By Cliff Ennico
"I have been running my own service business for many years. So many years, in fact, that my name is widely known in my field. Over the years I have mentored many young people who have gone into this business, and the fact that I have trained them has been a major factor in their success.
Someone recently suggested that I should 'brand' myself by offering a certification program where I would train people in this business and get paid for it. Once they successfully complete the program, I would allow them to hold themselves out as a 'certified' professional trained by me.
I have to believe there are some legal questions to deal with when setting up such a program, but can't find anything online. Can I set up a certification program, and if so, what is the right way to go about it?"
A certification program can be a great way to promote brand awareness, but there's a bit of a "Catch 22
" with these programs: for the certification to be recognized, the brand name must already be well established. If the person updating your personal computer or laptop is "certified by Microsoft Corp.", that means something because you know Microsoft and trust that someone certified as competent by Microsoft will do a better job installing or servicing Microsoft software than someone else who is not certified.
If, however, I say I am "certified by someone" and few people know who the "someone" is, the certification probably won't make it more likely customers will hire me (although some people may hire me anyway because they are embarrassed to admit they don't recognize the "someone" and the mere fact that anyone has bothered to certify me sets me apart from the competition).
Having said that, there are several steps to creating a successful certification program.
First, you need a registered trademark. Certification programs are all about "branding", and branding is difficult without a registered trademark. Expect to pay an attorney between $2,000 and $3,000 to do this the right way. Whenever a person completes your program and becomes "certified" to do whatever, they will have the right (called a "license") to use this trademark on their website, business card and other marketing materials.
Then, you need to create the program itself, which usually consists of one or a series of training courses. What specific skills will be certified? Will there be just one training program, or several "levels" (for example, gold, silver, and bronze) an individual can sign up for? How long will each program take to complete? Will there be homework assignments or tests at the end of each "module" of the program so that both you and the student can measure performance?
Next, you need to consider how the training program will be delivered. Will the training program be conducted online or "live"? Will the training program take place at a luxury resort somewhere fabulous? Most importantly, can be training program be replicated? A training program that needs to be customized to individual people is not a good candidate for certification.
How will people maintain their certification once they achieve it? Will you require them to participate in "follow up" or "continuing education" programs to keep their skills fresh and up to date? If so, how often? Under what circumstances will a person lose his or her certification? How will you ensure that certified professionals are also good people who won't harm your program's reputation? If for example, you are certifying people to deal with young children, you want to be 100% sure no registered sex offender ever gets certified no matter how well they perform in the training program.
Once your certification program is established, you want to be sure it is not considered a "franchise" or "business opportunity". Franchise and business opportunity programs are highly regulated at both the federal and state level and require tons of paperwork. To avoid being considered a franchise or business opportunity:
- To the extent possible, be sure a candidate for certification is already engaged in the business before they apply for certification
- Be sure participants in your program pay flat fees for each training course or renewal of their certification - do not take a percentage of their revenue as that looks too much like a franchise "royalty"
- Do not offer an exclusive territory to people who complete your program
- Do not require certified people to buy supplies or equipment only from you
- While it's okay to establish rules of conduct and "best practices" by which people can maintain their certification, do not make them so specific that you end up directing and controlling how certified people perform their services or run their businesses
- Do not tell your candidates how to market their certified skills
- Do not make any promises about how much (or how much more) a candidate will make once they have been certified.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist,
author, and host of the PBS television series 'Money Hunt'. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2017 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.