As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Roth, CEO and owner of National Technical Institute (NTI), a trade school offering fast-track careers in HVAC, plumbing and electrical. To date, he has assembled and managed teams that have installed over 50,000 air conditioning systems and have completed over half a million service calls. Roth is a licensed HVAC contractor in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, California, New Mexico and Colorado. He is a seasoned entrepreneurial executive with over 29 years of experience in acquiring, integrating and developing HVAC businesses.
With a passion for trade careers and teaching, in 2018 Roth acquired NTI. Featuring the only real-life, hands-on HVAC Installation training facility in the state of Nevada, the school’s advanced labs consist of the most modern and relevant HVAC mechanical, commercial refrigeration and electrical training equipment in the industry. NTI opened its second location in Phoenix, AZ in 2019, and plans to expand to additional markets in the near future.)
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I attended a vocational high school in Las Vegas and spent my junior and senior year studying HVAC. At 16, I started working for an HVAC contractor and when I was 19, I began teaching at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) as an instructor. I have been a HVAC contractor for most of my career and understand the problems contactors face, trying to find good, skilled labor. So, in 2013 in an effort to bring trained, skilled tradesman to my HVAC business, I returned to CSN to teach again. A few years ago, I decided to focus my attention full time on educating students for a career in the trades.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As a contractor, customer acquisition is never an issue. Our single biggest bottle neck is finding skilled labor. That’s when I decided to purchase a trade school, National Technical Institute (NTI)
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’m not sure how funny it is but I sat down with a colleague in my space to discuss this great idea I had for a contractor-driven trade school and shared with him my entire business plan. Within weeks and unbeknownst to me, he became my biggest competitor.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
To help contractors solve their number one biggest need — skilled labor shortage. We assembled an advisory board of contractors to develop a fast-paced and career-ready curriculum to get students employed in the shortest time practical.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We are extremely intentional when it comes to our core values, which are — Do the right thing; always, Results driven, Proactive, and Invested. Everything we do is centered around acknowledging and recognizing examples of our core values. This includes hiring and firing. Each quarter, we gather as an organization for a state of the company where we reward our team based on these values.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Simple. We live our core values.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I believe every entrepreneur has considered giving up at some point. I was fortunate enough to lean on several colleagues for wisdom and advice. I joined several best practice groups within our industries. This was the biggest shift for me. I went from working in the business to owning the business. I was able to boil issues down to two things: people and process. We instituted processes that would help us streamline and smoke out issues. I believe that your ability to scale a business is directly proportional to your ability to solve issues within your business once and for all. Once you get the right people on board following documented processes, it gets easier.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Today, I am surrounded by a rock star leadership team that’s driven and believes in our vision for the trades. When your why is big enough you will find your how.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
I do not know one person who has created a business where the ultimate goal was not to succeed. Then why is it that most businesses are struggling to break even each month? If you summoned the courage to ask for advice from a successful serviced-based business owner, you likely got the common response — Remember that the customer is the boss and will always be right. The reality is there is more that goes into ensuring success in business besides treating customers well.
Understand Your Competitive Advantage
With so many similar service businesses in the market, you need to discover what makes your business unique. In my experience, most service-based business “borrow” their former employers set of advantages. Maybe it’s because you are cheaper than everyone else offering the same service. Ask yourself why people should choose you instead of going with your competitor. I find that the magic number is three. You need to discover three things that are completely unique to your business that your competitors do not possess.
It could be that you offer high-quality goods or services your customers will not get anywhere else. Your competitive advantage could also be that you are big on going green or provide a social mission.
If there is nothing about you that stands out from your competitors, the only reason to use your services will boil down to price. Your services become a commodity. Find what makes you stand out and leverage on this to beat the competition. Look at your core values closely.
Create a Customer Avatar
To better understand your customers, you need to place yourself in their shoes. You need to build an avatar of your best customers. Learn what motivates them to buy and how they react to particular services or products. Understand their complete demographic and psychographic profile. Are they male or female? What is their age range? What is their income range? What is their education level? Do they own a home or rent? What are their interests and hobbies?
Knowing your customers’ needs, allows you to create packages that resonate with their needs. Many businesses fail, not because they offer poor services, but because they did not understand their customers’ needs and wants. Take the time to understand your customers.
One way to know if you are meeting your customers’ needs is by asking for feedback from your last 10 customers. It can be as simple as calling them and asking why they do business with you. You can ask for reviews after interacting with them. By doing this, you get to know what you need to work on and what you are good at.
Track Your Marketing
The only way to get the word out about your services is to market them. Marketing helps you reach potential clients and inform them of your business. Without marketing, it becomes difficult to get clients who will come and get their services from you.
If you are just starting, my advice would be to only spend marketing money on your ideal avatar and relentlessly track your results. There are many marketing tools available online to track the results of each and every campaign.
You need to remember that some marketing methods might take a while to bring in results while others are almost instant. An example would be a website that takes ages to build traffic, while an ad on Facebook may bring instant feedback. Choose a strategy that resonates with your ideal avatar and most importantly, turn off all non-performing campaigns immediately.
In this tech-savvy era, running a business has become easier and overwhelming at the same time thanks to technology. Every business has basic needs such as: accounting, customer management, marketing, payroll, invoicing, etc… and you need to develop a strategy that allows these systems to work together.
Finding one technology solution that solves all of these needs is usually not easy. This may require a fair amount of research. Don’t settle. Make sure you understand the entire customer journey and how it interacts with your technology. This may mean you invest in a system that might be more than you need today. There is nothing more painful than having to upgrade your system(s) during the growth phase of your business.
Build a Customer List
Many business owners struggle to figure out what the most valuable asset of a service business is. It’s not the furniture and fixtures, or machinery, or the used vehicles. It’s simply the customer database. Ensuring you have a system to maintain and grow this customer list will determine your ultimate success and enterprise value.
Design all of your processes to deliberately leverage your technology in order to capture all of your customer contact information. Ensure you keep updating this list as often as possible. One obvious advantage is you can use this list for marketing. You can also promote other goods and services to the same list.
Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into running a successful service business. Have a reason to exist (mission and/or purpose) along with quarterly and annual goals that are measurable. Make sure all your employees know them and can recite them. Surrounding yourself with great people that thrive in an environment centered around your core values will make this journey a lot easier.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people along the way that made my journey to success possible. My high school teacher, Leroy Brown. He taught me the HVAC trade and was also responsible for my initial segue into trade education. He believed in me when others didn’t. He had me teaching my first college class at the age of 19.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like to get the message out to the high school guidance counselors and high school students that college is not for everyone! We have lost an entire generation of younger people entering the trades. For some reason, the trades have been looked down upon. Today, there is a huge deficit of skilled workers. These jobs are essential. Careers in the trades provide phenomenal opportunities for a great living, gratification, travel and a healthy sense of self-worth.
How can our readers follow you on social media?