Check out trade organizations before you join. You’ll enjoy the benefits.

I can’t think of a trade where there isn’t an association or service group for members to join. These groups provide multiple benefits for their members, including training, business tips and input on code changes. However, you probably don’t have the time, resources or desire to join more than one. So, which ones should you join?

You’re probably wondering what to expect from an association in exchange for your fees and participation. I can only share my experiences. I’ve been president of my local PHCC group and actively involved with the PHCC-NA and other groups.

It used to be there was only the PHCC, but then Contractors 2000 and Quality Service Contractors came along. And then we saw the development of consolidator-affiliated organizations such as Contractors Success Groups (Service Experts). Excellence Alliance, the Air Conditioning Contractors Association (ACA), the Independent Electrical Con-tractors (IEC) and National Electrical Contractors Association (NICA) also appeared. There are others, both local and national, that offer benefits to members of their particular trade — some you may never have even heard about.

With the increasing number of trade groups, they must be providing some benefits to their members. Before you join one, I want to acquaint you with some of the trade-offs that go along with membership. And it may be helpful to give you some criteria for evaluating which groups to join.

General Or Special? If you only do service and repair work, you will want to join a group whose members can contribute to your business. If you only do plumbing, you will want to select a group that local plumbers join. If you offer a range of services, you’ll want to join the PHCC. Initially, you’ll find belonging to one primary group will best benefit you. Later on, you may determine you can benefit from an additional group.

If I had to choose a first group to join I would go with a local group that can be beneficial. (Some local organizations will only let you belong if you are a national member.) There are many local issues, such as building codes for example, that you may find more relevant to your business. Additionally, once you know and trust some of the contractors in your area, you (and the other members) will be less likely to speak negatively about other local companies or hire away their technicians. The people in those companies are usually good, hard-working people — just like you. You’ll have someone to share your local problems with.

Don’t Just Belong: You won’t get any benefits out of a group if you just belong and don’t participate. I’m talking about a commitment. You have to be willing to do more than look at what is sent to you in the mail. It means you have to attend meetings and serve on committees, go to social events and network with other business operators. Actually, this part of the decision — what level to participate — is as important as the decision to join a group. It’s the combination of your investment in time and energy that determines the return you get from the group. It’s tempting to really jump in and volunteer for more than one committee. You may find yourself raising your hand at a meeting, and the next thing you know you are responsible for organizing sessions or recruiting new members. That’s fine if you’re willing to allocate the time. I recommend starting slowly, then taking on additional tasks until you have budgeted adequate time to do the best possible job. Be careful, though if you don’t want to spend time on the telephone, you may want to avoid the membership committee. Determine what you can do, like to do and have the time and interest in doing before you commit yourself. You need to balance the time you have and what you want to get out of the group.

Your time is certainly valuable, but you need to consider other aspects of joining a trade group, like the financial obligation. Although membership fees are usually reasonable they cover a wide range — anywhere between $1,000 to $25,000. Be certain to inquire about all the fees and costs you may incur. What seems hidden sometimes is the cost to attend meeting, training or networking sessions.

For example, if you travel four or more times in a year to national meetings you can add $10,000 more in travel and meeting/convention expenses. Can you spare both the time and the money to actively participate in your chosen organization? Either commit the time and resources or don’t belong; otherwise you’ll be wasting your money.

Tell Me More: Before joining any group you owe it to yourself to find out as much as possible about the group. It’s no different than your customers wanting to know about you. If you ask for a referral from a member in the group, you’ll likely be given the name of someone who is very happy with the group, and won’t mention anything negative. To get a better perspective, ask for the name of a former member who recently resigned. Contact them and see if they are willing to share any information about the group that could make it undesirable for you.

Here’s a list of questions you may want to ask:

  • How long has the director been there?
  • Are there any recent changes?
  • Are there any political movements in the group that you should be aware of?
  • Have other members recently resigned?
  • What are the group’s weaknesses?
  • What does the group need?

I would ask if board members have recently changed, and whether the organization is addressing important issues that may affect you or your business.

Some groups have members with big egos. These people think their businesses rule, and that they’re never wrong. Being a member in such an organization provides no value for your business, and it’s not always pleasant to be involved with the group. Some groups have the stereotypical “good ol’ boy” network where the same people have always run things — their way. You’re either among the “in” group or you’re left out, like a clique in high school.

More Add-ons: Though they go by different names, some groups only sell training, products and management services. They aren’t trade or networking groups. And some of these organizations are only interested in your money. Not all such groups are commercial marketing organizations, but be sure to determine what the real purpose is of any group you are considering joining. If you want and need training materials that’s OK, but do you really need to join a group to get what you need? Many courses and products are available in the market to help you run your business and train your technicians.

One purpose of joining a trade group is to learn new techniques and share ideas. If you find yourself paying for anything and everything you do — watch out. You should enjoy some concrete benefits from your membership. Add up all the charges and fees you pay; what is and is not included; and then compare organizations before you join.

It’s difficult for someone to tell you specifically which group to join because businesses and owners have different needs. If you’re new in business, you’ll be looking for different benefits than a seasoned business owner. If you are expanding rapidly, you’ll have different needs than if your market is contracting. The best way for you to make a decision is to use the guidelines I’ve shared, and check out some of the groups. Regardless of the particular group, I encourage you to join one after you check it out — then actively participate. You’ll enjoy the benefits.