When Charles Ackles, general manager of Clearwater Home Improvement, meets with a prospective customer to discuss a roofing project, he knows the odds are good he's going to get the job. That's not because he has an inflated sense of his own selling abilities. The Mystic, Conn., company is a GAF master elite installer, certified by the roofing manufacturer and authorized to offer an exceptionally strong guarantee on both product and work — a full guarantee for 20 years against leaks and labor.

“My ability to sell the program to the customer is much easier,” Ackles says. “Half the work is done before I get there. I'm closing 90% of the calls I go on, and I go on 15 to 20 a week. I think certification is big.”

Certification can indeed be big for a contractor. Installers who actively participate in industry- and manufacturer-sponsored programs report that time and money invested more than pay off in increased sales and reduced callbacks.

Program Pay Off At its most basic level, certification is a system, sponsored either by an industry association or manufacturer, to train and then test installers on their knowledge of proper installation techniques.

Some programs — typically those offered by manufacturers —are much more involved and include reference checks, a minimum number of years in business, a healthy credit history, ongoing training, and the requirement that the installer recommends the manufacturer's product at least a certain percentage of the time.

To achieve master elite status with GAF Materials Corp., for example, the roofer must recommend the company's products 70% of the time when the customer doesn't indicate a specific manufacturer, according to David Harrison, senior vice president of marketing contractor services and corporate development. The master elite status, GAF's highest level of certification, gives the contractor daily access to sales leads from the manufacturer's Web site, discounts on a wide array of products, and a stellar manufacturer's warranty available strictly to the certified. Only 6% of contractors in a given market qualify for the program.

“Certification programs are a great deal,” says Mike Satran, president of Interstate Roofing, a GAF master elite roofer in Portland, Ore. “I really think it pays off. Everything you have to do is worth it.”

Sales and Marketing Advantage Because Interstate Roofing does roofing, siding, windows, and gutters, the company is certified with several manufacturers and organizations and includes its certifications in all advertising. As one of only three contractors in the state certified by the Cedar Shingle and Shake Bureau (a process that included providing information on the financial stability of his firm and several references), Satran regularly receives referrals from the bureau's Web site.

Many manufacturer certification programs cost little or nothing. Satran says he spends a total of about $2,000 a year on them, and it's worth every cent. “It gives you an ‘in,'” he says.

Manufacturers have reaped benefits as well. Before the program started, Harrison says, no one in the roofing business was making much money, contractors were going out of business with disturbing regularity, and lots of people were getting sued over installation issues.

GAF Materials Corp. rolled out its stringent certification program in 1997. In 1996, the company had $600 million in sales. “This year, we'll do $1.8 billion, and we're No. 1 in the market,” Harrison says, attributing 100% of that growth to certification.

CertainTeed was in the same situation before it created Master Shingle Applicator, which it refers to as a “credentialing” — rather than a certification —program.

“This was done out of sheer necessity,” says CertainTeed communications manager Mike Loughery. “We thought, ‘If we provide the contractor with tools to grow his business, that will translate into increased product usage.' It's worked. It gives us something to beat the low-ball guy.”

Additionally, the Master Craftsman Testing Series is for contractors who do windows, fencing, decking, railing, siding, and insulation. Remodelers who take more than one course are given the title of Building Solutions Specialist.

At CertainTeed, Master Shingle Applicator is the starting point for achieving higher levels of credential that give contractors better pricing, more co-op advertising dollars, and an extended warranty only they can offer. A company can achieve the Select Shingle Applicator level after 25% of its installation crew, including a supervisor, take the Master Shingle Applicator course. The company must also have current workers' comp and liability insurance.

Because of his success with GAF's program, Ackles says he's considering getting certification for his siding business, too.

“Usually when a manufacturer gets behind you, the customer feels a lot more secure,” he says. Clients see certification as an indication of quality, stability, and reliability. It's a third-party endorsement of their decision to hire the company.