Most of my selling/management career involved an outbound flight on Mondays and an inbound flight on Fridays. I was usually in a different city each week. There was never time for building long-lasting relationships and certainly no time for building a network of prospective customers. During the last few years, being earthbound, I have discovered what most sales people already knew: networking can pay huge dividends if properly implemented. Some larger contracting firms have the luxury of employing a marketing person or even a marketing department. More often, the sales team takes the lead in marketing. Networking, in the broadest vernacular, is a function of marketing, but usually with heavy sales involvement.

One common method of networking is to join trade associations for building managers, owners, and engineers. Most cities have several to choose from, ranging from national organizations to local chapters.

Before investing time and money, try to discern which organization has the membership and activities that best fit your needs. By attaining a membership list, you can see if these are the types of prospects you’re searching for. What is the ratio of building owners, managers, and engineers to associate members (vendors)?

For example, I recently attended an association luncheon that seated eight per table. At my table were six vendors, one maintenance man, and me — not a good ratio at all. You really want customer decision-makers to be there. Some local chapters will allow you to attend at least one luncheon as a guest. This is a great way to determine the type of participants.

Once you have found the best fit, you must take an active role in the membership.

Attending 12 luncheons and one golf outing is a waste of time and money. I volunteer for committees that allow me to work closely with a select group of members. I also volunteer to provide an educational talk at one of the luncheons each year. Topics range from "How to build value in your maintenance program," to "Energy conservation — the low hanging fruit." The common rule: the talk can't be a commercial for your company.

Breakfast clubs are another form of networking. Much like trade associations, some are more worthwhile than others. Most salespeople migrate from one club to another once they have exhausted the viable prospects.

Creating a company newsletter can open many new doors while solidifying existing relationships. When developing a quarterly newsletter, make certain it isn't a camouflaged commercial for your company — it should provide valuable information that building owners/managers can put to use. Your customers really don't care about who made the honor roll or what transpired during the company picnic.

Here's a tip: try to develop two feature articles for each newsletter. Customers are always interested in reducing energy and operating costs. Other topics could include specific building automation program descriptions, such as duty cycling, load-shedding, and start-stop-time-optimization. Life-cycle-costing is always a popular topic. Most building owners have a general understanding of it, but not a clue as to the implementation. New product development is also appropriate.

One of my contractors recently wrote a newsletter article on the new (relatively) oiless, magnetic centrifugal compressors. This generated numerous requests for more information, and ultimately, I'm sure it will result in chiller change-outs.

You'll find a church cooperative membership in most major cities. The cooperative is made up of many local churches of all denominations and faiths. Their sole purpose is to research various vendors — plumbing, carpeting, painting, and HVAC service companies — and then select the best of them. I find they base decisions on past references, size, and years in business.

An endorsement from a co-op is very valuable. One southwestern city alone had 220 church members. If selected, you will pay a small fee to advertise in the group’s newsletter and other periodicals. The select vendor group also hosts an annual open house where the board members and committee members of each church can meet the vendors face to face. If worked properly, this endorsement can keep you very busy.

Finally, my favorite networking source is the existing customer base. There isn't a better prospect than one that comes as a referral. If you're not getting a stream of referrals, it's probably because you're not asking. I rarely get one without prodding for it. Most existing customers are members of a church or perhaps sit on a library board or committee.

Networking opens many doors and can be worthwhile if you remember the key to success is, once you start, don't stop.

Earl King is the founder of King Productions International, a commercial HVAC contracting sales consulting firm based in Texas. He speaks to associations and HVAC trade groups, and consults with commerical contractors across the country, in addition to writing this column for Contracting Business.com. Email Earl with any questions or comments at: profithvac@aol.com or call him at 515/321-2426.