Know Your Contractor, Grow Your Program - Warm Thoughts Communications
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Know Your Contractor, Grow Your Program

Posted on May 13, 2014

Want to make a trade ally your ally? Try walking a mile in his work boots.

Residential and small commercial trade allies can be great ambassadors for your energy efficiency and conservation programs. In fact, your ability to scale your programs and save more energy in more homes may well depend upon the strength of your relationship with motivated, high-quality contractors.

Unfortunately, contractors – especially the ones you want to work with – often sit on the sidelines, hesitant to support your program in the way you hoped they would.

To expand the reach of your home performance initiatives, you need to understand why contractors resist the urge to champion your programs so you can begin to shift their thinking. By learning to see through their eyes, you’re more likely to make trade allies your allies – motivated salespeople willing to go to bat for you with their customer base.

It starts with thinking like a contractor

While you operate in the same industry, you and your trade ally often share little in terms of business perspective and experience: differences in your organizational culture, business models, and even your areas of expertise and experience can be substantial. Without some understanding of how these differences influence a contractor’s decision-making process, you could unwittingly be creating barriers in your relationship that will limit the growth potential of your program.

To better understand how your trade ally thinks, let’s consider three factors that affect his decision to get behind your home performance program: money, time, and risk.

Money

Training and certifications. Equipment upgrades and new tools. Marketing and administration. Salaries. By the time you tally the expenses to transition a trade ally to support your home performance program, the start-up costs alone can reach or exceed $60,000 – quite a commitment for a small- to mid-size contracting business.

But up-front costs are only part of financial picture for a contractor: in a high-volume world of home and small business contracting, cash flow is king. A contractor sells, schedules, buys material for a job, executes and get paid – all typically within the span of a few weeks.

If your program lengthens his pay horizons to two to three months or more, it severely disturbs his cash flow – a major impediment to his willingness to push for business on your behalf. Remember that many smaller contracting businesses operate directly from their bank account – a far cry from the bureaucratic reality of a 2500-person utility. A payment delay of even a few weeks can force him to hold off suppliers to meet payroll or even make him reach for his line of credit.

Time

Related to money and cash flow considerations is the investment of time needed by a contractor to properly align with your program requirements. From compliance training to technical skill building to added demands for program marketing and administration, the amount of (largely unbillable) hours needed to support the transition to a home performance business is considerable – particularly for a small- to medium-sized firm. And every hour your contractor spends doing legwork to align with your program is an hour he won’t spend selling jobs and completing billable work, which can have a substantial impact on his business.

Risk

Some utility sponsored EE programs last several years – some considerably less. As policy winds shift, some programs get renewed, others modified, and some go away completely.

Contractors know about these uncertainties, often through painful (and costly) experience – so they are understandably hesitant to invest in the support staff and training to programs with an uncertain future. Ask yourself: if I were in my contractor’s shoes, why would I commit months of time and thousands of dollars to a program that might not be around next year? This is a real concern for your contractor – one that you will have to address to win his support.

Bridging the gap: Four ways to increase trade ally buy-in

Understanding how a contractor thinks is a critical to breaking down the barriers that keep him from being an all-in supporter for your home performance program. But it is only the first step of an ongoing process that requires commitment on both sides to work successfully. Some points to guide you on your way:

  1. Emphasize rewards. Create a compelling and concrete value proposition for your trade ally. Clearly emphasize his key opportunities to increase revenue and gross margin and to create a competitive advantage among his peers. Be specific – the potential for doubling his average job ticket size or for increasing gross margins by 5 percent will certainly get his attention. And don’t be afraid acknowledge the risks involved – showing you understand his business concerns will help build rapport and trust.

  2. Be sensitive to perspective differences between you and your contractor. Listen to and strive to understand his key business concerns and motivations, then take them into account when designing your programs. Better yet, involve him in the design of your programs. This will give him a sense that his opinion has value and that he has invested in his own success. In return, you may find his hard-won experience extremely valuable when it’s time to put your program ideas to paper.

  3. Streamline requirements and communicate with your contractors clearly. Provide support and top notch materials that help your trade ally help you, and be clear and specific about what you want from the relationship with him. Do you want him to install more of a particular product? Create greater energy savings in the homes of his existing customers? Invest his own marketing dollars to grow his home performance customer base? Perform more audits? Share this information with him – then create incentives that align with those goals.

    By making your program goals clear, simple, and consistent – and by discussing ways to accomplish your objectives together, rather than by him responding to your already-decided program requirements – you will greatly increase your chance to earn the support of the contacting community.

  4. Check in often, listen hard and be ready to course correct – Like any relationship, your partnership with your contractor will need time and effort to develop. Keep that time productive by developing feedback loops and continuous improvement routines that yield insights to drive your program forward.

    A ride-along with an energy efficiency contractor or a field trip to a job site with program staff can give you a great sense of what’s happening on the ground from a contractor and customer’s perspective, helping you better understand the market and what barriers need to be overcome for your programs to succeed. Look for opportunities like this to gather information, make adjustments, and re-evaluate your program. You wouldn’t get married and wait two years to ask if it’s working; don’t make the same mistake with your contractor.

A worthwhile investment

Without investing time to understand your contractors– and without spending some time to train your program representatives on the realities of small business – you’re probably missing out on tremendous opportunities to grow your programs and create more energy efficient homes and businesses.

By learning to think like a contractor, you’ll begin to build stronger relationships that result in mutual benefit and help you grow your energy efficiency programs.


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