By definition, a suspect is a property that meets a certain predetermined criteria to make it worthy of further attention. A prospect is a property where contact has been made with at least one decision maker.

Most sales managers and sales people view a prospect as the first step in the selling cycle. Others may be of the opinion that the difference between a suspect and a prospect is only a semantics issue. The significance in the distinction is that the quality of the suspect list provides a foundation for the entire selling process. I encourage sales personnel to maintain 12 to 15 active prospects at all times, but that requires having 60 to 75 qualified suspects.

In qualifying suspects, I observe the building, the equipment (type and size) and the occupant. I prefer buildings with at least 20,000 sq.ft. of conditioned space. Many buildings in office and industrial parks are more than 50,000 sq.ft in size, but most of that is unconditioned warehouse space.

When doing a site inspection, I make note of the overall condition of the property. If an investment has been made in landscape architecture, it says something about the owners. Conversely, when I see a sign on a 100,000 sq.ft. building offering 80,000 sq.ft. for lease, it sends an entirely different message. Metal buildings with brick facades also make a "low budget" statement.

If possible, I try to determine at least an approximation of the square feet. Most commercial buildings are made up of bricks and glass. By counting windows and sections between you can do the simple math and be close enough. Later, when you get online, you can always check the actual size through the county assessor’s page. The last indicator (which perhaps should be the first) is that sign showing the property management company.

The type, size, and quantity of mechanical equipment is significant in several ways. Most service companies have limitations on the type of equipment they can service. While it's tempting to push the envelope and assume responsibility for a 500-ton absorption machine, this can lead to dissatisfied and short term customers.

On the other end are systems that use smaller residential type units. When it becomes more cost effective to replace the condensing unit than just the compressor, the price justification becomes difficult. Age is a factor that usually manifests itself later in the selling cycle when recording model and serial numbers, however, by going back to the county assessor's page, we can at least know when the building was first built.

Finally, the most critical qualifier or disqualifier is the occupant(s). Two general conditions I always look for are long-term-owners and owner-occupied. Investment groups who buy/build properties and fill them with tenants, only to flip them in a few years, have little interest in the long-term ownership of the mechanical systems. The management team representing them are pressured to keep operating costs at a minimum while retaining tenant occupancy. This is what I refer to as the "Fiddler On The Roof" management style.

The significance of an owner-occupied building is that the owner feels the pain daily. Dissatisfied tenants have easier access to an owner who is just down the hall. This also makes it easier for the sales team to get to the actual decision makers, an absolute requirement in selling service agreements.

On the other hand, bars, restaurants, strip malls and most retail businesses rarely become solid prospects and, therefore, usually don't find their way onto my suspect list. My rule of thumb here: businesses that pay the preponderance of their employees minimum wage aren’t interested in quality maintenance and service.

After four decades of doing the same thing, you can imagine the changes I've seen, mostly for the good. The Internet provides a vast amount of information that used to take considerable digging to compile. I now use satellite maps to zoom in on the roofs of suspects to determine the number and type of units.

By gaining the exact square footage of a suspect building, a close estimate can be made of an energy benchmark. Also, from the square footage, you can approximate the total investment in equipment (400 sq.ft. per ton-$1,500/ton replacement cost.) Using the same number, I can ball park the cost of a full coverage agreement ($150-$175/ton). All of this information prepares the salesperson for making the first call.

By requiring the sales team to keep accurate records of not only an active prospect list but also a current suspect list, the sales manager can assume more control and detect problems before a situation gets out of hand.

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.