new threats to your company is a challenge that all home performance contractors face—trying to keep educated in a rapidly changing environment.

Home performance contracting addresses a multitude of issues that affect homeowners, including their home’s energy use, moisture movement, indoor air quality (IAQ), comfort, and durability. It is not sufficient for a contractor to be a jack-of-all-building-trades. He or she must be a master of most, and must know where to look when searching for answers to difficult questions.


However, it takes more than an intimate knowledge of building science to achieve success in home performance contracting. You must need to know how to run a business as well, and this means that you must excel in many other knowledge areas. Failure to keep abreast of recent developments can blindside a successful business, while exploiting emerging opportunities can give you a competitive edge. For example, new incentives—from federal tax credits, utility rebates, low-interest financing, and property tax bill financing—can determine whether or not a customer decides to proceed with recommended work. Contractors who identify all incentive opportunities, package the information into an easily digestible format, and tailor that information to specific customer segments and to specific improvement bundles can close the deal more often and realize higher profits than those who do not.

In addition, home performance contractors need to be aware of new regulations and  changes in building codes. They must keep abreast of new regulations that will affect virtually all home performance contractors. They must be familiar with new building materials and techniques, modeling and reporting software, evolving customer segments, different business models, and new marketing tools, such as social networking. Finally, they must be quick to take advantage of new human resource opportunities—for example, by finding recruits who have been trained through new workforce development programs.

Find Your Filters

To keep educated in a rapidly changing environment, you must know how to make the best use of a variety of sources. The principal challenge is not how to find information, it is how to keep track of, manage, and digest new information that will have a real impact on your company and your customers. You can spend all day, every day, learning about new developments in all the different knowledge areas, and never have the time to put what you learn into practice. What you need is trusted sources of building science-verified, or peer-reviewed, filtered content. Having these trusted sources will enable you to identify high-impact or high-probability risks, industry best practices, and emerging opportunities. The following sources can serve as trusted filters.

Formal Educational Facilities. Trade schools, technical high schools, workforce development agencies, and institutions such as Saturn Online can further your building science education as well as provide sources for increasing your workforce. Local facilities may seek to collaborate with home performance businesses if this gives them a chance to update their curricula, have guest speakers, or provide their students with field-mentoring opportunities. Such collaboration can be a win-win for both your company and the school. You can position yourself as an industry expert by offering educational resources for schools, while they can keep you abreast of new materials, new procedures, and other industry information.

Professional organizations. The Building Performance Institute (BPI), the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), and ACI are a few of the many professional organizations that provide filtered content in all knowledge areas. BPI provides nationally recognized training, certification, and accreditation. RESNET Notes is a monthly newsletter that summarizes new developments in residential energy efficiency developments in the energy efficiency industry. It is free to members, and membership fees range start at $100 annually. Join on the Web site: www.resnet.us/membership.  A visitor to the ACI Web site can view slide shows of numerous conferences from years past. The Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES) program provides a quarterly newsletter, sales training, and a secure Web site with numerous educational resources for participating contractors (see “HPwES Business Tools”). The ACCA and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) are HVAC-centric organizations that provide a wealth of opportunities for staying educated and updated on new developments.

Consultants. A growing number of consulting services are available from which companies can learn. These services may be delivered on-site or online. Building Services and Consultant is a company based in Wisconsin that can provide on-site mentoring opportunities for crews to learn and refine a variety of skills, such as how to dense-pack wall cavities or use appropriate air sealing techniques. Utilityexchange.org is an organization that hosts frequent Webinars, specializing in marketing best practices, but also providing educational opportunities in a variety of other knowledge areas.

Conferences. Conferences can be time-consuming and expensive, but they provide invaluable opportunities to network with market leaders and learn from some of the most experienced practitioners. The ACI annual conference, the HPwES National Symposium (usually held the day before and at the same location as ACI), and the RESNET conference are must-attends. Dozens of local conferences offer additional opportunities to keep abreast of recent developments and best practices.

“Coopetition.” Fellow home performance contractors in your local market are competitors—but competitors with whom you can form cooperative agreements to achieve common goals. Learn from large corporations (such as Apple and Google) that form alliances to achieve certain business goals, while constantly learning from each other in order to gain a competitive edge. A successful community of skilled home performance contractors can generate more business for everyone, as more homeowners become aware of the unique value that the home performance industry offers. Alliances with other (non-home performance) trades can also provide win-win opportunities. For example, HVAC contractors who follow ACCA QI specifications may be ideal partners with home performance contractors who have a traditional background in shell improvements. The two companies can learn from each other to offer comprehensive solutions for their respective customers. Such alliances can address some of the toughest areas in which to stay educated by offering mentoring opportunities for employees of both companies.

These are a few of the sources from which a time-constrained home performance contractor can obtain filtered knowledge. Blogs, tweets, daily and weekly newsletters, RSS feeds, bulletin boards, and other (relatively unfiltered) communication channels also provide a wealth of information—but it can be difficult not to be inundated by the sheer volume of that information. This problem will be solved when a critical mass of members within the home performance community develop and adopt their own social network or online community. Such a network will be able to capture the full breadth of knowledge areas that affect home performance, and to develop the tools to filter and distribute content in a digestible, and customizable, format. Until that capability exists, reading Home Energy magazine and availing yourself of these other sources of filtered content will provide you with the best opportunity to keep educated in a rapidly changing environment.

And for those of you who want to continue working on the most energy-inefficient homes (those built prior to 1978), visit www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/renovation.htm to learn how proposed rules for dealing with lead paint will affect your business. Early compliance with these new rules can differentiate your company and provide more assurance to customers who value IAQ. Failure to comply could make your company ineligible to work on the majority of energy-inefficient homes.

Casey Murphy is a BPI Building and Shell Analyst, as well as a HERS rater. After running his own business for the past decade and being a participating contractor in Maryland’s Home Performance with Energy Star program, he now works at ICF International. He provides support for the national HPwES program and EPA’s Indoor airPLUS program.

For more information:
To use the tools at the HPwES Web site, visit www.energystar.gov/homeperformance.



HPwES Business Tools

The Home Performance with Energy Star Web site contains numerous educational resources—captured knowledge gathered from the HPwES community and distributed to participating contractors.

Flowcharts
HPwES has posted sales process flowcharts for companies employing either the contractor or the consultant business model. Business managers can customize the charts to include their company’s work flow, while identifying areas that may have been overlooked or can be improved.

Air Sealing Pricing Report
To position your services in the minds of your target customers, it is critical that you use an appropriate pricing strategy. The Air Sealing Pricing Report discusses a variety of strategies that have been employed by home performance contractors.

Pitch book In an industry where some non-home performance contracting companies promise 70% energy savings by installing a single product (or type of product), a skeptical customer can be a friend to home performance contractors. However, prospective customers can have a wide range of questions about building science, home performance, your company's qualifications, the audit process, and so on.  HPwES has posted a pitch book template that addresses many of these questions. In a Microsoft Word format, the pitch book can be easily customized to help you to sell your services.

Disaggregation tool One of the first steps in educating homeowners is explaining where their energy dollars are going. The disaggregation tool allows a user to enter the previous year’s energy bill data, the customer’s location (to normalize for the previous year’s actual weather), and other basic features of the home. The tool generates a pie chart report that can be given to the homeowner at the beginning of the assessment.

Sample lead capture form Mike Gorman discusses the importance of capturing lead generation data and using those data to improve your business (see “How to Win the Job,” p. S30). HPwES has posted a sample lead capture form that can be used when answering the phone to collect critical information from the caller. This information can be used to assess the effectiveness of marketing channels, to close the sale, and to provide a more seamless customer experience.

Sample HP data collection forms and summary reports Home performance contractors need to evaluate, measure, and record a vast amount of information. It is far too easy to leave a home and remember an hour later (or when writing a report) that some key information wasn’t recorded. Learning what types of information other contractors are collecting can help your company to follow industry best practices. The sample forms provide that help, inviting you into the minds of the contractors who have gone before. Sample summary reports are also provided to show how information can be presented to the homeowner.

Other business tools A variety of other useful tools are available on the HPwES Web site. High-resolution house graphics are available for download. These can help contractors to explain how a home performs and how problems can be addressed. A pop-up banner graphic file enables contractors to create their own high-visibility stand for use at trade shows, community talks, and other events. A marketing tool kit allows contractors to create co-branded materials with the look and feel of the Energy Star brand. Contractors can use this tool kit to create direct mailers, fact sheets, magazine ads, newspaper ads, Val-Pac inserts, Web buttons, and ads for the Yellow Pages—all within minutes, while adding their company’s logo, messaging, and other customized content. A seven-minute promotional video explains the HPwES process from start to finish. Contractors can host the video on their Web site or use it to create their own DVDs. Customers can quickly learn the HPwES process by watching this video, while associating the contractor’s company with the power and legitimacy of the Energy Star brand. A home energy yardstick can also be hosted on a contractor’s Web site, allowing homeowners to learn how their home’s energy use compares with that of other homes. Finally, sales training is available to participating contractors. This training is scheduled and organized by the national HPwES program and the local sponsoring organization.

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