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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In Washington . . and Ottawa

I'm in Washington D.C. now (Actually Alexandria, Virginia) for tonight's Design and Construction Network Happy Hour. These in-person events connect the dots between online "social networking" and real, human interactions.

It's worthwhile for me to buy a plane ticket, pay a night's hotel bill, and come to Washington for a two hour event because here we can put faces to names, make connections and share insights.

The new social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter are not a replacement for the more traditional forms of networking. They simply accelerate and facilitate the process. As always, if you think of networking events as hard rock selling opportunities, you are likely to be disappointed. If you think of them as opportunities to meet, share and give your best support and assistance to the people around you, you will succeed.

The Design and Construction Report, our first online publication, results from this process.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Media publicity: When, how and why

Butch Jones, East Coast Fire Protection, Kevin Neno, Sigal Construction, Gerard Mullen, Truland Service, Tony Esteve, Truland Service, Pat Dolan, Truland Service, Andy Huang, Sigal Construction at the Truland Service Golf Tournament in support of Luke's Wings in Washington, D.C.

One of your most cost-effective marketing strategies is obtaining positive publicity for your business in the news media. When it comes right down to what we have to "sell", it is just that -- a resource to enable you to obtain business-building publicity without spending thousands of dollars of scarce resources.

Like most business endeavours, there are rules of the game here. Yet one of the most effective "conventions" in seeking and receiving publicity is to know how and when to break the rules. News, after all, is something a little spectacular, and run-of-the-mill stuff rarely excites cynical reporters and editors.

The biggest challenge and limitation of media publicity is you can't control how and when your "free story" will appear. Consider, for example, the story about Truland Service's Golf Tournament in aid of injured war veterans. The story is admirable, and the freelance writer contracted and paid for by Truland to generate the story in a manner suitable for the Press is well written. But will anyone publish it?

Most stories, it seem, go the way of Truland's good news. Editors receive dozens of calls and emails each week with the hope that one commercial interest or another will be interesting enough to receive some "free press". Sometimes the news releases are picked up, and sometimes they lead to good things. But if you are trying to budget your results, if you are hoping for things just to happen just right, you are often disappointed.

To some extent, we get around this problem with special features in our print and online publications. If we can sell enough advertising ($1,500) to your suppliers or yourself, we will write the story in a journalistic style, make sure you approve its content, and publish it. Because we publish these stories in credible formats, they are much more effective than conventional advertising, and with the third-party support, they are often free.

This is good, but what about the larger goals of effective publicity? How do you break through the barriers here.

I would argue that creativity, public service and luck all have a rule in the solution. Creativity is essential to come up with a story angle and style that will actually appeal to editors. Public service is important because you won't get much traction with a purely commercial message (and clearly we want the news to be in a positive rather than hostile format.) Luck, the big intangible, is virtually impossible to control. You can't tell what other stories or issues will push interest in your story aside.

If you want to see what we can do with the special features, you can check the stories on Herring and Trowbridge Architects, Partner's Contracting and Homestead Renovations in the latest issue of Design and Construction Report. Then feel free to call or email me and I will give you more information.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A reminder about Google Local

This thread and Seth Holdren are reminding contractors to waste no time in clarifying their free listings on Google Local.

When something is free, takes just a few minutes, and can profoundly affect your search results and in-bound business over the next few years, you should not hesitate to take immediate action.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A tale of two markets

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?"

Rational synergies

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.

Rational marketing

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.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Launch day

As I write this posting, our offshore service is rushing to meet an 8 a.m. deadline to set up the Design and Construction Report website at We've done some late edits on the actual publication, with the help of some volunteer proof readers.

This is our first primarily on-line publication. (You will be able to request printed copies for a fee, or you can download the pdf files which will be available at the website to a colour printer if you wish.) It is also our first application of video technologies, and the first time we have published on a national (or for that matter, international) level.

You can view the publication here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Opportunity in crisis: Throwing the rule book away

This morning, we're beginning to absorb the consequences of one of the most surprising (and rapid) business turnarounds I can recall.

Last Friday, I feared we faced a significant operating loss this month. Realizing this loss would be unsustainable, I extended deadlines by a week and then allowed, in fact encouraged, employees to sell without regard for some of our usual constraints.

(The constraints are operational, not ethical.)

These constraints are part of business systems developed over the years to increase efficiency and productivity, and avoid time-wasted effort on futile projects. They kept things simple, and prevented us from having to redo our work, or stress out totally on last-minute volume.

When I lifted the constraints, we discovered the shocking results that sales increased by 25 to 40 per cent on the same intrinsic potential business volume. In other words, our well-intended rules had cost us thousands of dollars in potential sales, every month.


(I'm not detailing specifics here -- this is a public blog and, after all, these discoveries represent private competitive advantages within our industry -- but it doesn't take a rocket science for anyone to realize that if a little extra work and confusion can generate this much yield, you should take the results very seriously.)

Sometimes it helps to throw your rule book away.

We now are building new systems to accommodate our discoveries.

Do you have similar opportunities in your business, masked by long-established and reasonable operating procedures?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Design and Construction Report published (Beta version)

The first issue of the online Design and Construction Report magazine.

Here's a sneak preview of the Design and Construction Report, published in conjunction with the Design and Construction Network.

It is our first online publication, arising from a group that is less than a year old, and formed through a community that sprouted from Washington, D.C. roots but is achieving international traction.

The magazine, while "published", is still a work in progress. I had hoped for more video images and components to create a multi-media publication, but we didn't have all the set-up materials as the launch deadline approached.

This of course isn't really a big problem in the online space. When we have the materials, we'll simply modify the magazine and reset some of the pages.

The magazine is designed to be read using either page turning software or can be read and downloaded for printing through conventional PDF files. We'll be able to print copies for people who wish a hard-copy version (though obviously the hyperlinks won't work from the printed version.)

Within a few days, the new Design and Construction Report website will be activated, in time for the group's next Washington, D.C. Happy Hour on June 30. I'll be there.

Update: 25 June -- Beta2 is online with first video embed and other improvements. The publication is taking shape!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Metrics and Networking

The Society for Marketing Professional Service (SMPS) provides many really effective networking opportunities. In the online community, you can also consider the Design and Construction Network.

Mel Lester's latest E-Quip Blog provides some basic, but important, reminders about why and how to network effectively in business. Among other points, he reminds us that service and relationships rather than "selling" are at the core of successful networking.

Serve those in your network. Helping others is a great way to build relationships and, of course, to build service businesses like yours. Networking often fails to yield satisfying results when it is approached from a self-serving perspective. When you interact with others for the primary purpose of uncovering sales leads, it's common to find your network become increasingly unproductive. But when you are motivated to help others, most people are inclined to reciprocate. Serving your network includes:
  • Providing timely information
  • Making introductions and referrals
  • Sharing ideas and advice
  • Helping others succeed!
Then can you or (maybe worse) your organization be systematic and measure your networking success?

Here, in my opinion, things become as complex as the wildest and most obscure mathematical equation. Great networks after all are multi-dimensional. Your relationship quality and depth will vary, the person within your network will have varying levels of influence, and your influence with that person (and his or her own network) will vary depending on expertise, chance, personality, and how generous you are in sharing rather than taking.

And you can add another variable to the mix: The velocity of network development has accelerated with online resources, at the extreme measured in minutes with your number of Twitter followers.

I suppose you can measure the number of people you do something good for, the number of calls you return, the number of referrals you share, and the like. These measurements might encourage you to do more of the right thing. And it you are mathematically inclined, you might want to work out some Game Theory equations or the like to connect the dots and explain why and how you should network more effectively.

But that belies the point. Networking, to be successful, must be indirect and selfless. However it never hurts to be selfless in an environment where you can ultimately receive some returns for your efforts. That's why I advocate, especially for business-to-business marketers, that you participate in relevant associations and groups where your clients and potential clients congregate.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Discovering the proven methods of construction marketing success

Does participation in community activities like Habitat for Humanity (this image is from a "build" under-way in Ottawa) help your marketing and brand? I think so, and would go so far as to say it is a proven way to succeed, but can I prove it to the contractor in Charleston? If only things could be that simple . . .

At, a custom home builder in Charleston, SC, posted this rather direct message:
I am looking for PROVEN examples of marketing materials (post cards, door hangers, newspaper ads, etc...) that actually work and will help us generate work. Which is the best method and how often do you need to run the ads, etc...?
I have someone that can go door to door with door hangers for $10/hour, or should I just mass mail them? We are in the process of developing our website before marketing in this way, but need some helpful ideas and language to use in our materials. Your help is much appreciated.
Not surprisingly, many of the people who responded were less than forthcoming, and quite a few were just a little snappy.

For example, Mike Finley in Colorado responded:
Would you like the account number to some one's bank account too?

Sorry, I kind of find it funny how someone would expect to be handed the keys to vault just for asking.
Somewhat more graciously, a contractor in Peoria, IL, wrote:
I was in the marketing/advertising business for over 20 years before starting my own company. There is NO such thing as PROVEN marketing - too many variables. Also, different advertising (media) work differently in different areas of the country.

You might also try a certain method of advertising & your message/creative/copy/offer... whatever, could be ineffective.

If someone in this thread was to tell you that something they do - will work for you - and you blindly invest money into it - you would be a fool.
Yet the question is not all that unreasonable. Are there "proven methods" that work? Does someone have answers that you can be certain virtually 100 per cent will be successful for your business?

The answer is, yes, maybe (how's that for evasion). For example, on another thread, I read Los Angeles Plumber Leonard Megliola's assertion that newsletters are not the best way to go, but simple flyers work all the time. They are, for him. And I suspect if you follow his formula and have the patience to do what he says without modifying things much if at all, you will be successful in your approach.

Within the thread, a landscaper in Idaho and a contractor in Oklahoma bantered about their very real market differences. You can't compare apples to oranges, you may say, but both are sweet, tasty, and healthy.

So, if you want, I'll do my best to give you the 100 per cent proven success formula. Believe me if you wish, but don't hold me personally liable if I'm wrong.
  1. Listen to your current customers; connect with them, understand them, and why they want what you have to sell. If you like them, and what they are doing, see what they like, and which media they respond to.
  2. Listen to your national or state trade association, and look for non-competitive peers in other but reasonably similar markets. Which approaches do they use, what works, and what is best for them.
  3. Read forums like and blogs (like this one) for ideas. Pick the brains of successful consultants who aren't promoting a specific product or service.
  4. Then, allocate a budget of between 5 and 15 per cent of projected sales for next year, and plan your strategy. Remember, you need multiple impressions for maximum success, somewhere between nine and 13 is a good idea (there is science behind all of this stuff). Figure out what approaches will give you the right number of impressions within your market at the lowest cost within your budget. Talk to the media sales reps to the extent you need; do business with the ones with enough vision to suggest ideas beyond their own self-interest.
Are you sure of success? Well, if you are used to relying on referrals and repeat business, you are likely to be initially disappointed (though of course you should plan part of your marketing to pick the low-hanging fruit and induce and encourage this repeat/referral business).

Most marketing and advertising simply doesn't attract a response from most people, no matter how well targeted. Thousands may receive your flyer, or newsletter, or see your ad, but few are going to respond. That is the way it is.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

More on Branding, eh

Marty Neumeier has a simple equation for successful branding

T = r + d

Trust equals reliability plus delight

This formula is the essence of successful brand building.

Great branding is not about logos, advertising campaigns, your website, or anything like that, except to a truly tiny degree. (These things are important when you have a really big business, but the time and energy you spend on the "reliability" and "delight" with your current and previous clients should be an order of magnitude greater than the time you spend on your typical "branding" efforts.)

So, to build a great brand:

  • Return your calls promptly;
  • Deliver "wow" service to your clients;
  • Keep your job sites clean every day (and when you are done for the day, especially);
  • Contribute to your community in meaningful ways (the community of your clients, of course);
  • Respect privacy (if you really wish to canvass, telemarket, or use bulk email, consider the risks before moving forward);
  • Treat your employees with respect, as you expect them to treat their clients and peers with respect;
  • Send thank you notes;
  • Go the extra mile to be thoughtful;
  • Have fun with your work (if you do, your clients will sense your passion).
Then you can get your logo "just right", have an effective website, and design advertising campaigns that attract results.

Branding, eh

Most people in this industry associate "branding" with big name companies like Coca-Cola, Google and Apple. The concept is confusing and sometimes debated. Why worry about branding when you are just trying to get by?

In a posting on the Design and Construction Network's LinkedIn discussion board, University of Malaysia associate professor Chris Preece directs readers to his blog, where he writes:

David Meerman Scott asserts that "branding is only for cattle"! His argument is that marketers who "obsess about brand usually focus on aesthetics over buyers. They are more interested in the colour scheme of the Web site than in meeting their buyers' needs with a content marketing strategy. They care about logos not buyers."

Whilst I feel David is harsh in saying that "marketers are a bunch of flaky wimps", he does make very sensible points for those engaged in marketing and branding in the business-to-business market space. He maintains that "while the rest of the organization is focused on metrics and revenue and ROI and reaching buyers, these ineffective marketers are worried about how the T-shirts look."

So is it time that we start to rebrand branding? There is much misunderstanding about what branding is, or should be, even among marketers let alone hard-nosed CEO's and engineers.
This provoked some interesting responses including a link by Erin Orr. Marketing Director at FOX Architects LLC to an effective downloadable pdf from Marty Neumeier.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

More on measuring in the AEC Community

As I concluded work on the SMPS Marketer article, some people in my network added some interesting insights to the story. One person, in an off-the-record email, described how his company's principals believe their marketing success correlates to certain economic indicators, but their "gut" feelings -- which seem to make sense logically -- fail to actually correlate with measurable results. Yet, in the same email, he questioned the validity of many assumptions within the industry because they are often set within a narrow or specific frame of reference.

(I will post the full article when it is published within the next couple of months.)

Scott Mickle gave me permission to "pull" his article: Value vs. Cost: How to Make Your Marketing Profitable which explains in a simple way how to develop a process to measure your marketing effectiveness. You can retrieve it by following this link.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How important is it to measure your progress?

While researching the topic of metrics for The SMPS Marketer article due today, I asked the director of marketing and communications for a highly successful architectural practice in Toronto how her large, international practice, measures its success.

She said:

“We don't keep close stats, it (the hit rate) is very high; we get on every short list we submit.”

“If we measure our success it is in how the business is doing with new projects walking through door, and if we are doing what we want to be doing and love doing.”
I'm not identifying her or her practice publicly because she hasn't yet granted permission, but I believe much of the AEC industry has a similar attitude to formal metrics programs. They just "know" they are doing well, or not, and are happy with things that way.

Is this wrong? Marketers from other industries would shudder at the thought that they would conduct their work and not really know exactly how it is succeeding or failing.

But the marketer from this successful architectural practice has a point. With large scale, repeat, and growing business in some truly amazing markets, they know where they are at. Notably, she says while they win virtually every invitation to win proposals, they lose on the final cut primarily because they won't bend on their fees.

In other words, they only win jobs they know where they can earn a reasonable return for their work and maintain their quality. What good is a high "hit rate" if you are achieving it by undercutting your competition and working for virtually nothing?

On the other hand, I sense some simple metrics would really help this successful practice do even better. Analyzing your presentation to close/commission rate (for new and repeat clients) and the reasoning for the success/failure doesn't take that much research time for historical review (say over the past year or two).

Is the "failure rate" from fee undercutting increasing in some sectors more than others, and is it perhaps threatening the work balance of the practice? then again, maybe this practice really knows its stuff and intuitively can sense the trends. I know this is not scientific. But successful marketing is art as well as science, isn't it? And are successful architects more artists than scientists?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

An example of Open Book Management at work

This article from the Great Game of Business, Doing More with Less: Seven Lessons From A Recession, describes how Anthony Wilder Design/Build, Inc. in suburban Washington, D.C., has coped with the recession -- including what many might see as painful salary cuts for its employees.

In reading this story, I'm saddened to realize how in the past year I failed in many ways to live by the principals here.

When times were good (I thought) late last year, I allowed myself "extras" without fully appreciating their cost to the business and their implications for cash flow.

When times turned tough, I refused to cut my own salary and fought over cuts in personal discretionary expenses. Then, for reasons which are too complex to report publicly here, I "shot the messenger". (Employees however know the reasons.)

The paradox is that I "thought" I was applying the principals of Open Book Management through the whole story. For example, at our weekly business meetings everyone in the organization saw and could review the financial statements and cash flow.

And when times turned tough, we started working hard to make cuts, slashing unnecessary expense and waste.

Regarding salaries, I suppose you could say we applied the principals fairly. I'm sure my managerial salary is far below the norm for most business owners, and employees were not expected to take salary cuts. And we sought the fairest way to distribute the load as things grew more challenging.

As things reached a critical stage, as well, I prepared for the personal salary cut which would have been far greater than that experienced by other employees. (That has for now been proven not necessary, but we laid off our writer for a couple of months, something I don't think would have been necessary if I had truly embraced the principals in this story.)

But if I look into myself, and do some true soul searching, I can't say that I have "walked the walk" here.

It is good, however, to learn from others who understand and apply the principals correctly.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


In the midst of a rather overwhelming collection of responsibilities and tasks, I have a story due on Friday for the SMPS Marketer on the challenges of metrics within AEC marketing. The time researching this story (and preparing the bi-weekly newsletter) resulted in my failure, for the first time in more than a year, to post an updating blog entry yesterday.

Nevertheless, the metrics story is proving interesting, because the indications are that virtually no marketing in the field is calculating even the simplest metric -- the "hit rate", that is, the number of successes you achieve in RFP/tender bids, or for that matter. Sally Handley (right) told me that she perceives only 10 per cent of marketers are bothering.

This fact is one level not surprising, but on another is truly disturbing. If virtually no one in the industry is measuring how well they are doing, how well can anyone know the answer to the question: "Are your marketing initiatives effective?"

There are some good reasons for this measurement failure.

Lead times are long. It is hard to capture information for something now that you will only see results 18 months to two years from now. You need to put effort into gathering data without immediate results.

Many marketers neither have the budget nor management support for measuring results.

Some of the most important marketing achievements are truly hard to measure with validity. For example, if you network, does "collecting a business card" count; or is your success developed though the subjective process of relationship development. (I shudder to think of the limited immediate benefit of blogging and writing for The SMPS Marketer, but I know these activities indeed are productive, over time, in hard business, but equally if not more important, new opportunities for growth.)

I've gathered loads more insights from the interviews today and will share them in future blog entries.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why does construction marketing (seem) to need to be difficult?

In several postings, I've observed the frustrating reality about construction industry marketing.

If you feel you have to market to find new business, you find it hard to do (and often frustratingly expensive).

Conversely, when you seem not to need to market, simply because your order book is full from repeat, referral and inbound inquiries, you are on the top of the world.

The problem is in part that no form of marketing success is easier to achieve than the natural success of your reputation bringing in inbound and repeat business. In fact, it gets even better if you are in this position, and so overwhelmed with business that you need to turn clients away or demand a long wait time to serve them. Because of your "scarcity" you are even more alluring -- and potential clients want to do business with you even more. (Marketers often fake scarcity to create this effect, but it really works, all the time, when the scarcity is real!)

This is fine enough in good times, but in a recession, when business drops off, you have two choices. You can shrink your business down to nothing, or you can start learning how to market.

The former choice isn't entirely irrational, especially if you have some control over your overhead and costs. If you can lay off most of your employees, and focus on maintenance and service for existing clients, you might just make it through. I know of some contractors who took long, enjoyable vacations in warm and sunny places during the last recession. Of course, this solution simply won't work if you can't curtail your overhead or you are burdened by debt obligations.

So, then, if you decide suddenly you need to "market" you are in trouble, because you now have to complete a rapid learning curve and you run into the problem that paid marketing and advertising is an incremental rather than magic, instant, solution.

This is why successful larger contractors, especially contractors serving consumers, never stop advertising, even in good times. They have enough experience and metrics to manage their advertising costs, media, and budgets, and can shift gears during hard times, perhaps altering their media mix or increasing their marketing budget even though they know it will produce less satisfactory results.

In previous posts, I've advocated that you get to know your current clients really well, to understand which media they read and what interests them, and then build out your marketing strategies from this information (while of course enhancing your referral and repeat business processes).

Long term, I believe the best way to market your business is to combine your passions and interests with those of your clients and potential clients, and build relationships through the process. For example, I am always most successful at marketing when I practice journalism, like writing this blog, but you may be better by sponsoring association golf tournaments -- if you enjoy playing the game, and your potential clients are there, as well.

The important caveat with this passion-centered approach is to remember that you must not focus on your passions at the expense of direct relationships with current and potential clients.

If you really enjoy doing stuff that has no relevance to your business, go ahead. You may be able to cross fertilize some ideas you can apply in your own enterprise. But don't get lost in the side-track. I've done that in the past, at great cost!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Completing the picture

Marketing is a puzzle of paradoxes.

If you achieve perfection, you don't have to look for clients; in fact, you turn away people you don't want to work with. High volume and margin sales are "converted" with a few emails, a phone call, perhaps, and maybe a handshake. You smile all the way to the bank on the repeat and referral business, or you hit a publicity jackpot, where a major publication or website writes wonderful things about your business, and people simply want to do business with you.

Much of the time, however, we feel trapped at the other end of the picture: Making cold calls to people who want nothing to do with us, spending thousands of dollars on advertising or leads services, for no results, and fighting like dogs for clients who simply push harder and harder for a "better deal".

When you are at this, frustrating, place in the marketing curve, you may be tempted to grasp at straws, and scammers (including some less-than-ethical lead generations services are among this group) play their game and hit you when you are down.

The question is, how can you get from the less-perfect-place you maybe at now, to where you want to go, reasonably quickly?

I could share my standard advice here, but realistically, your best results will come with the simplest effort; reconnect with your current and former clients, and think about how you can connect and communicate with their friends and colleagues. Think multi-media and creatively about how you can give, share and support the group, and you'll be much closer to success.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Construction Marketing Publicity

Here's a video where I outline the options and choices for obtaining media publicity for your business. Publicity is probably the most cost-effective marketing approach -- behind enhancing and encouraging referral and repeat business, of course -- but is much more challenging to plan and co-ordinate than conventional advertising and sales approaches.

Instant friends (really?)

We publish regional construction publications. Instead of promoting the self-serving interests of construction marketing organizations here, I might as well promote my own product. But this passes the blog's "smell test" as few readers here are likely to be advertisers in our publications, but there' s lots of free news within the publications (which you can access from our website without sharing your identity or email address, unlike the two examples below.)

Within the last day, I've received a couple of seemingly simple gifts. In one case, an organization published a comment on my blog. Unlike auto-generated "spam comments' this observation appeared genuinely relevant to the blog. Trouble is, embedded with the comment was a link to a site offering some sort of "window cleaning e-book" for (just) $29.95. Maybe it is a good offer. I don't know. But I'm certainly not giving them a free link to boost their search engine rankings and business, when I don't know them anywhere but the comment.

In the second situation, someone who has tried to market a contractor-relevant service on sent me a thoughtful video and asked me to post it. The video has some value the service may be real, but the page you go to when you link off the video takes me into spaces I associate with Internet scam land. I am confident the service provider isn't running a scam, but equally, I don't feel comfortable rushing off and providing instant credibility to his business.

Are both of these businesses doing something wrong? Yes, but before I explain where they are failing, I should explain where they are succeeding. They are thinking publicity, media (blog) relations, and "free press". These initiatives can produce the highest return (outside of effective referral business development strategies) of any marketing approach you can achieve.

For example, imagine a positive front page story in your local newspaper, television station, or, for that matter, a plug on Oprah. You don't pay a fee for this publicity, not a cent, and yet the business generation power is incredible.

(Publicity through this blog obviously is less meaningful, but if you have a service relating to construction marketing, you may wish to ride on the blog's high Google keyword rankings.)

So where can you go wrong in seeking publicity?

The main failure of publicity-seekers is that they forget the publisher generally operating a business, too. And I have a basic guideline that helps me determine whether someone should get "free press" for something they are promoting.

"Is the value of sharing the news an order of magnitude greater to the readers than the person receiving the free publicity?"

This is why I especially enjoy publishing stories of contractors who have achieved marketing success, but are not using their success to promote a contractor marketing consultancy. Leonard Megliola at Bestline Plumbing in the Los Angeles area, for example, is running a plumbing business and isn't pushing e-books on marketing (and he gives away his marketing resources and manuals without charge.)

The person seeking my attention with a video blog, (I believe in Ohio), is selling a marketing service of some sort.

I look for "scare offs" or warning signs.

Some people have taken Internet "marketing courses" where they learn how to manipulate their ways onto blogs, use videos, lengthy "squeeze pages" and the like. I'm sure these techniques work, but they are also the techniques of scam artists. I need to be satisfied of real authenticity. When I see the "standard techniques" used to sell me stuff, I run for the hills.

Some days, even if you do everything right, you get nowhere.

Unlike advertising, you don't have control over the timing, direction, and use of your publicity initiatives. Maybe when you send me your press release (or video blog), other things are happening of higher priority or urgency, or I'm just in a bad mood. Whatever, you can't control the media like you control your advertising. Yes, you can do things to turn it on, but you can't just necessarily flick a switch and expect it to work right away.

Can the people who approached me obtain "free publicity" here in the future. Possibly. They'll have to pass my smell tests.

In the meantime, here is one of my own videos.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Remodeling Magazine's website has a useful website with a section dedicated to sales and marketing. Worthy of your bookmark (and possibly a permalink here).

The bell curve: Incompetence and genius

Our company needs a new bookkeeper/accounting support person. This work, of course, involves specialized skills and experience, and much precision and attention to detail. The latter two qualities are not my strongest points.

Of course, we could go to a headhunter, or temp agency, or even our own general accountant and pay for someone to do the job. But I prefer to have a close and immediate working relationship with the person handling our books. So we advertised, using the Canadian government's free Job Bank service. (In Canada, the employment service is provided on a national, rather than the state level in the U.S.)

Within days, we had more than 120 resumes. How could we sort through all of these potential candidates and weed out the less-than-effective ones?

I decided to use some online resources. First, I found a free "competency test" from the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers with a Google search. Since our business has some U.S. elements, our ideal candidate will know U.S. as well as Canadian accounting and bookkeeping rules (there are a few differences) and how to integrate accounting reports to produce consolidated financial statements. This is therefore not work for someone who has taken a two month basic bookkeeping course.

With test in hand, I loaded it on free publishing software provided by (we are paying $200 per year extra for the enhanced version to allow us to edit pages and upload video files for the new Design and Construction Report.)

Then I took the email addresses from the people who applied, set up a Constant Contact list, and emailed everyone a brief job description, along with a request they complete the test, answer a brief questionnaire, and send in another copy of their resume.

By the deadline Thursday, we had about 40 responses.

Now the fun began. Before I even looked at the questionnaires, I started marking the multiple-choice tests tests using the answer keys provided by the association. Shockingly, most candidates got five or more questions wrong, some failed to answer half the questions on the multiple-choice test correctly. (Sheesh... this is an open book exam, unsupervised, and I invited the candidates to look up the answers if they weren't sure.)

We've now narrowed the list down to three names. They got one or at most two answers wrong. We'll interview the finalists, check references, and then set up a final interview with the company's general accountant who can lob real competency questions at the candidates. (This covers the remote possibility that someone would actually fake their way through the test and truly not know anything.)

But what about the more than 100 candidates who either decided not to complete the test, or completed it with many errors?

Of course, the explanation is that the really good and competent bookkeepers are currently employed, and employers are generally loathe to give up on great employees. In the current economy, many partially competent bookkeepers may also be looking for work, they can 'sort of' do the job, but really are not shining lights. A few good ones are around, of course; the challenge is to sift through the less-than-perfect ones to find someone who is truly right for the work.

Note we use a modified version of this hiring approach for all of our employees. Everyone who applies gets a chance; we only screen resumes after a prequalification test that indicates their fundamental competence and interest in the work.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fast and slow

Sometimes things move fast. Sometimes they happen slowly. But if you don't consider both patience and nimbleness in your marketing you will either obtain distorted results or fail to achieve your potential.

And some initiatives are fast and slow, both. These examples are from my business, but I'm sure you can find your own stories and experiences to relate similar perspectives.

The Book

In the fall, I set a goal to write and complete my first full-scale book by Christmas. I then planned to have it edited and distributed by March. I achieved the first part of the objective on time, getting up early each day for a solid block of writing.

My wife is the book's editor (she is a professional writer/editor). Every day she works on the editing for about an hour. Slowly, steadily, she is making progress. She may finish by the fall.

Then things may speed up a bit with the revisions, review, and production stages.

Is this pace unreasonable? Not really. It is a book, after all, designed for a long shelf-life (which can be adapted and updated easily with the new electronic publishing options). I could pay a small fortune and contract with someone else to rush the job but why not be patient? The book will be better and far more effective long term if I allow the editing to happen at its slower natural pace.

Online publishing and advertising

Within a few weeks, the first issue of the Design and Construction Report will be ready for distribution (I hope!). This publication is born from the initiative of the Design and Construction Network, which started as a modest online group in Washington DC and now has grown to thousands of members, within months.

The new publication is designed as a magazine -- we can arrange to print it on demand -- but has many differences from conventional publications. Some of the articles and ads include live video components and everything is hyperlinked and will be easy to connect. (The printed version of course won't include this live video; technology hasn't advanced that far yet!)
In the publishing space, the inception-to-launch of this publication is incredibly rapid, as was last fall's launch of Ottawa Renovates!

But neither of these projects would have happened without the foundation of long-term and "slow" relationships without immediate pressure or expectation of results. Sure, the call came to move quickly, but we only had the trust to start by previous knowledge and experience. You can't rush this sort of thing.

This blog

It's fast -- in that I update it every day and it only takes a few minutes to put an entry together. And some amazing, fast, and immediately rewarding business has resulted from this initiative. But it's slow, as well. Every day, week after week, I need to update entries and write more stuff. Without speed, it won't work; without patience, it won't last.

We all experience in business and life the complementary and conflicting demands of speed and instant gratification, and patience and long-term rewards. Marketing and business development is like that; you need to sow your seeds, but be ready to grab your opportunities. And some projects have naturally diverging rhythms. You can go fast part of the way, but if you try to maintain that pace consistently you will lose it -- yet, if you don't continue and if you give up before you reach your goals, you won't get very far at anything.

Probably the best solution is to set your daily goals and objectives over matters you can control and move quickly; and keep a patient eye on the things that take longer to nurture and develop. You'll ultimately get where you want to go, and enjoy the journey to your destination.

Reader's Question: High-end residential construction: How to even out the troughs and increase potential deal flow

Although David Markham, president of C.A. Peletz Co. in San Fransisco, said his company focuses on high-end residential work, the contractor also handles commercial projects such as the conversion of an old automotive garage into the Sierra Club headquarters. This information led me to one of my suggestions below.

Readers questions are invited. You can email me at

Hi Mark, I am enjoying the blog as a new reader. I own a construction company that focuses on the very high end residential market in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. We are an older company founded in the 50’s when the principal built schools and bridges. Over the decades we have built commercial, medical office and always luxury multi-family and single family.

Since I took over in 2002, most of our success has come from the boom in extremely high-end single family ($800 - $1,200 per square foot) due to the and housing booms.
Things have obviously slowed, but not stopped. We have quite a few repeat clients that are constantly upgrading, maintaining and adding to what they have.

I would like to even out the troughs and increase potential deal flow. We generally market to high-end architecture firms and maintain good contact with existing and past clients. Do you have any further suggestions?

Best -
David A. Markham, President C.M. Peletz Co.


First, obviously you should take the thoughts of someone at a distance who does not know your specific business or market conditions with a good degree of caution. But here are my initial thoughts.
  1. The main frame of business of course is repeat and referral. You probably already encourage this but you may wish to extend your outreach and programs to thank existing clients and encourage referrals. Consider the story of Peter Danis in Toronto as an example.
  2. Media publicity can be very helpful, especially in the publications and websites read by your clients. If you don't (yet) know what publications/broadcast outlets and websites your current clients read/use, you can ask a few of them. With permission stories of successful building projects are always helpful. Specialist PR services and agencies may be helpful. Community service may be helpful.
  3. If most of your current referrals are coming from architects, you have two choices. You can build relationships with them by (a) referring clients to them and (b) offering cost savings/technical/practical seminars and lunch and learn-type programs/ The former is obviously the most effective but the latter is probably the most controllable
  4. You may wish to explore an enhanced web presence through the new tools like twitter, online networking, blogging and the like. This stuff can be time consuming and results are often mixed but your market area may be a leading force in the area.
  5. Affinity arrangements can be powerful. I noticed you did work for the Sierra Club. Can you connect with relevant community associations, clubs, and associations -- the ones which your current clients are most connected with?
Thank you very much Mark. This is extremely helpful in addressing my blank spots. Let me know if I can be of any help to you in the future. Best - Dave

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Relations: Why change is risky

Our visions, attitudes and reality are shaped by experiences, background, and existing relationships.

Most of us, most of the time, seek to live our lives within the safe zone of existing habits, values, and perceptions. Stretches outside these bounds are rare -- perhaps a crisis forces a change, or (more rarely) we feel comfortable enough where we are to reach out and try something new.

In part, this explains why businesses started during recessions usually do better long term than ones started during good times. Forced to create something out of nothing, in a tough market where innovation and selling abilities are essential, we somehow survive -- and then thrive when times improve. (Of course we can also get lazy, but even then, when times get tough, we can remember our earlier experiences, roll up our sleeves, and solve the problems.)

Our existing relationships, of course, provide stability -- and when our businesses are established, the repeat and referral business they generate allow us to maintain ourselves without straining too hard. They also provide an anchor and some security.

But they also can be costly and pull you down, or prevent you from making necessary changes.

The problem is in most cases you can't simply ditch them. Do you want to break up your marriage, for example?

Here is an example of how the dynamics of existing relationships (or lack of them) create opportunities and limitations in your marketing strategies.

In the first case, I am writing about an Ontario architect which has discovered a lucrative and highly successful business by acting as a self-contractor, especially for medium-to-high end cottages outside of Toronto. The architecture practice formed out of an informal partnership started during the 1990s recession, where the partners, not able to obtain architectural internships, ended up in family contracting businesses. They learned how to build as well as design. With the integrated approach and defined market niche, the architectural practice is thriving (and clients are receiving real value for their money).

In the second, a U.S. contractor which relies on architectural referrals for high-end residential projects asked me for marketing advice. Should this person bring in an architect and start designing his own buildings? I think you can see that this would be a highly risky move, indeed.

The best solution I could offer the builder is to engage in advising, helping, and training the architects on practical building techniques -- they may 'steal' the ideas, but the relationships formed will encourage more referrals (but nowhere as many as providing the architects with new client referrals directly.)

Of course, if your existing relationships are dysfunctional, you will need to change but beware of radical shifts. The grass is rarely greener elsewhere -- at least as you currently perceive things.

I remember well the failure of the Eatons Department Store in Canada. Founded by an entrepreneur, successive generations decided to live the life of the landed gentry, and the business reached the failure point. In a desperate move, the store tried to become "hip" -- ignoring that most of its current clients were elderly, and a massive new advertising campaign, with new merchandise designed entirely for younger people, would do little to satisfy the needs of the loyal, if aging, current clients.

Monday, June 08, 2009

"Your best marketing investment is time"

Why are golf tournaments, like this annual event from the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association, so successful? They provide members the opportunity to connect and be together in a relaxing, social context -- where relationships develop and business opportunities are nurtured.

"Double-A" on writes:
The best investment I've found you can make in new business development is time. Advertising is great, but people don't like to do business with a flyer, a yellow page ad, or even a coupon. They'd trade all of that for a personal relationship or associating with the owner or an employee.

In other words, a person on the "inside".

Church, kids sports programs, business groups, self improvement groups, etc. are the place to network and meet people. Pass out business cards and "press the flesh". Once folks have met you, and spoken with you, they will remember you with the time comes. All the fancy web sites in the world won't help much when everyone is on the web. Same with yellow pages. A full page ad, the front and/or back cover ad.... all worthless if folks don't feel a connection to your company.

The best new business comes from old business. Mining the customer base. Asking for referrals, calling to check on completed work, asking for new work, etc. are some of the best ways to put raw material into the machine.

Advertising has its place, from a branding stand point, but it should not be the only driver for new business. You should be pulling in as much new business from personal contact as you are from ads, perhaps more. The ads serve to give you a place and to instill a sense of your company "belonging" in and to the community it serves.

Also, the best advertising we do is not in the traditional places. People like to buy from folks just like themselves. This means we seek out ads in church flyers and calendars, sponsor kids sports teams and ball parks bill boards, participate and sponsor food and clothing drives, as well as, volunteer build/paint days with the city, county, etc.

Putting your name out there is a matter of selling your company full time. Advertising is a way to re-enforce what you and your people bring to the job personally and professionally each and every day. I've found that just being there... where ever that might be, is enough to generate leads and really helps to close sales.

"I saw you at my kid's ball game the other day! Does your boy play ball?"
"No, I sponsor your son's team and I go to every game I can. Not as many as I'd like, but I make as many as I can."

With 20-30 kids on the teams, and grand parents factored in, not to mention friends and non-immediate family, I figure I'll meet and talk with 60-80 people a month just from that one sponsorship. Now, how many are "qualified leads"? Dunno and don't care. If they need me, they know I'm there for their kids/grandkids/neighbors/nephew and that I'll be there for them, too.

You can't put that in an ad.
Double-A is right, especially when your market pool is very local or your network of decision-makers is truly exclusive (as is usually the case for significant business-to-business or non-residential work.) However, systematic client-focused advertising developed by a process where you listen to your clients and connect with their interests, is effective when you combine it with healthy personal relationships and community involvement.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

An effective (Canadian) canvassing strategy

Canvasser Keith Cressy at our home

As I pulled into the driveway Friday afternoon, Keith Cressy, a canvasser with SpringMasters Canada approached me to offer driveway sealing.

After my initial gut "go away" response, I thought, why not use the opportunity to ask some questions. The difference between this encounter and the last time I directly faced a canvasser (in the winter, after returning from my canvassing research trip to Columbus, Ohio), is that it is spring! A beautiful June day, and anyways, I am not behind the door of my house in private space not wishing to be disturbed, but outside, in public space, and so much more receptive to communication.

Cressy said he learned about the commission-paid job through "flyers all over town". (Well, the flyers are probably distributed where students and young people hang out, because I personally haven't seen any). However, presumably the flyers direct candidates to this SpringMasters Canada jobs website, which makes fascinating and effective use of video imagery and testimonials to draw visitors into the story.

Cressy says commissions vary, between 18 and 23 per cent, depending on whether the canvassers are working weekdays or weekends (the rates are lower on weekends). This is obviously a rational approach since the work is easier presumably on weekends and the added commission costs are offset by more effective scheduling.

Spring Masters Canada provides a variety of seasonal, summer-type services including landscaping aeration, dethatching, top dressing and over-seeding, driveway sealing, and outdoor window washing. Cressy provided a simple but well designed flyer outlining the different services and fixed prices for each of the services (or of course, package discounts for larger services).

I couldn't find any negative (or for that matter, positive) client reviews of the company's services or employment policies though the enterprise appears follow several intelligent practices to make the canvassing program successful:
  • It has a structured and systematic recruiting system;
  • It focuses on spring and summer markets, using young and student labour (thus avoiding the hostility and practical problems of canvassing in Canada in the winter);
  • It backs its canvassing with solid image building and corporate resources.