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Straight Talk with Paul Stalknecht: The Today Sting, The Industry’s Responsibility, and Actually Raising the Bar

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On July 11, IE3 staff sat down with Paul Stalknecht, ACCA President & CEO, to talk about the July 10 “sting” that appeared on NBC’s Today show. The frank and forthright interview covered a variety of topics, including ACCA’s responsibilities as an association and contractors’ responsibilities to their industry.

IE3: How involved was ACCA in the Today show sting about HVAC contractors that aired on July 10?

Stalknecht: The Today Show contacted ACCA directly, told us what they intended to do, and asked for our help in locating appropriate experts to help them with the investigation. We immediately put the producers in touch with our board chairman, Laura DiFilippo, who they interviewed; and then, based on the location they planned to use for their operation, we put them in touch with Bobby Ring, an ACCA national board member who worked in that area. Eventually Bobby agreed to work with the producers in order to try and bring some balance to a report that was undoubtedly going to focus on the negative. We all agreed to keep the investigation confidential while it was going on.

When they contacted us, there was never any question that we would provide as much support as possible. They were going to record the segment whether we were involved or not. Imagine what they would have said on air if we rejected their request: “We contacted the industry’s trade association but they refused to comment.” Not just ACCA, but the entire industry, would look even worse. The audience perception would have been – “guilty as charged.”

IE3: A couple of contractors have had a negative reaction to the fact that ACCA participated in a sting that they think made contractors look bad.

Stalknecht: Most of the feedback we’ve received from contractors has actually been very positive. But I understand why some might feel frustrated with the story.  In truth, this is a great trade, and it’s aggravating that there are some contractors out there making everybody look bad.

But when it comes to dealing with news media, especially national producers for shows like Today or Dateline, you’re always in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We know the story they produce is going to be sensational. We know they won’t put anything on the air unless it proves the point they want to make — which is that buyers should always beware. But the lesser of all evils is to participate and do your best to bring balance to the story.

The fact that NBC reached out to ACCA was, in my opinion, significant; it shows the value of our reputation as a qualified information source for the media. As a non-profit association with a public service mission, we take seriously our responsibility to represent the entire industry before the general public, which includes the news media.

IE3: Tell me more about your “responsibility to represent the entire industry.” What do you mean by that?

Stalknecht: Remember, as far as the news media are concerned, ACCA doesn’t speak for its members, it speaks for the entire professional contracting industry. And they’re right! When we talk to reporters, Congressmen, regulators, manufacturers, or anyone else, ACCA’s focus is on serving the best interests of all professional contractors, not just our members. That’s who we are.

There are a lot of contracting groups out there — many private groups that exist to enrich their owners or limit their members by region — and that’s okay, but it’s not ACCA. ACCA is a truly nationwide, non-profit association, with a board comprised solely of contracting business owners. It’s this board that leads the organization and sets our strategic direction, but everything we do is geared toward serving the entire industry.

Sometimes I envy those private contracting groups who don’t have any similar responsibilities — they don’t have to spend their resources lobbying in Washington, they don’t have to respond to requests from regulators, they don’t have to get everybody in a room and reach consensus, nobody from the Today show ever calls them — they must have it easy!

But then I remember what an extraordinary privilege it is to serve an industry like this one. I didn’t sign up to make things easy for myself, I signed up to make things better for the small business men and women who work hard every day to achieve their dreams and serve their customers.

IE3: Back to the Today show — where did they get the contractors that were called to the home? Were they ACCA members?

Stalknecht: I have no idea. The producers called the contractors, nobody from the industry had any involvement in it. I understand that Bobby, who was there, did not know who was coming until right before they showed up.

Now, based on what we saw, I’m willing to bet that the producers did their best to make sure that the contractors who showed up were the most likely ones to do what the producers wanted them to. I suspect they may have surfed the internet looking at Craig’s List‘s and other such consumer sites looking at unsatisfactory reports that identified contractors. Because, let’s face it, the producers’ goal here was to produce an interesting story, and the news media is not interested in stories where everybody does things right.

It’s possible some of the contractors they called were ACCA members. The episode didn’t list all of the company names, so maybe they are or maybe they aren’t. Our message will always be the same regardless.

Look, we never claimed all of our members were perfect; as an inclusive organization, any licensed contractor can join ACCA, in areas where licensing is required.  Many states, however, don’t have licensing laws so in those situations, any contractor can join ACCA. Hopefully they will then take advantage of all of our resources to become as professional as possible.

But, while there’s a valid reason for a potential customer to wonder why a company wouldn’t join its industry’s association, we recommend a number of steps that homeowners should take when determining which contractor to hire, not just hire someone because they belong to ACCA.

That’s why we sent a press release out to the consumer media immediately following the Today show, offering tips for homeowners on choosing the right contractor. We felt it was important to get that message out, which in my opinion is much more helpful to the consumer than a TV segment that says, basically, “Beware of contractors but here’s a link to a website directory of contractors.”  So far nearly 200 local news websites have picked up the release, including our tips and linking back to ACCA’s website.

We even put a link to this press release and its tips right on our Contractor Locator search page, because hundreds of news websites are now linking directly there as a result of the Today segment.  Since the Today Show story ran, our contractor locator has received thousands of consumer searches.  The traffic was so heavy at one point yesterday that it actually crashed our website.  Fortunately, we were quickly able to fix it and went back on-line after a short delay.

IE3: What do you think that contractors should take away from the Today Show segment? 

Stalknecht: Our chairman, Laura DiFilippo, said it best: “It’s easier just to assume that there are hidden cameras whenever you go into a home. The best thing is, as long as you just do the right thing by your customers and your employees, you should never have to worry about what the cameras might see.”

But I also think contractors need to be realistic about our challenges as an industry. Unscrupulous, unprofessional and incompetent contracting exists, and we can’t ignore the obvious. We have to come together around aggressive measures to raise the bar for this industry — I don’t mean talk about raising the bar, like some people do, but actually raise the bar.

It’s what ACCA is trying to do with the Quality Installation standards, now starting to be required by laws and rebate programs, or the new Quality Assurance accreditation programs we are launching, or developing the hundreds of other valuable business tools that are available on the ACCA website.

We’re forming a new national Contractor Licensing Task Force that’s going to take a hard look at the real issue of licensing and whether or not it can be made to work around the country — and for the first time, the manufacturers and distributors are agreeing with us that this is a problem for the whole industry! We keep developing new standards that are needed — like residential zoning. Nobody ever knew the truly correct way to design a zoning system until we created the zoning standard, Manual Zr, last year.

But remember, when I say “we” I don’t mean people at ACCA headquarters. I mean our members, and the stakeholders we get involved in all of our committees and ongoing work. ACCA’s work may benefit the entire industry, but we do it through the action, input and hard work of our members, who get involved in committees, respond to requests for information, attend conferences, participate in surveys … when I say “we” I truly mean “we.”

And to be honest, a lot of contractors who aren’t members, or who don’t get involved, are getting a free ride from the hard work our members do.

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once told an audience of ACCA members, “Get involved or quit bitching.” He was talking about politics, but the same thing is true about the professional contracting industry in general. There are some folks who are going to complain on listserves and forums all day long, and some of them are going to complain about ACCA. But maybe you should ask them: What did you do today to improve the entire industry? What organizations are you supporting that every day are championing your business interests in the halls of Congress and throughout the industry?  

Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, but as long as I’m at ACCA, we’ll never stop taking risks. We’ll never shy away from controversial issues. And we’ll never give up, because we believe in the contracting industry. We have to; its success is the only reason we exist.

Kevin Holland
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Posted In: Opinion

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