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Monday, November 17, 2008

The referrals are drying up -- What to do?

Publications such as Ottawa Renovates! can be effective in building your business and brand, but we note that most of our advertisers in the publication's first issue are experienced marketers, who have consistently used advertising as part of their marketing strategies, in good times as well as difficult. If you've never paid for advertising before because you have relied 100 per cent on referrals and repeat business, you need to proceed cautiously when purchasing advertising in any media. (In this case, as we are producing this magazine at the request of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association Renovators' Council, the risks of trying something new are of course greatly reduced.)

You've relied on word-of-mouth and referrals, and repeat business, and your reputation for quality and service and meant you never really had to advertise or market your business to keep busy. Now, with the economic slump, things are different. Your backlog has eroded, you are starting to think about advertising, or maybe leads services, or something, anything to find new business. What should you do?

My first piece of advice is to think carefully (but quickly) before spending any money on promotion or marketing. You'll probably throw much good money after bad if you don't. The problem right now is that while advertising and other marketing services will still work to bring in new business, they will be much less effective than in good times, and the quality of leads you receive will be significantly poorer than the type of leads to which you are accustomed.

Businesses which had a systematic advertising and marketing campaign in good times are in better shape to handle the current circumstances since they have metrics and experience on which to base their budgeting. Knowing they will achieve fewer results at a higher cost per lead, they can plan their campaigns accordingly to keep their pipelines full. But if you have relied exclusively on referral and repeat business, and never 'marketed' because you didn't need to, you won't have this track record, so you could end up in a deeper hole, quickly, if you are not careful.

What should you do, then?
  • Your first and most important priority is to engage with your previous clients both for referrals and for new maintenance business. You can phone, visit, or email them (or all of the above). If you have their email addresses you can send them an electronic newsletter on a regular schedule. Seasonal greeting cards are helpful. Meet them at community and association functions.
  • Are their community and trade groups where you can connect with potential clients, build relationships, and discover opportunities? You can get in front of current and potential clients this way.
  • Canvassing and cold calling are hard rock, painful, and perhaps demoralizing approaches to find business, but if you have nothing better to do and you are starving, you can bring in results quickly. But I understand if you don't want to go that route. I wouldn't, myself.
  • Take advantage of free listings with Google Local, possibly Craigslist, and maybe inexpensive media like community newspaper listings.
  • Finally, and this is perhaps my best advice, check with your peers in other communities who are experiencing some success. If they advertise, learn what they do that works, and copy it.
Also, remember that if you in good times had a backlog with really satisfied clients referring others to you you have achieved the first and most important success in marketing: You have developed a great brand. If people trust you and respect you enough to refer friends to you, you are on the right track and you can, and will, survive the hard times. Remember that not all work disappears in these conditions; and if you have the highest skills in your trade and profession -- and a passion for your work -- you will be able to survive even the most severe downturn.

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