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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Getting real

This image is from a Vancouver, B.C. restaurant marketing blog posting -- Hard Times On Cambie -- that deals with the crisis local restaurants are facing as their street is dug up for a major urban transit/infrastructure project there. Yes, success in our business can, at times, create hard times for others. Do we care, and show respect for others affected by our business and work?

Hard times are approaching. Whether this will be a brief 'blip' or a multi-year affair (like the one of the early 90s) is hard to predict, but we are going to see some pain in the marketplace. I've previously blogged that if you are really good at what you do, you will come through this period in better shape than when you started. There are no guarantees. In general, if you are of good integrity and use your brains, you'll be okay -- but there are plenty of stories of tragedy striking people who get it right but have some really bad luck (ironically, however, even these victims usually rebound quite well once they get over their grief and temporary distress.)

With that preamble, we can safely say we'll find readers of this blog in two groups: Those of us who have been in business and survived previous recessions, and those of us who haven't. Obviously, the difference is (here) purely -- age. The older we are, the more recessions we've experienced. There is something about older people being wiser. Like any truism, it isn't always right. Many older people are senile.

Putting things in perspective, the Great Depression of the 30s lasted a decade. No one knew when it would end. Many people were starting to call the multi-year recession in the early 90s a depression. A decade seems a long time when you are 20. It is less when you are 60 -- though I'm sure most people who are 60 would rather be 20. Back in 1995, just as the 90s recession neared its end, the late Walt Hailey told me (and about 30 others), we would soon enter a period of unprecedented prosperity, followed by the worst recession/depression in 60 years. The reason: the baby boomers would be entering their retirement years; pulling money out of investments, and hunkering down -- destroying the economy. Of course Hailey could not have foreseen the scale of the technological revolution; and the rise of middle class communities and wealth in India and China. Nor could he have foreseen the new values regarding 'retirement', the skilled labour shortage, and the like. These days, intelligent older boomers don't retire -- unless you want to die young, this is the dumbest thing you could do, (generally).

Nevertheless, in most markets, if you are in the construction business, right now you are in one of two camps. Hard-rock residential construction, renovation, and the like is in crisis -- because of the stupidity and speculative excesses of the past few years. The commercial, institutional and infrastructure side of the business isn't doing so bad. This is (a) because these projects have a longer lead time and so aren't as immediately affected by a consumer confidence crisis and (b) because there is an urgent and serious infrastructure backlog problem. Think of bridges collapsing and the like.

Now you need to make some hard decisions if you wish to survive. If you are doing residential work and are being hammered, (bad pun, I know), you might be tempted to do these things:

  • Start bidding commercial work;
  • Spend a pile on advertising, hoping some customers will come along;
  • Cut to the bone, so that your best employees leave to start their own businesses, and your worst (the ones you fired out of economic desperation) rush to t heir lawyers and slap you with an anti-discrimination lawsuit. (They are old, they are sick, they a re disabled, you can't fire them . . . )
Or you might do these things:

  • Make sure your legal, accounting and financial systems are sturdy -- when it is time to let people go, you know what your rights are, and you've covered yourself from potential litigation.
  • You think and plan diversification thoughtfully -- perhaps commercial work is the way to go; maybe maintenance and small projects; regardless, your approach is measured and careful;
  • You think of marketing in a holistic sense -- giving most of your thought to your existing and former clients, and communicating to new clients (often truly referred from former ones) that you are truly the right business for them. You have a great brand.
Now, outside of general understanding and in some cases the ability to refer you to the right person for guidance, I am not qualified to help you directly in most of the "do" things. And the only consulting service I offer right now where I charge a fee is for our (sales) employee hiring system.

When it comes to advertising, branding and marketing, we'll sell you advertising in our regional construction industry publications. You can purchase these ads in the "spend a pile on advertising and hope it works" manner, or if you prefer, spend the money and work with us on the bigger picture. We'll suggest inexpensive and effective options -- and put your interests first.
Do these approaches work? Well, our decisions taken a year ago in handling certain projects are coming together today. Beyond the profitable spin-off sales from our successful integrated and forward thinking approach then, we aren't really stressing for the repeat business: Brief phone conversations and emails are all we need to put the pieces together. (Yes, I'm bragging -- and this is not the time or place to name the specific clients.)

My point is this: As the hard times dig in, you of course need to respond to current circumstances, but you need to think forward -- you must not delay the necessary steps to bring your business in balance; yet, even as you do what you need to do, you need to strategically plan and implement a careful, well thought and client-centred marketing strategy. (And if you've read my blog, you know I am not encouraging you to focus on logos, advertising and the like -- but on the overall client experience and how you can systematically connect that experience to your sales process.)

You can, and will, succeed if you take care and think ahead.

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