The Internet is truly one of the most revolutionary vehicles to hit our industry. During the past five years or so, the HVAC industry has embraced the web as a useful tool for research and information exchange. More contractors have a web presence — some even provide ways to book service and sales calls online. In a relatively short time, hundreds of manufacturers, distributors, associations, training organizations, and membership groups have established a rich web presence with unprecedented access to mountains of information.

One great benefit is the proliferation of discussion forums, email discussion lists, knowledge bases, blogs (web logs), and other interactive tools for information exchange. When used responsibly, these vehicles are a great way to pool information, share literally hundreds of years of collective experience, and build camaraderie, even forge new friendships with fellow industry professionals.

There is, however, a dark side to online networking. The anonymity afforded by the Internet can make things appear very differently than they really are. During the past few years, I've observed some "forum and discussion list regulars" who repeatedly misrepresent their expertise, the size of their companies, and — most dangerously — how successful they really are.

This misrepresentation becomes dangerous when an owner or manager of a $3 million company, for example, gets advice from someone he thinks is successful — perhaps the same size or larger — but in reality is just a one or two-man outfit that has been barely hanging on.

Another dangerous situation is when a consultant, who may be very adept at a certain area of business, say sales or management, begins to dispense technical advice with little or no field or technical experience. In some cases, a good technical trainer may be giving management advice, but has never managed or led a single person before.

Qualify The Source: The best way to qualify the person handing out advice is to do a little homework. Here are some pointers to help you decide if you should take online advice from someone:

  • The first step is to just ask about his or her qualifications. Ask questions like, "What size is your company?" "What markets do you serve rural, suburban or urban?" "What climate or region are you in?" "What does your company specialize in?" "Are you mostly residential, commercial, or industrial?" "Do you do a lot of heat pump work, hydronics, high velocity, etc.?" If the person is unwilling to answer or put off by these questions, it could be a red flag.
  • Research the company online. Does it have a website or just a Yellow Pages style listing? If there is a site, take a look at the types of services offered. Do they match with the advice being given?
  • Find out what associations or groups the "advisor" belongs to. Is he or she in good standing? Active? If in a MIX (Management Information Exchange) group, how is he viewed by his peers?
  • If the person giving the advice is a consultant, find out what are his primary fields of expertise. Do they match with the type of advice he's giving? Get names of contractors he consults.
  • Has the person written articles or books on the subject? This can be a plus, but it can also be misleading. Just because someone writes doesn't always mean they're experts. Theory is great, but nothing beats real-life field experience.

While these steps don't guarantee good advice, they can help reduce the chances of bad advice. Remember, always take any advice with a "grain of salt." If someone advocates a new testing technique, installation or design method, and it looks worth doing, try it in a controlled situation first. The same goes for a new marketing item — try it on a small test group before sending out 50,000 letters or cards.

Finally, if you are providing the advice, be up front about who you are, how successful you are, and what you're good at and not good at. There's no rule that says the owner of a $5 million company can't get a good idea from the owner of a half million dollar company — and vice-versa. It's important to know the source so the idea can be adjusted to adapt to the specific situation. The Internet is a wonderful place to have a presence, and a terrific business management tool. Used properly, it can return unlimited dividends.

Dominick Guarino is chairman/CEO of National Comfort Institute, a national training, certification and membership organization focused on air diagnostics, carbon monoxide, IAQ and much more. He can be reached at 800/633-7058 or email domg@nationalcomfortinstitute.com. Or visit his website at www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com.