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Saturday, January 31, 2009

The right kind of risk-taking

I won and lost about $250 -- in funny money -- as a high roller at the DC Metro Subcontractors Association Casino Night on January 29. This is the only type of gambling I'll do.

I've never been much into gambling, lotteries and casinos (except to write stories about their building projects or play with funny money at charity and association events.) Why would anyone choose to play a game where the odds are stacked against you -- and you know it in advance! Insurance, I realize, works on some of the same principals of gambling, here you are betting with the hope that you will never have to file a claim, though.

Business risk, done right, of course, is an entirely different kind of challenge. You can go through ups and downs (and many businesses these days are going through downs), but if you own the enterprise, and maintain proper controls, you can control the process with creativity, resourcefulness, marketing, and your own knowledge. You may have to jettison employees and close divisions -- your business might even fail and you may need to file for bankruptcy, but if you handle things properly you can rise again, and succeed.

Friday, January 30, 2009

When should you dream, and when should you bail out?

In the previous posting, I described how I dismissed in five minutes as unmarketable an idea that an inventor had spent at least a decade trying to sell. Yet, is this individual wrong to pursue his dream? How do you know when to hang on, and how do you know when to let go (and even more intriguing, how do you know when to return to something you had lost?)

The best answer I can give to this question is a coined expression: "Validated passion."

You need some strong, dynamic, and (quickly) measurable, "yes" to your idea -- and a real indication from people you trust and respect and complete strangers that you are on the right track.

You certainly won't get this validation by keeping your idea secret. Toiling over your bright idea in privacy, hoping to protect your secret (perhaps until it is secured by a patent), is probably a recipe for a time-wasting and expensive disaster. You need feedback, and you need it from people who you respect and who you trust or who don't have any immediate gain in selling you something (best of all, you should get positive feedback from people who will buy what you have to sell.)

The more money you need to put your idea to market, the less likely you have of it succeeding. If you've never put together a huge, venture-oriented business, you are playing with a long shot. If you can do it yourself, with minimal external resources, you have a good chance.

Then when you think your idea is worthy of moving forward, you must take action, and (here is the important thing), listen to both your heart and your pocketbook.

If money is disappearing faster than you expect, and you simply don't feel the idea is right in practice, you need to drop it. If your heart is in the project, and you want it to succeed, you will need to find ways to reduce the cash burn, and get it to market.

The five minute market analysis

Can your invention be viable in the marketplace? Consider the payback costs and the practicalities of marketing -- many good ideas simply don't work in the real world.

This blog invites calls and emails requesting solutions to construction industry marketing challenges. Today, I returned a call from someone in Ohio wishing advice on how to find sales representation for his invention/product, which he thought contractors across the U.S. could use. (As this story is not positive news for the individual involved, I won't describe the details or name him.)

After hearing him briefly describe his product, I asked a few questions.
  1. How much would it sell for?
  2. How many purchases would the typical contractor make?
  3. What would be the payback time? In other words, how long would it take the purchaser to recuperate the cost of the product with a return on the investment?
Here are his answers:
  1. $300.00
  2. Maybe one, some would purchase up to 10 or 15
  3. Payback would be in nine months to one year.
I sighed. He volunteered that he did not want to distribute through big box retailers and the like, (and the product would not sell well that way). As it serves a specific function to ease installation of another product, possibly the second product's manufacturers could include it in their service package.

"But this won't work for individual sales reps, and it will be a tough thing to market," I said.

"The payback is far too long for it to appeal to the majority of contractors, especially in the current environment, and the unit cost is too low to be practical to assign to commissioned sales representatives -- to make a decent living, you would either have to really raise your price, or they would need to sell much larger quantities than your average client would need."

He then volunteered that state agencies have offered assistance and funding for marketing. "Go for it, if the services are free," I responded.

I imagine someone who spent years on an invention, (he says he patented it about nine years ago), with dreams of making improvements and a fortune through his creation, would be disenchanted in a five-minute conversation to hear a disembodied voice on the phone tell him his idea won't sell. He might even be right to say: "How could you say that, knowing nothing about me or my invention?"

He may be right (we'll let the government-funded experts review the idea at taxpayer's expense.)

However, the facts of business life is that most grand ideas don't work in the marketplace, and most ideas worthy of success have some fundamental parameters, which my three questions brought to the surface.

The real Washington

At the D.C. Metropolitan Subcontractors Association (DCMSA) meeting Casino Night, from left, Kevin Glass, Early, Cassidy and Shilling, Inc. (insurance and surety bonds), Bob Houston, director of estimating at Shapiro & Duncan Mechanical, and William A. Hicks, controller, with John Rhee, Project Manager, from PowerMax Inc. Mechanical Contractor.
At right below: Barbi Carter, member services co-ordinator, with Barbara Sanders, director of education and meetings for the DCMSA.

No time wasted yesterday, as I and North Carolina publisher Bob Kruhm spent the day in Washington D.C.'s North Virginia and Maryland suburbs connecting with local construction associations and interviewing potential publishers for Washington Construction News.

The Washington D.C. area, of course, is much more than government -- of course real people with real jobs, challenges, and aspirations live in this community.

Undoubtedly the recession has hit this area -- staff at the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association (representing home builders in the District of Columbia and its Maryland have been laid off and builders are struggling to survive. Other contractors in the commercial side are challenged as well by intense competition, project delays and financing challenges.

Yet, undoubtedly, the powerful presence of the federal government here allays some of the market challenges. This region is a wonderful place to work; combining diversity, history and opportunity.

Yesterday evening, we visited a casino night event organized by the D.C. Metropolitan Subcontractors Association (DCMSA). Under association rules, we could not attend the business meeting -- where, under a lawyer's guidance, members share information about the business practices of general contractors.

Strict rules are observed to prevent any violation of anti-competition or Combines laws, while allowing the sub contractors the necessary information about payment and business practices of general contractors and developers; giving them the tools to know if there are warning signs about potential slow or non-payment of their invoices.

Not surprisingly, this type of information is vital in a recession, and DCMSA staff say membership has increased significantly in recent months.

At the Casino Night, I won and lost a pile of funny money, but we all ended the game ahead, knowing the importance of relationships, association participation, and industry support.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thoughts before traveling

As I prepare to head to the airport for a couple of days of travel to Washington and Toronto, Las Vegas architect Craig Galati reminds me in his blog posting Stay on the Right Side of some of the defining qualities that allow so-called traditional businesses to survive, even thrive, in the Internet age.

Among his points, Galati notes:

Sell empathy, not just services. Clients get offers for services every day. However, businesses do not often enough take the time to understand what the client needs and if the firm can meet those needs. Developing empathy takes time, but is essential to making the right offer to your clients.
Absolutely. Businesses need systems, technologies, processes, and procedures -- and clients expect value for their money. But you lose something if you fail to understand the underlying human connection and respect for the individual, both within your own business, and in the larger community around you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thinking about number one (and having fun, too)

Whenever you are selling or marketing construction-related products and services, you always need to remember that decisions about what and when to buy are made by people, not machines, and they are thinking of their own best interests.

This is basic stuff, of course, but if you are like many people in business, you forget this rule to your risk and peril. Yet, in asking you to think first of your current and potential clients in your marketing, you may be surprised to find that I recommend, instead, that you focus first on your own needs, interests and values.

Simply put, you can give the most and share most freely with others by doing what you enjoy doing the most.

Because you enjoy your work, you are less motivated or worried by the money (or lack of money) in your efforts; so you can sustain them in all economic conditions, and be patient while the results eventually occur. and the people you are working with and helping appreciate your sincerity -- you aren't forcing the issue to be helpful.

How does this work in practice?

Simply determine the two or three interests/activities that give you the most pleasure, and build most of your marketing time and effort around them.

If you are a trades person and really enjoy certain aspects of your work, find a way to give some services to organizations or individuals who could use your support, who would be in our marketing orbit (a condo association, a community-non profit supported by other potential clients, or so on.)

If you really enjoy golfing, connect with the association representing your major clients, and allocate some time for the game with other golfing enthusiasts (among potential clients, of course.)

If you like writing and journalism, start a blog (hey, that's me!)

When you think things through, virtually all marketing wok involving significant time and effort on your part can be adapted to turn the process into pleasurable experiences for you and the people who you help. This is especially effective if you infuse these values throughout your organization and encourage your employees to think the same way. They start coming up with their own ideas which combine making their own work more enjoyable, and reaching out and connecting with current and potential clients. (And since your employees may have different interests, you reach different potential clients.)

In observing these ideas, consider who you would rather do business with: Someone who genuinely, passionately, enjoys their work, and is of generous spirit, or someone pounding the pavements and making cold calls because they have to do this work to survive?

Advertising, branding, and service

Construction industry consultant Michael Stone with Sonny Lykos in a December 2006 photo

The late Sonny Lykos outlines in this June 2004 Journal of Light Construction posting, the basic issues you should consider in advertising and marketing. His points remain valid today.
Nothing - NOTHING we do or say that involves a customer is ever to be thought of as minor, small, unimportant, or insignificant. NEVER!
If your advertising brings your client to the door, the way you treat your client defines your ultimate business success, Lykos advocated. this is a fundamental point which you should regard consistently and vitally.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Your risks in construction marketing

You can build a successful business quietly, brick by brick, solidly on the foundations of solid relationships and respect within your community and among your clients and peers. You can also build your business by taking risks; by audacious advertising, assertive marketing, and unconventional behaviour that makes you unpopular with your peers -- by attracting clients few of them really want.

Which approach is better? The paradox is that while the latter approach is undoubtedly best for my (advertising focused) business, the former may be the best if you are a consumer, or someone who wishes to enjoy balanced business life.

However, you will need to achieve the rare combination of both elements if you wish to achieve true greatness in business. (Don't worry: Most of us don't want to go that far -- you need to be willing to roll your dice and take yourself far out of most conventional comfort zones to go there.)

Consider the professions, especially law and engineering. Lawyers for many years in most jurisdictions discouraged and often banned advertising. Then the rules cracked, and now you see ads on television, the Internet, and more, selling the virtue of contingency-fee lawyers for a variety of civil claims.

Are the lawyers who advertise the most extensively likely to provide the best quality legal advice? Maybe, but my sense is, if you really need a lawyer, you should forget the ads and focus on the relationships and referrals from people you really respect who have actually used their services in the past.

Now what if you are an architect or engineer, and decide to break convention, and allocate major funds for advertising? You likely would recoil in disdain -- and puzzlement about whether this is a wise thing to do. After all, your practices are likely built on personal relationships, reputation, and integrity, and loud ads seem highly unlikely to take you where you wish to go. (I'm not arguing with you.)

However, I sense if you had the courage and budget to break the rules, your practice could grow to levels beyond your dreams (though you would find your life among your professional peers lonely, as they reject you, and you might find your ideal clients want little to do with you.)

Craigslist and your leads

A couple of weeks ago, as a long shot, I paid $25.00 to Craigslist for this career opportunity listing.

Associate Publisher -- Washington Constuction News (Greater Washington DC area)

Reply to: [?]
Date: 2009-01-26, 12:01AM EST

Co-ordinate advertising features and build relationships within metro DC area architectural, engineering and construction community (including suppliers, subtrades and general contractors) in this rewarding opportunity with fair base salary and realistic potential income to $100,000 annually.

You should be able to work independently, without supervision, as you will be working from your home. Relevant sales experience is less important than your interest and commitment -- we can evaluate your sales aptitude during the selection process.

For more information, see
To my surprise, we received approximately 50 resumes, many at least superficially qualified, within one day. Response quickly dropped off, but I deduced that spending another $25 would result in another flood of resumes. It did.

We still haven't found the right person, but several candidates from the previous posting are still under evaluation, so I placed a third ad (another $25.00) and even though it is 3:30 a.m. on Monday, we've received three responses since I posted the listing at midnight.

(Why midnight? Craigslistings are chronological, during the day, each new listing displaces the one previous for the top spot, but the first listing of the day is always in the highly visible bottom spot for the day (when you are scanning a letter, do you read the signature and P.S. line before delving into details?) If my guess is correct, we will receive another 50 to 60 resumes -- bringing the total number of inquiries to 150; about the right number for us to select the one finalist we are seeking.

Sure, you say, you are looking for work, not offering employment. However, would a $25.00 listing under an appropriate category in your market be appropriate if you are ready to pay someone to bird-dog or solicit leads for you. You might be able to set up a system to pay for results; or find someone worthy part-time on commission. (If you offer a salary, like we do, you may be overwhelmed with response.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The big construction marketing idea picture, simply explained

You try something with construction marketing. It doesn't work. So you think the thing you tried is a waste of time or (worse), you think the whole thing about marketing is a waste, too.

You are right to think your construction marketing efforts will fail, if you think that way.

For example, if you are like most construction businesses which have enjoyed success in relatively good times, you relied on word of mouth and repeat business. Since this seems to be drying up -- people aren't calling you and asking, sometimes pleading with you, to work on their projects, you try advertising. You place your ad and expect the phone to ring. Instead, after spending several hundred dollars, someone calls, only to let you know he is calling five other contractors for the lowest under-the-table price possible (and might do the work himself, anyways.)

You can make three choices in this circumstance. Give up, try something else, or learn what you need to do to get it right.

Giving up isn't such a bad option if you are ready to shrink your business down to the level it needs to do to survive with whatever repeat and referral business you can 'rely' on. (You should always be ready to do the shrinking in the recession, anyways, you really have problems surviving if you put your head in the sand as you deplete all your assets and run up debts.)

The second option, trying something else, may also be right, but if you are just blindly going from one expensive marketing idea to another, you will soon find you are running around in circles, frustrated and failing.

So that takes you to the third option -- learning what you need to do to get it right. You are here, so this is a good sign. You will find other resources, both through your network of friends and colleagues, your industry associations, and often your current clients.

When you read earlier posts here (and the sidebar poll on this blog), you will see that your repeat and referral business is -- and should be -- vitally important to you. Your success in retaining clients and attracting referrals is a sign you have a healthy brand and solid business practices -- real assets. Repeat and referral business, for most of you, should continue to be your primary source of new clients. (The exceptions of course are brand new businesses and very large organizations meeting occasional needs -- you will simply not have enough business in the pipeline, in this case, unless you are aggressive about your outbound new client marketing.)

The difference is my advice about the importance of repeat and referral business is that you not rely on these important assets, but develop them. Your previous clients, after all, can provide you with strong clues about where you should look to advertise and promote your business in the future.

This leads to the best triple play approach you can find to develop and restore your business.

By talking with your former clients, by listening to them, you may find they have immediate needs you can solve (fresh business) or you may uncover new directions to take your business (different direction, same client base), or you may learn which publications they read, which associations they support, and which Internet searches they conduct -- all leading you to media and marketing resources likely to appeal to future clients in the same demographic space.

In other words, to find new business, call, meet, and listen to your current and previous clients.

One approach is to offer them a free check-up or maintenance service; your hour or two with them fixing things they need tended (without billing them) will give you plenty of ideas and insights about where and how to allocate your marketing resources -- and probably bring in some solid paid business, too. In other words, with one step, you'll conduct important market research, build good-will and referrals, and probably sell some of your services to people who really respect and trust you.

Your decision to reconnect with current and previous clients, indeed, is the simple solution to your big construction marketing challenges.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Affinity marketing -- Can you find the association?

Members of the Society for Marketing Professional Services in Washington, D.C. gather in December for their annual Christmas networking event Most architectural, engineering and construction businesses in the commercial, industrial and institutional markets would benefit from SMPS membership where you can learn industry-relevant marketing approaches even as you develop relationships that create lasting and powerful business opportunities.

Real estate broker Martin Bertrand explains in a guest posting in Bruce Firestone's EQ Journal Blog how he leveraged his experience with a credit card company to develop a powerful affinity marketing relationship with his university's alumni association.

I knew I had developed the ability to establish and nurture meaningful business relationships and the skills to negotiate contracts and manage them too.

So I got in touch with my University of Ottawa Alumni Association contact (the same person I knew while I was at MBNA) to discuss how we could structure an affinity program and provide services to uOttawa Alumni. The idea was simple but had never been done before in Real Estate (at least as far as I can tell.)

After much discussion, we had an Agreement—it is a great value proposition both for students and for members of the alumni. The Plan for the Alumni was to provide a rebate on each Real Estate commission AND provide cash back when buying a property. Both are terrific incentives.

The Alumni Association would benefit as well. We developed a scholarship fund whereby we would make a donation for every successful real estate transaction by an alumnus.

For me, it provided a fantastic, and unique way to generate leads, thus enabling me to meet more potential Alumni clients and to provide services in the Real Estate industry, an industry I truly enjoy.

As it stands now, I am one of the uOttawa Alumni Association’s partners. My name and logo is right beside MBNA’s name and logo on the Partnership website! Something I am truly proud of.

Bertrand, of course, has captured one of the most effective marketing ideas anyone in the architectural, engineering, and construction business should apply. Leveraging key relationships through associations where members are likely to benefit from your service or trade takes you places much more effectively than banging on doors or sending in responses to dozens of RFPs once they go public. As well, association affinity marketing is usually inexpensive when you contribute in time, shared services, and rebates to the association only when you acquire new business from the relationship.

For our business, association relationships are our single most effective marketing methodology (outside of nurturing and encouraging repeat and referral business, of course, but even these correlate, because our clients are often really connected with their associations).

How do you determine which association with whom you should connect? Here are some ideas.

Who do you know, who respects you, now?

Clearly, Bertrand parlayed his previous relationships with the University of Ottawa association to build his marketing. You may have friends and existing connections who you can simply call to start the ball rolling.

Which associations and groups do your current clients belong to? Can you connect to their groups, with referrals from them?

By nature, your existing clients can be powerful guides. If the associations or groups are important to them, you will deepen your connections with current clients by connecting to their associations, and find like-minded colleagues.

Is there strong mutual benefit?

Here, the services and resources you can provide the association result in real value for the group. We, for example, work closely with construction and specialty trade associations whose members can benefit from advertising in our publications. This benefit often as great for the associations themselves -- support with free advertising services saves the association money, and really helps their cause.

Can you be creative?

Say, you are a general contractor and sense you can get much business with a property-owners association? Can you ally with others to produce services of value to the association and jointly prepare your program? You may build relationships and bonds on even greater and deeper levels.

Finally, here are a few words of warning about association-related marketing. This approach is rarely if ever a quick fix to your problems. You need to put immediate gratification aside, and focus on your sharing and giving, rather than on the business you can hope to build from the relationship. However, when you think longer-term, you will reap rewards that transcend your efforts, and achieve profitable, durable, results.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ottawa Renovates

Ottawa Renovates will be distributed today at the Home Renovation Show in Ottawa. The magazine is produced in co-operation with the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association Renovators Council by a consortium of GJK Designs (Gordon Keith), Warrenty Communications Inc. (Brian Warren and Paul Scissons) and my business.

Values, trust and selling technique

This ad is posted on the home page of Doug Hillyard's business in Pennsylvania. Hill rightfully takes me to task on the forum for taking pot shots at sales trainer and consultant Phil Rea.

Doug Hillyard at American Dream Vinyl Company in Mill Hall, PA, has taken me (rightfully) to tasks for remarks about sales trainer and consultant Phil Rea on the forum.
You are way off base with your Phil Rea comments. I tend to think that the way you do things in your post are intrusive. Let me ask you: Are you currently operating your own home improvement company?

Or are you just trying to sell articles? Phil Rea would smoke you any time with his material and to boot he wouldn't come on a site like this and start putting down your work. He has entirely too much class for that.

In my area using some of Phil's techniques we have lots of success and I think it was you that said on here about two years ago that it (canvassing) would run its course and make people mad. Well it didn't. Oh sure, there's always the one or two boneheads but most people actually are happy we found them because they didn't know who to call.

Your other ideas for lead sources are good one however they are staples to running and staying in business and nothing new to the way most on this site are already doing.

i guess what I'm saying is like anything else, for some its great for some not, but who are you to judge with your opinion not being fair?

(Editor's note: I modified the grammar here -- writing is my business -- but you wouldn't want me to be selling or installing vinyl siding, which Hillyard's business undoubtedly does very well.)
Hillyard is absolutely correct that I have never met Rea, nor actually tested or evaluated Rea's services. Based on testimonials such as Hillyard's, if you wish to build your business with door-to-door canvassing, you may find value in using Rea, so I provide a link to Rea's website here.

Nevertheless, as I posted in response to Hillyard's observations, some of the business practices recommended by Rea go against my values.
Am I speaking too harshly of someone I know only a little? Trouble is, while I acknowledge canvassing is often effective (and have sought to see first-hand the process), it is against my values. Phil Rea is undoubtedly effective in teaching people how to sell. Maybe this type of in-your-face selling is right for you and your business, but I'd rather develop relationships based on respect and lasting trust.

However, while I may have the right to my opinion that sales techniques where you don't leave cards so people won't know who to call to cancel appointments, or where you push people to canvas door-to-door to win barbeques, or you wear large name badges to build 'trust', are downright destructive in the long term, I don't have the right to slag Rea without knowing him and his approaches better.
My values are that the harder you have to push and sell anything, the more we want to run away. We want to make our own free-will decisions without pressure or intrusion, and when the business respects our time, privacy, and ability to make an informed decision on our own schedule. The "we" here is a family thing -- you'll find similar values are shared by my wife and friends. (And maybe a huge section of the population, reflected by the legislative push for do-not-call legislation and restrictions on canvassing and other forms of cold calling.)

Undoubtedly, intense selling and closing techniques are effective in certain industries and circumstances, but I think where we all want to be is in a place where we can manage the flow of inbound inquiries and referrals where people choose to call or contact us because they think highly of yo business.

You still want to be good at sales -- you don't want your business to be like the store which has beautiful displays but no one to answer your questions or gently nudge you to make the right decision -- but you, if all goes well, want your salespeople to have such respect in the community that they are seen more as friends than sales reps (though they still must make their numbers and achieve real sales results to earn their pay.)

Nevertheless, I've always respected that not everyone needs to share my values to be successful in business -- and it looks like, based on Hillyard's testimonial, and others on Rea's site, that if you want to learn how to knock on doors, he may be able to show you how to do it effectively.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Passion first, marketing second

New GOHBA Renovations Council president Jason Labelle, president of Dalton Corporation, after the monthly council meeting.

Yesterday, I attended the monthly meeting of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association Renovations Council, in two roles -- as a journalist/writer for the association's newsletter, The GOHBA Impact! and to address the second item on the meeting's agenda -- providing a progress report on Ottawa Renovates!, the magazine project our consortium won through a wired bidding opportunity to promote renovation services in the region.

At meeting's end, newly-appointed council chairperson Jason Labelle, president of Dalton Corporation, outlined his business experience and effectively described the qualities that underlie most people who enjoy success in the construction business:
"As far as my company goes, I really believe in doing it right," Labelle said. "It's the artwork -- when we walk way at the end, it's the feeling, 'wow, we created this . . ... we built it.

"I truly believe in the renovation business, I think there's a big artsy side to me, and I get to do it -- to create it, build it, mould it, and share it."
His business, not surprisingly, relies on word of mouth and referrals, but there is some intelligent marketing as well. The annual Christmas greeting creates a 'keep in touch' with former clients, and he follows up six months to a year after each job, to ensure the client is satisfied and any follow-up maintenance is done.

And, like most successful business people, he has built a team of employees and sub-contractors who share the same values and passion for their work. "My foremen won't let me get away with 'just good enough' -- they'll catch me."

"In some places, we'll do a job and then someone across the street will contract with us, then down the block, all by word-of-mouth."

Do these attitudes describe you and your business? Then you've won more than half the battle when it comes to marketing.

Labelle, like other local renovators in Ottawa, has yet to feel the economic pinch of the current recession; despite some major layoffs and business consolidations (including the bankruptcy of former high tech high flier Nortel) this region has so far not felt much pain, in part because it is a government town. Renovators Council members are bracing however for an influx of new business start-ups, some under-the-table, as new home construction contracts and out-of-work tradespeople begin competing for available work.

Labelle says he would like to see the Renovators Council achieve greater recognition. "I would like to market us in such a way that it is a no-brainer -- if you want to renovate, you want to renovate with the professionals."

That's where the Ottawa Renovates! project fits in the picture. A few months ago, after sitting in on a meeting of the Renovators Council, I received word from former Council Chairperson Mike Martin (who now is responsible for the provincial Ontario Home Builders' Association Renovators Council) that he would welcome a proposal from my business for a new renovation publication. After initially hesitating -- we've only handled business-to-business marketing, not business-to-consumer projects -- I decided the best way to handle the situation would be to set up a consortium; and ultimately formed a partnership with designer Gordon Keith and publisher Brian Warren to get the job done. The new magazine is at the printers, to be ready for the annual Ottawa Home Renovations Show this weekend, and a related website will also be live soon, as well.

Does it surprise you that we won this bidding opportunity though our own reputation and relationships, and (underlying these) our passion and enjoyment of our own work?

Our challenge is to help and work with business owners who really care about doing their job well; who deeply enjoy what they do, and in normal conditions have customers eager to share and recommend their services, to adapt some basic marketing and sales techniques to support and enhance their already-successful business brand and reputation.

This is not the world of high-pressure sales; it is not an environment where you need to grind people down to get them to buy your services; rather, you take your existing relationships and reputation, and expand on the basics; building your reputation even further, while preserving your margin. Yes, you advertise, you market, you promote your business, but underneath everything, you will succeed because you love doing your work, and you are able to assemble around you employees and vendors who share the same inner passion. Of course, you are really lucky if you can work with marketing specialists who care about their work as much as you care about yours.

The wrong way to market

Is this the right way to market?

Listen to this advice from a sales guru who advocates door-knocking canvassing posted in this thread.

Never leave a card with people that schedule Phil (Rea) says because they may call to cancel, only leave it with those who don't schedule. Where a large badge that says soliciting and if you need a permit use it as the badge either way the bigger a badge the more trusting you seem to be.
In other words, push yourself in the possible client's face, set an appointment, and make it so hard to cancel that you can show up and high pressure them into signing a contract..... And wear a big badge to win 'trust'.

Sure, is this really the right way to build a solid business built on integrity, respect, and solid referrals?

There are better ways.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bill Thomas and his effective online marketing approach

One of Bill Thomas's Youtube videos, which help explain to homeowners how his service works -- the videos and website marketing enhance trust, reduce inconvenience, and cut marketing costs -- allowing him to 'over deliver' to consumers, and thus expand his business further. Seems, however, the previous blog posting about his business has resulted in some unintended consequences. . .

Bill Thomas Jr. of Mechanicsville, MD, called me today to apologize for the delay in responding to my initial inquiry about his intriguing website,, and his intriguing approach to online marketing and roofing service sales. He said he had been on vacation, and his administrative staff did not give my call priority (and for some reason, my emails to his address did not get through to him.)

You can read the previous blog entry about his business here.

Regardless, he elaborated on how he has built a seven-figure business using Internet marketing techniques that other contractors would be wise to consider and emulate. (However, local competitors are not happy, he says; following the publicity about his business on and this blog, he says he received at least seven "threatening calls.")

So how does his system work?

Lets start with the email he sent to me today:
Thanks, Mark. Truly a pleasure for me to speak with you. Your site is a great asset to the community.

I read the thread on Pretty neat. Some of the guys seem to "get it", and that's very cool.

I'll send you some links when I get back in the office.

Again, our system works like this:

The website develops the "know you, like you, trust you" automatically, saving both us and the customer MUCH time . . .

We over deliver on the education and the trust aspect, and back it up with social proof (testimonials, public video)

We know immediately what they're looking for and present them with an irresistible offer.

We over deliver on service, do something extra that's a benefit (not in the contract) then present them with before/during/after photos and video for total proof, peace of mind)

We encourage them to send their links to their friends and family that need our services.

Most of our marketing and follow up you don't even see unless you're a qualified prospect or a client.

It's all about the customer, and we're always trying to improve . . .
Thomas says a surprising percentage of his clients conduct the entire business relationship online. They feel trust and confidence in his services, and appreciate the convenience that they don't have to wait around their home while his employees complete the inspection to prepare the online proposal, then the final work. (A few clients speak with him on the phone, but direct sales calls and visits are not needed, he says.)

Thomas isn't a kid -- he's 52 year's old. The website is only part of his marketing system. "We know the 'hot' (potential clients), how to market to them . .. we do direct mail, we have a list database that is proprietary to us."

He says his company is set up to repair roofs, and this creates future business for more significant jobs.

"We get a lot of leads through videos, Google Adwords and search engine optimization," he said. "We're not blowing off a lot of money on our keywords -- we're right on our target."

He says the money saved on client acquisition -- he says his competitors may spend upwards of $85 per lead -- is used to over deliver to clients; to give them more than they expect, and thus build the reputation even further. Thomas declined to discuss his cost-per-lead, and the online sales approach certainly would reduce the direct sales costs, but he declined to get more specific.

He says he is ready to share his ideas and methods with other contractors elsewhere in the country, and is not seeking money for consulting services. He attributes much of his online success and knowledge to Mark Hendrick's

Thomas added a PS to the email which is especially revealing (and shows the power, I suppose, of this blog!)
PS. I purposely try to communicate with my customers electronically rather than by phone. People that come to my site are usually highly focused local prospects, and when I DO talk to them by phone, we establish e-communication immediately. The idea is to save time on the phone, and I reward them by passing along the savings.

Since you published my phone # on your site, I'm now getting TONS of spam calls, sales people, and others -- and since I roll the calls to my cell -- it's become a little disruptive. I've gotten 25 calls or so since you and I talked this morning that are non prospects, and I usually don't get many of those per day. It's a testament to how well your highly ranked site (#1 for contractor marketing in my area) is working.

Would you consider removing the # from your post so I don't get international attention?

I know it's "fair game", but it's kind of time consuming, and maybe if you helped me out, I could write an article or shoot you a link from another site that could be helpful to your cause as a return favor.

All in all, international attention is good, but my focus is on my clients, and I hope
you understand . . .
I'm removing the phone number from the previous posting, as he requested.

Below is another example of his youtube videos:

Inauguration Day

The world is watching Washington DC today, and I've assigned a writer to attend an inauguration event co-ordinated by the Associated General Contractors of DC, as we review several applications for the opportunity to be the publisher of the revitalized Washington Construction News.

These are exciting times to be in or connected with Washington -- and the government funds may be the likeliest opportunities for work in states and communities across the U.S.

With expanded Washington coverage, we'll hopefully be able to help contractors and sub-trades (as well as architects and engineers) find some of this work, but ultimately, you will succeed most if you've built your own connections and relationships -- by the time opportunities become public, usually someone has an inside track.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The DIY Consultation

This image from Richmond VA roofer Frank Albert shows him at a home owner's site explaining how to manage a do-it-yourself roofing project. Why offer to help homeowners do their own work? The consultancy leads to referrals and leads -- and you are paid for your time.

This thread raises interesting possibilities and questions for residential contractors. The original poster, Silvertree (Paul Lesieur, in St. Paul, Minnesota) observes in the first post:
Clothes make the man!

I don't believe this is entirely true. But I posted back in early December that I got outfitted with new dress clothes. All of them the best. I believe that showing up looking like a page from Esquire helps with the price issue. You look like a million bucks and people know you ain't gonna be the cheapest guy.

On top of that, on my DIY website page I offer remodel consulting for $125.00 an hour. I don't expect that to be my bread and butter, but once again I am not selling myself cheap. I understand that consulting carries some risk so I have a disclaimer, I will help HO's find a solution to a snag in the process, but I will not offer advice on how to do the job, I will inform and steer people to finding the solution, including referring a plumber lets say.

Anyone done this, or thinking of something similar.
The discussions that follow focus less on the clothes than on the idea of providing a consulting service for do-it-yourselvers.

One poster, Frank Albert of Albert's Specialty Roofing in Richmond, VA, introduces his own version of a special DIY consulting site,

Do-it-yourselvers, in this model, pay the licensed contractor for tips, guidance, and reassurance they are on the right track. The trade professional is paid a reasonable professional fee for the consulting (after the homeowner signs a liability release, and pays with credit card or cheque).

Why do this?

Leads, leads, and more leads. The consultation often results in the homeowner deciding that a professional really needs to do the work, and who is best placed to win the business -- you can see how this gets you far away from the 'free estimates' space since the homeowner is actually paying you for your time. Often the homeowner doing work personally who is skilled at the job actually has some friends or colleagues who need a professional, and again, who is likely to get the business? And as the posters in this thread note, you use your off time, your spare blocks, and you can certainly qualify and screen people before seeing them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Proposals . . . and proposals

Architectural, engineering and construction industry marketers face constant challenges in responding to RFP deadlines -- especially when technical staff fail to provide materials in a timely manner. Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) members recently discussed these issues on their email Listserve.

Many members of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) have the sometimes unenviable task of preparing the documentation for RFP (Request for Proposals) submissions for large scale architecture, engineering or construction projects. The problem is the people doing this work are not the technical experts: They can't (themselves) decide if the proposal makes sense, has a realistic chance of success, and should be submitted in the first place. Adding to the problem, the technical specialists are often 'too busy' on current projects to bother providing the documentation and resources necessary to complete the proposal, so they wait until the very last second. And things are even worse now, because with work drying up, companies are rushing out more and more proposals for "possibilities" rather than "probabilities" in the faint hope that somehow the out-of-the-blue proposal will stick.

Jack Hennings at Bartlett & West headquartered in Topeka, Kansas, observed:
Please don't all laugh at this.

Getting technical staff to meet proposal production schedules has always been a challenge. The task of developing persuasive project approaches and updating project profiles and team resumes frequently takes second (or third) place on the priority lists of busy engineers faced with client deadlines.

We have lived with this for years and tried to manage it as best we could. And, of course, we have never missed a submittal deadline.

With the economic downturn has come increased competition for a shrinking number of projects, and the situation has gotten worse. In addition, firms are going after more and more projects.

Our marketing coordinator is facing situations where PMs are turning in key elements of proposals just hours before it is due with increasing frequency.

I won't ask how many of you are seeing similar trends. The question is, what practical steps are you taking to keep technical staff on a schedule to make sure not only that a proposal is submitted on time but that the process has had the necessary time for effective quality control.

Share your secret weapons!
Larisa Langley at Facility Programming and Consulting in Texas, responded with a short (and elegantly simple) solution:
Don't laugh at this back.

Lie about the deadline.
Others shared more comprehensive answers.

Fellow SMPS Marketer contributor Matt Handal at Trauner Consulting Services in Pennsylvania, wrote:
Jack and everyone.

I wrote an article called "What if the proposal doesn't get there." It appeared in the August 2007 Marketer. I think the whole issue can be downloaded from the SMPS website. I suggest anybody who interacts with proposals read it.

Here is what I said regarding this problem back then.

1. Remember this is your responsibility. If there is anything you can do to work around them, do it. Don't wait for their piece to do everything else.
2. Be proactive with help. If you feel confident enough to take a first stab at the technical approach, do it. You probably read a million of these and your best attempt might be equal to their version of "calling it in." It may be less intimidating for them if they only have to improve upon what you have already done. Just make sure your first draft doesn't end up in the final proposal.
3. Be empathetic, often these people are "last minute" because they have too much on their plate. Think in terms of what you can do to help them.
4. Never be late with your internal deadlines. You must lead the proposal process by example.
5. Decide on a firm deadline for their section and then move that deadline back a day or two.
6. Talk in terms of when the proposal is "going out" not when it is "due."
7. Never lie about deadlines, but refer to #5 and #6.

PMs giving you stuff "hours before it is due" is not something you fix in a day. Because you enabled that behavior for so long. Its going to take some time to change behaviors, starting with yours.

I personally schedule proposals going backwards. The due date is when it gets delivered. The day before that its in the air, on the ground, or in an email. The day before that it is in production. The day before that we need a full day for revisions. The day before that we need a full day of review. And the words "Proposal is due on ____" never crosses my or any of our marketers lips. We always say the "proposal is going out on _______." People now ask "When is this proposal going out?"

You have to get it out of your head and the heads of others that proposals get delivered the day they are due.

Another thing that I mention in the article is that this whole proposal thing is your responsibility. If that technical person gets hit by a truck, the owner is still going to expect you to get that proposal to its destination. So the question is not "how can i get them to do this by the right timeline?" The question is "what physical thing can I do to help them get this done within the timeline?" That may entail you and
your co-ordinators "stepping up their game." Going from someone who listens to a song to someone who can pick up a guitar and play the song. You don't have to be a Beatle to play a Beatles song. And you don't have to know how to design a streetscape to draft a proposal about how you will design the best streetscape project.

You gotta give to get. The "This is my job. That is your job." mentality is BS. Too many marketers have it and it only causes internal strife. One thing I did at my job was tear down a 20-year long animosity-filled relationship between marketing and the technical staff. If you honestly care about them, show compassion, and go the extra mile...they will do the same for you. Proposal success is often dependent on the internal relationships you build.

P.S. Lying is never a good strategy in this life.
Pamela Rigling Caffrey, Director of Marketing at John Poe Architects, Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, observed:
I learned very early on not to wait for project approaches, work plans, schedules, etc. After the first couple, I started writing them myself. You will be amazed at how
much you can regurgitate, just by having read a few and learning the lingo. And I would say that, as a GENERAL rule, marketing professionals are better writers than technical professionals. I also think the technical folks find it more palatable to edit something rather than write from scratch. And they like bullet points. If you ask for bullet points (which you can then eloquently transfer into poignant, passionate
and persuasive prose) you are much more likely to get something back.

The December issue of "Marketer" has a cover story that asks "What does it take to get to this table?" I would say we have to immerse ourselves in this world to the point where we can confidently author project approaches and work plans. We need the technical people to review things, answer questions and guide our understanding of project work but I think it might be easy to pile things on them that we should be able to do ourselves.

Marketing IS the voice of this business. Don't buy into the intimidated belief that we are on the outside looking in to some mysterious, inexplicably technical world. Jump in there and grab the bull by the horns! Think of how empowering it will be to not have to wait on someone else!
Here are my thoughts on this issue:
  • The most important thing in RFP situations is the 'go/no go' decision. You need to know whether you have a reasonable probability of success. Most publicly set proposals are wired ahead of time and you won't win the job no matter how much effort you put into it; and if you put in a half-baked effort you will undoubtedly lose. You need to ask "why bother" before even straiting the process.
  • Really good internal communications processes are absolutely essential. Hopefully your business has a systematized weekly meeting process. In these routine meetings (which can be co-ordinated by teleconference for remote offices) clear rules and schedules are set and followed -- and you don't waste time. You may find effective a meeting process including review of go/no go decisions, and then, once they are made, specific action item commitments on the part of technical and marketing staff.
  • The marketing department should have template material honed and developed over time for the basic proposal structure. This will lessen the stress and speed up production and sign-off of the document. Note: There is an argument that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so include images of relevant work examples if allowed in the RFP documentation rules.
Finally, although Laurisa Langley's answer "lie about the deadline" is probably not the entire solution (or even the right answer), something is said for simple, brief, and insightful solutions (which this blog posting is definitely not!). Does it feel right to proceed? Is this a waste of time? You need to know -- and have the courage -- when, and how, to say "no" to wasteful or ineffective proposals. Otherwise, you are wasting your company's time and draining its energy from real opportunities.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Probably possible

Bobby Darnell makes an important point in his blog posting Probable vs. Possible. He warns against straying to far away from your areas of strength and expertise in the hopes of finding new work.

There are times to branch out and expand your focus, he says, but you need to know when (and how) to do it.

Chase your dreams and vision, yes, but watch out for the fantasies!

Maryland roofer site raises questions, and may provide answers

The site and its related sites (check out for an entertaining video clip: Honesty in Marketing -- Clarity Trumps Salesmanship) raise several questions about alternative approaches to marketing and selling construction services to consumers.

In his website, Thomas proposes an on site inspection with a comprehensive emailed quotation (with photos and documentation) rather than a conventional sales call. Some posters on thought this would be a rather ineffective way to sell roofing services; others thought that the site owner (Bill Thomas, Jr.) is on to something truly effective.

Certainly Thomas' site uses the tools and techniques I've read about for successful search engine optimization (and may be achieving even greater success in that regard through references on and now this blog.)

But there is a gap and I hope I will find soon a good reason for it. I phoned the number on the website and it rang for I think six to eight times before landing me in Thomas's (friendly) voice mail account. I also emailed him, telling him I planned to report on his business in this blog, and invited his comments.

He hasn't responded in any way; not a return call, not an autoresponder from the emails, nothing.

Of course, I am not a qualified client for roofing services in the Maryland areas he serves so he might have just brushed off the inquiry and declined to consider it seriously. Then again, publicity and references from this blog are significant in the search engine space -- and this blog posting may well appear when anyone tries to search more about his business following the initial website view (a truly likely possibility, since after all he is using high-end Internet marketing techniques.)

There may be good reasons for his failure to follow up and respond and I will revise this posting accordingly if that is the case. And when/if he responds, I'll be able to share some additional observations with you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Self fulfilling prophecies and your construction marketing future

The bus terminus in in Masvingo, Zimbabwe is an ocean away from your challenges in finding clients for your construction business. Yet the lessons learned here taught me the principals of self-fulfilling prophecies: The world becomes what you think it will become.

Where do you really feel and think you will go? You will get there, most likely. This principal of success (or failure) underlies much of the self-improvement and personal achievement movement of the last century. You can argue and debate about the science -- or lack of science -- behind the concepts advocated by many motivational gurus, but (if you accept absolute responsibility for yourself in the real, current world) you can use these insights to shape your construction marketing, and business, direction.

Blog readers know that I achieved my first major life goal -- becoming a foreign correspondent -- in 1978-80, when I obtained employment as a sub-editor on the Bulawayo Chronicle and then, with a little white lie to the then Rhodesian authorities, obtained an immigration visa and work permit marked "journalist". This allowed me to live through the end of the African civil war, and the birth of Zimbabwe.

Most of the young Rhodesian whites I spent time with shared the same voice: Serving their nation in constant military call-ups, they said their black nationalist opponents were terrorists who would destroy the country, and black majority rule would be a sure road to poverty and destruction. Conversely, most idealistic western journalists saw the white Rhodesians as unmitigated racists, living (in 1980) with the values and paternalistic impressions of life common to whites in the U.S. south in the 1950s and 60s (or, for that matter, for Canadians, English-speaking Montrealers in Quebec.)

Now, fast forward 30 years, to 2008. In a few weeks, the U.S. will have its first non-white president, And Zimbabwe, still ruled by that 1980 war winner, Robert Mugabe, has just printed $1 Trillion notes (that is $1,000,000,000,000) which might buy a loaf of bread, as more than 1,000 people have died in recent weeks from cholera, a disease rare in any country with basic hygiene and medical systems.

So the majority of the whites I spent time drinking beer and riding motorcycles with in 1979-80 were right, eh?

Well, yes, but not everyone believed the same story. I didn't know him at the time, for example, but Eddie Cross didn't buy the white racist story -- he and a few other young business people even went to white Rhodesian leader Ian Smith and told him that the whites could not hope to win a protracted war with the black nationalists, and suggested compromise and a peaceful solution. And, as a journalist, I refused to buy into the obvious cliches and assumptions, and spent some time getting to know local blacks and realized that the great majority of the population in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe are just like the great majority of the population everywhere: Most set low expectations, hoped to win the lottery, just wanted to live their lives, and a few were of exceptional achievement, ambition and vision.

Next week, I expect, the Rhodesian situation will turn with a meeting involving the key players, including the South African president. The country will be rebuilt, and prosperity will return. And one of my projects as a senior citizen in the decades ahead will be to help this nation so close to my heart to rebuild.

You by now may be wondering the relationship of this far-away story to construction marketing.

Consider these foundations, and you will soon see the importance of the responsible application of reality and vision to achieve your goals and dreams.
  • Assuming your work and reputation in your respective trade or profession are great, you can succeed in marketing. If you are great at marketing but your underlying business and values are not of the highest standard, you live in truly dark spaces.
  • Your challenge is to find your place beyond the crowd, your own vision, your insights, and your world view. Most great construction industry practitioners are not great at marketing, but some emphasis and understanding of effective marketing will likely lead to the solutions of your business problems.
  • Think short term in your immediate life but think long-term in your vision (you may not know exactly where you are going, but you know in your intuition and heart you are heading in the right direction).
Read, think and learn. Most importantly, however, believe in yourself, truly. If you respect yourself and your community, if you view your life and the world in a longer-term frame of reference, you can, and will, achieve your self-fulfilling prophecies, and they will be wonderful.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

One in 100

The science here is not exact, but I've found that we need to receive between 50 and 100 initial inquiries and resumes before finding one person to hire. Your chances for success are greater if you know us directly and are referred/recommended by a current employee. Here, we modify the screening process somewhat to accelerate the process but to ensure that you are truly qualified to work in this organization.

Now, does this selectivity mean that only one to two in 100 people in the potential employee universe are good enough for us? Not really. This is because most really good potential employees are already working -- elsewhere! You would be dumb to give up a great job that you really like to just jump ship and join us, especially if the starting pay here is less than what you are presently earning.

In other words, if, instead of advertising, we decided to go out and approach directly people who we think would be good to work with us (and we had all the necessary information to be sure they would be right), I doubt that we would move more than one in 10 -- and the costs of selecting and assessing which 10 to call would be incredibly high.

We can increase our success rate in finding new employees by:

  • Advertising more (ideally in free or relatively inexpensive places, but if they are effective, price doesn't matter); to attract more applications;
  • Attracting more referrals;
  • Lowering our standards;
  • Waiting for the recession to get really bad (of course, then the question is whether we will have enough business to justify hiring more employees).
Hmmm. Do these numbers tell you something about marketing?

You undoubtedly are looking for the perfect clients -- the ones who will pay your full price, on time, and without complaining -- and who are so enthusiastic they will refer everyone they know to you.

However, out of all the people and potential clients in the world, only a few are suitable, and, of that number, even fewer are ready to do business with you.

Clearly, your best results will be from your current clients (especially if you've selected them -- or they've selected you) carefully. Former clients can be great if they've left on good terms (but, just like former employees, if they left because of poor performance, you really shouldn't expect them to be any better when they return a second time.)

Advertising, even if it is thoughtful, targeted and resourceful, will attract many tire kickers and unsuitable potential clients -- including people rejected by your competitors. But more advertising will attract more interest, and you can play the numbers game to achieve results.

Referrals and recommendations of course are gold, as long as you are comfortable with the referring person/organization, and use some common-sense in vetting the referrals.