Dr. Richard Knaub, a Project Leader in Weatherization & Workforce Development at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has been actively participating in developing Weatherization training and standards both at the state and national levels for the last several years.  In anticipation of four new Home Energy Professional Certifications (offered by BPI and funded by DOE and NREL) that are almost ready for prime time, Richard has penned a couple of articles about them and why they matter.  We posted them here on the IREC website.

April 30, 2012
By Dr. Richard Knaub
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Knaub

My mother just selected a contractor to replace her front door.  The low bid was half of the medium bid and the medium bid was half the high bid.  She didn’t like any of the salesmen and the doors were pretty much the same in construction and features.  So why did she pick the medium bid?  My mother is a savvy shopper and knows when she’s getting a deal.  She is somewhat legend for her ability to get used car dealers to come down below their rock bottom price (way down below).

So why did she pick the medium bid that was twice the low bid?  Short answer: it was the installation crew.  Most successful contractors realize that their crews are the face of the company.  Online reviews of contractors usually focus on whether the crew did what the customer was expecting.  So a customer that does any online research on a company gets a pretty good idea of whether the crew knows what it’s doing.  Let’s face it, second to used car dealers, contractors have the most consumer complaints, and most of the time it’s because the crew isn’t working to the highest standard of quality.

My mother had that issue with the low bid contractor.  She’d had work done by the company before and had some issues with the crew.  The work was good quality, the crew was polite and hard working, but it didn’t go quite as she expected.  Put it down to customer expectations not being met.  She was willing to consider rehiring them, but there was no immediate trust there.

She didn’t know the other two companies from Adam.  She didn’t like either of the salesmen.  In fact the middle bid salesman did something that always ticks her off – he gave her a deadline.  My mother hates being pressured like that.  So in spite of all of that, why did she choose the middle bid?

The answer might surprise you.  It was lead safe certification.  The salesman with the middle bid talked to her about how the crew was lead safe certified.  He provided some of the EPA handouts on renovation where lead paint might be present.  Those are what she insisted on showing me.  Not the information on the door, not the bid, but those EPA fliers.  She complained about the salesmen and his pressure tactics.  She complained about paying twice as much, but she wrote the check because that crew was lead safe certified.

Both of the other two crews were lead safe certified as well; I checked.  They are both with national companies which made it a requirement for local contractors who worked with them.  Just like the company my mother chose.  So the low bid company lost out just because the salesman didn’t hand out the EPA fliers and assure my mother that their crew was as qualified as the middle bid crew.

It appears that my mother is not that unusual of a customer.  Studies on customers and their perception of certifications show that the customer perceives a certification as being important, even if they don’t know what the certification itself means.  My mother had no idea what lead safe means, nor did she actually read the handouts she was given to find out.  But she immediately perceived it as an important factor to the selection of a contractor.

The take home message to any contractor should be that if you have certifications, you should let the customer know.  The customer may not know what they mean, but words like certified, licensed and registered signify that someone is looking over your shoulder to make sure that the work you do meets a quality standard.

This is why the Home Energy Professional Crew Leader certification is such a game changer.  First, it is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded effort.  For a performance contractor, having certifications backed by DOE is a selling point for the consumer.  Who better than the Department of Energy knows about energy efficiency?

Second, this is the first crew leader certification in this industry’s history. Yes, there are energy auditor and installer certifications.  Some jurisdictions require them.  Certainly many contractors realize the value of those certifications in their marketing effort.  But the crew leader is a new edge that savvy contractors are going to jump on.

“All Crew Leaders are Certified Home Energy Professionals” is a pretty powerful statement in a print ad or flyer.  In a live pitch, there is a chance to add that the Home Energy Professional certification is part of DOE’s national guidelines and that the company therefore follows the national Guidelines for Quality Work by using certified Home Energy Professionals.

Unlike the lead safe certification, this certification is voluntary.  So there will be contractors who don’t get their crew leaders certified.  But when a competitor puts “All Crew Leaders are Certified Home Energy Professionals” in ads and flyers, consumers are eventually going to begin wondering if this is true with other contractors they interview.

There probably is some good tap dancing that can go into answering that question if the answer is no.  But even if the customer is willing to take the risk on non-certified workers, there will always be a question about quality.  The work may be just fine, and consistent with the national Guidelines for Quality Work.  But if the customer has that doubt going into the project, it may make it difficult to manage the customer’s expectations, simply because “certification” now means something in his or her mind.

“All crew leaders are certified Home Energy Professionals” is a sound bite that taps into some basic consumer behavior.  It can make the customer more receptive to finding out what a Home Energy Professional is and what other Home Energy Professionals you employ.  It opens the door to talk about the national Guidelines for Quality Work which may make the consumer feel more comfortable about the proposed work, knowing it meets DOE guidelines.  The contractors that can use it are likely to have a significant advantage over those that don’t.

More information on this new home energy certification can be found at: www.bpi.org/pilot.