Staying connected online is no longer an option, nor is it only for techno-nerds and large companies. It’s as important as the Yellow Pages used to be. Here are my suggestions for staying connected during the upcoming year.

As I wrote them out for you I realized I need to take a little of my own advice.

Connect with other contractors online.

On a daily basis you may wonder, “What year was this condensing unit manufactured,” “What’s a good employee incentive plan,” “What should my next vehicle be,” or, “What should I do in this or that situation?” Why go it alone? Why spend time and money re-inventing the wheel? Learn from the experiences of other contractors. There are a number of low cost — or even free — contractor forums (such a HVAC-Talk.com) and email lists where you can post a question and get a number of responses from other contractors within minutes.

Get on Facebook.

It doesn’t matter whether you “like” Facebook or not. Facebook is no longer an option. Create a personal Facebook page for you and a fan page for your company. Encourage friends, customers, and other business associates to connect with you on both pages. Make some of your personal page business-oriented. Putting some personal things on your business page humanizes you to your customers, so they think of you more as a person than simply a commodity.

Post one thing on each of your Facebook pages five days per week. I don’t overdo my business postings on my personal page, but nearly every time I post something business related on my Facebook page, I make money.

Some people have a tough time coming up with things to post on Facebook. How about posting some of the jokes that arrive in your email every day? Posts with pictures get more interest, so post lots of photos. Every time a customer says something nice about you, your company, or your employees, post it with a picture. Post pictures of new hires. Search the web for articles that support your products and positions, and post links to them.

Do charity work or something to help the community, and report on that. You could get some serious mileage just by doing a free repair for someone, or picking up trash at a popular nature site for a few hours.

Try to get people to engage with you. List steps you’re taking to conserve energy around the shop and ask for suggestions. Tell people how your products can help prevent the spread of colds and flu and, again, ask for additional suggestions. Tell people how to choose a contractor and ask for their comments.

If you check your news feed every day and “like” and comment on a lot of things your friends post, more people will “like” what you post. This will result in your postings being posted higher up in the news feeds of others and make them more likely to be seen.

Here’s a secret for you. It’s against Facebook’s terms of service for you to create a personal page for your business, but other people (specifically, your competitors) are doing it. On a personal page, you can often see who their friends are. Who do you think is “friending” an HVAC contractor? Service technicians, suppliers, and customers. Look up all your local competitors on Facebook and send all their friends a friend request of your own. Serves them right for breaking the rules.

Collect email addresses

Give every technician a page on your company website. Have a picture of the tech, a one-paragraph bio/resume, a nice quote or two from the tech saying why he likes working at your company and how important delivering excellent service is to him, and quotes from customers saying how great this tech is. Then, when customers book a service appointment, tell them that if they’ll provide you with their email address, you’ll send them the link to the page of the tech so they’ll know who will be working in their home.

Start sending out email newsletters to your email list. Writing these is easier than you think. Follow the same suggestions I made on what to include in Facebook.

Make it a point to keep the email short enough so readers don’t have to scroll down to read the whole thing. Keeping them super short means you’ll have a higher likelihood of people actually reading your emails. Additionally, keeping them short probably means you can only hit one or two points per email, which means you’ll have plenty of material to send them out often.

Actively pursue collecting positive reviews online

Word-of-mouth is your best advertising.  Online testimonials are a very close equivalent to word-of-mouth referrals. Since an increasing number of people are dropping the Yellow Pages to search out contractors on the Internet, legitimate online reviews are your best source of advertising.

People are more likely to post negative reviews than positive reviews. The best way to combat negative reviews is to make them the minority. In other words, get as many legitimate positive reviews posted as possible.

Don’t bother posting fake reviews. Eventually, you will be discovered by the major search engines, and they don’t like that. There are ways to get your customers to post honest reviews and there are companies that will help you to collect legitimate customer reviews and then direct potential customers to them.

I know of at least one review management company that can also use your company’s positive reviews to help you retain service technicians, which I personally feel is even more important than retaining customers.

Revisit your website

Don’t build a beautiful and savvy Facebook presence that funnels people to a boring, inaccurate, and out-of-date website. Keep it current and engaging.

When designing all advertising, put others first. The natural inclination is to make your website, and your home page in particular, self-centered. But visitors to your website are there because they have an issue or a problem they need to solve.

Make your website as much about your customer as it is about you or your business. Talk about their needs, their problems, and what they can expect from working with you. People are generally self-centered and self-obsessed. Make your website about them and they’ll find you endlessly fascinating.

Try to give people a warm feeling when they visit your site. Make quotes from happy customers a consistent theme on every page and there won’t be much of a reason for people to go to review websites to continue searching for a contractor.

Charlie Greer is the Tom McCart HVAC Consultant of the Year. He specializes in sales training and has a number of inexpensive products on audio CD and DVD. Check him out online, and become a friend on Facebook. Call Charlie at 800/963-4822 or email him at charlie@charliegreer.com.