Dinner at the annual Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association boat cruise. Events like this allow trade contractors and builders to "connect" and develop relationships, which ultimately lead to business opportunities.
On Thursday, I had conversations with two sub contractors, one in Ottawa and the other in suburban Washington D.C. Their stories are like night and day.
(I can't name the contractors here because the successful contractor doesn't wish publicity, and I have a policy not to identify anyone in this blog in a less-than-positive manner.)
The Washington-area contractor is struggling. His daughter-in-law phoned me to ask my advice; she had seen my blog postings about canvassing, but they were having little success.
The contractor, in business many years, claims on his website to be excellent at rapid framing and described success with the hotel and hospitality sector. Now the commercial business bidding opportunities the contractor is receiving bids so low that he cannot hope to make a profit.
"Many residential contractors are getting into the commercial space," he told me. So he decided, since his business can do "anything", that he would embark in the residential market where hopefully the margins could be higher.
I scratched my head. How can someone who has specialized in commercial framing in a bid-for-work environment succeed in the residential space, when (as he said) his residential-side competitors are moving into the commercial markets?
Could he have any chance at success with cold call canvassing for framing services, with a web site touting his company's great work on hotel projects?
"Do you know of any good leads services," he asked, saying he was considering one of the major brand names in the leads services business. I told him the leads would be a waste. 'If the competition is killing you now among commercial clients you know, how will a leads service which sells the same information to dozens of competitors help you?"
A couple of hours later, on the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association annual (Ottawa River) boat cruise, I met a sub contractor who specializes in crown mouldings. That is his business, and his only business. And business is good.
"I make a fortune off of the Yellow Pages," he said. This immediately caused my ears to perk up.
What is a contractor whose business is mostly with tract builders doing in the Yellow Pages?
It turns out that the residential clients responding to his Yellow Pages ads are impressed by his service, and his highly competitive prices. "I don't need to bait and switch. My materials are much less expensive because of the volume purchasing for all the home builders I work for. And I tell my Yellow Pages clients that they will have to wait a week or two for service -- then use "fill in time" to accommodate them."
As well, for him, the Yellow Pages aren't a complete waste from an Internet marketing point of view. He has a simple website and a logical URL, so it doesn't take long for people searching for crown mouldings in Ottawa to find him.
Now, lets look more closely at these two businesses. Both are contractors straddling the consumer and commercial markets; both have websites, and both are in cities where the construction market, while greatly diminished by the recession, has not been totally destroyed.
(Certainly, GOHBA boat cruise attendance dropped by 50 per cent from last year, but the builders say they know things are much better here than Toronto or Montreal. Ditto for Washington, compared to the Carolinas and other U.S. markets. Capital cities almost always fare better in recessions than most communities).
But why is one contractor succeeding and the other failing?
Crown mouldings is a clear niche. Whether you are a home owner, a tract builder, or even a commercial business, if you want crown mouldings, you are not going to go to a generalist who can do "everything". Of course the Washington area contractor had a niche as well, "rapid framing" which is perfect for the high-velocity and tight schedule of hotel construction (I'm writing an article on that sector this month for our Canadian publications). But it doesn't convert very well for the residential market. Are you realistically going to call a renovation contractor whose claim to fame is "rapid framing?"
The crown mouldings contractor takes his materials volume discounts from home builders and combines it with blocks of "off time" to convert Yellow Pages listing calls to solid revenue. The pieces fit together. Can a "fast framer" used to bid-for-work speed adjust to the pace and cycle of residential renovation without a major business rethink. I think not.
I believe Yellow Pages advertising is a waste for most contractors, but would never question the crown mouldings contractor's decision to continue using them. They work. And the Yellow Pages advertising requires virtually no management effort, other than writing cheques for the services.
Canvassing can be cheap and fast, at least in terms of hard cost, but how would you respond, as a homeowner, if a canvasser from someone whose website proudly proclaims "fast framing" and hotel work knocked on your door to sell you on "we can do anything around your house?"
Assuming they reached my door, I'd sit outside and try to give them a free lesson in marketing, but they certainly wouldn't get my business.
Can we learn anything from these two stories? The crown mouldings contractor doesn't need any marketing advice from me. He's doing everything right. Even as he earns profitable revenue from the Yellow Pages ads, he is doing the right thing to maintain his business within the tract home builders' market. Remember, I met him on the home builders' association boat cruise as he conversed with current and potential clients.
I spent about an hour on the phone with the Washington-area contractor. His business volume and scope are large enough that he could theoretically qualify for my publishing marketing services, which have a minimum $1,500 fee. But I couldn't in good conscious push him to take up my offer (which includes guidance, consulting, and support far beyond the service itself). The reason: He simply had so far to go to get to the basics of getting it right that my services would be a waste of money for his business.
I told hm he needs to change his website and URL, and he needs to focus on his current clients and learn what they need, and what they read/view and study, and that he needs to learn a lot about focus and niche marketing. (I suggested to his daughter-in-law that she go to the library and look up the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and and Jack Trout.) If he wants to do residential and homeowner work, he will need to ditch the hotel website, or at least set up another business presence focusing on the residential market.