Vicki LaPlant, president of Vital Learning Experiences
Originally published: 05.01.18 by HVACR Business Staff
We sat down with Vicki LaPlant, president of Vital Learning Experiences and longtime industry consultant. LaPlant discussed education, opportunities for women and the most rewarding thing about helping contractors.
1. Could you tell us about your background in education?
I was a high school English teacher when I graduated from college. The nice thing was, I had a minor in Math, because they told me I’d never teach English, but I did. After four years of teaching high school kids, I said, &lduo;Okay. I’ve paid back my debt to society. I need to do something else, and make a living.”
2. Is that when you joined the HVACR industry?
Yes, I was looking for work and Lennox hired me as a curriculum writer/developer. They knew I could develop curriculum and said they’d teach me the technical side of the business. I started off in their training department and was with Lennox for 16 years.
3. What did you enjoy most about that role?
The wonderful thing about the experience Lennox gave me is, because they sell direct to the contractor, that’s how I spent the majority of those 16 years. I loved that opportunity to learn, and work directly with contractors. I learned from some of the best contractors in this industry.
4. That’s a hiring model contractors could follow, don’t you think?
Yes, I think contractors are realizing, if they start hiring people with good attitudes, good communication skills, they can teach them the technical side of how to be a maintenance technician. If they’re good with their hands and want to learn more technical stuff, then you can invest in them from a standpoint of getting them additional technical training.
5. What was attractive about the opportunity at Lennox?
It was an opportunity to take the skill set I had, which was the ability to teach and relate to students. I knew I wanted to work with adults. With adults, when you’re explaining a concept, something particularly like the financial side or the marketing side, you see a light bulb go on.
6. Did you move directly from Lennox to your own consulting business?
In 1995, Lennox was going to go public and that’s when I decided it was okay to leave, because I’d gotten so far away from working with the contractor and helping them be successful. I was ready.
7. How did you get started?
My husband John and I had already made so many contacts throughout the industry. At first we primarily worked through manufacturers and distributors, setting up training classes and creating curriculum. The manufacturers would put us in touch with their distributors and we’d set up local classes.
8. What is your management philosophy?
The most important thing any manager, regardless of whether you own the company or you’re a manager within the company, is to focus on your employees. The focus has to be on making them feel good as people, letting them know how they contribute to the overall good of the company.
9. What’s the biggest misconception about the current workforce?
Millennials are lazy (laughs). That’s the biggest misconception, because I don’t think Millennials are lazy, they just have a different set of values than the typical Baby Boomer.
10. Could you explain?
Boomers always define everything as, work first. As a result, they’ve grown wonderful businesses, but then they turn around and go, “Hey! My kids are all grown and I didn’t get to go to the birthday parties, the Little League games, and all of that. I’m glad I’m successful, but I sure did miss out a lot.” Millennials have seen that, and want more balance in their lives.
11. So Millennials want more flexibility?
It’s recognition that, as boomers we need to have a little bit more insight into what’s important to them and what they value. Millennials aren’t lazy. They’re willing to work, but you’ve got to work with them. Work is not the be-all, end-all for them.
12. What opportunities do you see for women in this industry?
It’s huge. You can’t negate the science. Women are better at listening and women can relate better to the homeowner. I tell contractors all the time to hire more women as technicians and as sales people, and they always ask where to find them.
13. So, where do you find great women to hire?
Go to any retail outlet. Go to your local restaurant. Watch a waitress, who gives you really good customer service. Talk to her and say, “You do a great job. How much are you making?” And, they’ll tell you, $3 an hour, plus tips. Ask if they’re interested in a job that makes $10 or $13 an hour, guaranteed. It involves their customer service skills and you’ll get them the technical training.
14. How have women’s roles changed?
Not only are there more women technicians and sales people, but also there are so many more businesses that are owned by women today and they’re successful! There are tremendous opportunities for women, not only from a standpoint of “working in,” but owning contracting businesses as well.
15. What areas of training do contractors seem to need the most help?
There’s still a lack of understanding of their numbers. If they understood the financial side of their business, they could make better pricing decisions. It could make them more successful in knowing how to compete.
16. What’s the biggest opportunity for contractors today?
Technology. There are so many exciting things contractors can do with a maintenance agreement customer. You get them wired in to you, you get it so that their thermostat tells you when there’s a problem. Their outdoor unit says, “Hey! I’m low on refrigerant.” That comes to you and you call the customer. They’re not inconvenienced.
17. What should contractors know about hiring a consultant?
Make sure you get a list of references. And, make sure they’re going to follow up. The one thing that John and I hear all the time is, “We hired these people, we paid them a lot of money, and you know, they gave us certain things to do, but then they didn’t follow up. They gave us a three-page written report, but it really doesn’t tell us how to do some of the things that we needed to do.”
18. So, it should be more of a partnership?
I’m not saying a consultant should ever hold somebody’s hand, but they should be your conscience. They should check in with you at least once a month and follow through. If they’re going to say, “Let’s create a process for the service department,” they should have examples of how other companies have set up processes for their service department.
19. What is most rewarding about your job?
It’s still working with contractors. When we see contractors and they say “ I love running my business again. I’d gotten burned out. I’m so excited about being in business again. I’m making money. I really have fallen in love with my business again.” That’s what it’s all about.
20. What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
It’s probably from my Dad. He was just an amazing man and it was more than what he ever said to me, it was the way he lived. He always looked for the best in people and, as a result, they gave him the best. Look for that good and see if you can’t build on that.