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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Balance and change

Construction marketing, I believe, is both a science and an art. You defy all probabilities of success if you fail to observe some basic rules (or laws), but if you think that just following the rules will solve your marketing challenge, you will most likely be disappointed.

Consider, for example, the challenge in stretching or ignoring industry norms. In the non-residential community, general contractors will rarely select their subtrades without inviting competitive bids. You might be lucky (or experienced) enough to be consistently invited to be a member of a reasonably small short list, but, even then, if you wish the job, you have to have sharp pencils. But if you are not on the "inside", how do you win your place on the short list?

Government work, meanwhile, is supposed to be fair and open, at least for larger projects. (For smaller projects, at least in Canada, the work is subbed out to a large private organization and you need to pay their game.) Then you run smack in the U.S. into the Brooks Act -- which allows bureaucrats to use qualitative criteria to keep their friends and previous suppliers in business regardless of price.

The residential (homeowner) space observes more traditional marketing principals, meaning if you play the game right, you can follow the rules, advertise, develop simple strategies and measure your results. I won't easily forget my meeting with Mike Feazel at Feazel Roofing in Columbus just before Thanksgiving, when he said he stays away from most non-residential work because price competition makes the potential profit for work in the non-retail marketplace hardly worth the risk.

But you can't just jump from the commercial (or residential wholesale, business-to-business) market to the consumer market at the drop of a hat. Your business operating systems, pricing, and strategies simply won't match. You'll flounder.

I share these points because most likely you feel a need to change your market, practices, or systems when things aren't working quite right. In some degree of desperation, you cast about for a quick fix -- only to find you've dug yourself into deeper problems. Or you might try doing more of the same, to more dismal results.

For example, a contractor in the U.S. called me last week to ask whether he should sign up for Dodge (McGraw-Hill). I told him it wouldn't hurt, and Dodge is a reputable leads service, but to be wary of chasing bids for jobs where he doesn't have a previous relationship. I referred him to a posting in Bobby Darnell's Building New Business Blog (November, 2008):

If you subscribe to F.W. Dodge, Reed Construction Data, DEC International, CDC News or any of the other construction lead services you need to make sure you milk each lead for useful information. Remember, you are not the only company purchasing those leads so you have to know how to leverage each one beyond its primary purpose.

One of the profound incidences that led to me this business is when I was working at Construction Market Data (Now called Reed Construction Data) and would see companies paying up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for leads and using the information to just a small degree of their worth. My analogy is they were purchasing a new set of woods and irons (golf clubs for the non-golfers out there) and when it was time to play; they would grab just three clubs and leave the rest in the bag.

In essence, Darnell is saying the value of the leads service is not so much in the ability to bid on (and hopefully win) current jobs, but in the market intelligence you can uncover to develop relationships for future work.

Fair enough. Where is the balance, and when should you change? Here are three clues:

  1. Your current and previous satisfied clients are your most valuable marketing resource. You'll win the greatest marketing points by doing something extra for them without expecting anything in return.
  2. Your greatest potential new markets are in places where clients can connect, appreciate and refer back to your current clients. That in part is why I like associations so much for non-residential marketing. You are putting yourself in the perfect environment to work within and in support these relationships.
  3. If you move into the residential (non commercial) space you can practice a whole stack of advanced marketing principals which will work wonderfully, if you dare, because only a few contractors use these methods.
However, should you jump between residential and commercial, or between traditional and new practices? Remember, sometimes you need to dive off the deep end but also remember you must be balanced in your understanding and awareness as you take the leap.

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