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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The simple answer that raises more questions

Yesterday, I received this question from an offshore reader:

I will be most grateful if you can assist me with some ideas with regards to business development for an engineering consultancy service.
My brief, perhaps curt, answer:
I'm not really qualified to suggest ideas in your market although the basic principals outlined in various blog postings may be helpful.
You are going to need to build your business from your relationships; and if you don't have them, you will need to connect the dots and find your way to be near the people you want to do business with.

"Marketing" for consultancies is almost 99 per cent relationship-building and virtually any other resource you try will only work if that is at the root.
Trouble is, my answer didn't go far enough because it doesn't answer the question: "How do build relationships?" The simple answer is:
Join relevant associations (of individuals likely to be decision-makers within your market) and contribute your skills, passions, and time freely, wholeheartedly, and without any expectation of return.
You may scratch your head at this idea, especially if you need some fast cash to stay afloat or your boss is breathing down your back to meet your sales quota.

This question, of course, is from someone seeking to build a consultancy. Realistically, how can you expect to succeed unless you connect with potential clients in an environment where they can assess you safely, without feeling pressure to do anything?

They need to see you in action and need to both like you and feel you really can solve their problems.

Associations provide that link. Get involved.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Failure leads to success (really!)

This posting from Ford Harding, "A Fall in a Ditch Makes You Wiser" is worth reading, and the comments to it are even more revealing. Essentially, Harding and his commenters remind us that a failure in winning business opportunities is never that if you learn from your experience. Most importantly, if you communicate with the organization where you lost the business for a debriefing, you may discover important answers. And if you conduct yourself with integrity and without any pushiness, you may well find you recover the business.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Job You Hate (not)

One of this blog's readers tweeted a reference to Teena Rose's blog posting: Six Strategies for Surviving in a job you HATE".

Rose's suggestions are quite reasonable, but it saddens me when I find anyone in a job they hate. Those of us with the good fortune to be working within our strengths (where we can combine our passions and competences) experience the truly liberating freedom to look forward to, not dread, our work.

Sure, you say, but who is paying the bills?

I would argue that the dumbest thing you can do is accept the status quo if you are unhappy at your work, especially if you are doing it for (survival) money alone. This doesn't necessarily mean "quit the job and shove it" -- you should have a plan and place to go -- but you need to put as much mental energy into making your work right, as you do in complaining about it not being what you want.

Why is job satisfaction so important for Construction Marketing? I dedicate a chapter to the concept in my upcoming book, but my main point is that if you aren't really happy where you are, you are unlikely to be successful at marketing in the long term. And if your business is full of unhappy people who "hate" their jobs, your marketing will be truly ineffective because your clients, most likely, will hate being near the people who hate their work.

(That is why I don't fight employees who, while technically qualified, simply don't enjoy their work in our organization. I wish them well as they move on -- after reviewing our own operations to see if we are creating situations where they wouldn't be happy to be around here.)

Note that most of us do not have 100 per cent perfection in our work; there are days and times when nothing goes right -- but if your underlying work matches your passions and strengths you can live through the low points and ultimately thrive. If you speak with anyone who achieves meaningful and lasting success in their careers, business and lives, you will almost inevitably find they have found their workplace of strength and passion.

In other words, if you must work at a job you hate, stay there only long enough to solve the problem or find something better.

Older workers, younger workers

Chase, delegated the challenging task of recruiting and screening potential sales employees for our business, has observed that many older candidates are reluctant to answer our questionnaires or complete the full pre-employment evaluation process.

Conversely, younger candidates, in their early to mid-20s, may complete the evaluations, score well, start out great, and then have a tendency to flame out much more rapidly than older employees.

Does this mean that either younger or older people should not work for us? No -- in fact they can be ideal employees, with enthusiasm, skill, and talent.

But what can we do to minimize hiring stress/waste and keep the younger or older employees engaged? This is a question all businesses must answer, of course.

Chase notes in his blog posting:

The process which I can not divulge in complete details is set up to allow people to demonstrate their true knowledge of what we do and produce measurable results.

The purpose is to weed out the candidates that are great fictional writers with resumes and find a truly great sales person.

I am finding that candidates under the age of 40 are happy to take up the challenge and demonstrate their skills. The other side of the coin is I am finding sales professionals over 40 take offence to our process and have heard the term "Jumping through hoops!" used several times.

How do I encourage these potentially great employees to play the game and take a leap of faith and do what they may think is below them? Most could probably pull out a Rolodex of business cards and demonstrate their ability to sell rather quickly, however like a fine wine they expect to be appreciated based on the vintage of their grapes or really in this case their experience.

The publisher and the owner of the company always ask the same question when these great candidates come along, "Why are they no longer there?" I am guessing in most cases performance slipped either based on the changes to environment or industry where they came from or more likely you can remove a higher ranking individual and with the savings in salary hire two people to replace them.
I posted the question to my publisher about how we could handle these candidates differently. I proposed he take them on and coax them to demonstrate their skills. I think there may be an opportunity for establishing rapport better based on the amount of grey hairs on their heads as well as overall career experience.
I answered Chase in my own publisher's viewpoint with these observations about older workers:
I don't have an easy answer to this question. I think the person who likely would be a great sales representative in our organization has extremely strong self-reliance and entrepreneurial characteristics. Most of the time, by the time people have reached middle age or older and have these traits, they have started their own business. If they are responding to an employment advertisement offering a salary, they either haven't succeeded, or perhaps crave much more security than a good salesperson should ever need.

This doesn't mean that we cannot modify our approaches but know of no better way to evaluate potential than to ask the potential sales representative to do some useful work before we offer permanent employment. Our lead/sales cycle isn't that long and someone who is motivated and understand the basics should be able to find results reasonably quickly. Since we pay for this work, we are not unfair to the potential employee. If they insist on job security before they truly prove their ability, I think they are putting the cart way before the horse.
For younger employees, I think the key is to make the connection between their real circumstances and passions, and allow for more intrinsic instability and self-discovery.

In one case, a young employee started out really well, then flamed out in a "firing" offence. After re-establishing communication with him, I confirmed that his problems at work had much to do with emotional confusion relating to his personal relationships. He has matured and discovered more clearly his entrepreneurial character.

So we discussed putting together a new working arrangement that will serve the business's interests, while allowing him to grow independently. (I'm a firm believer in allowing second chances for employees unless their failure relates to fundamental integrity weaknesses. Of course we don't go beyond this, to a third chance because if the problems repeat twice, you can virtually be certain they will not go away anytime soon.

So, hire young, hire old. You can respect the age differences without giving up your core standards.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

About responsibility

Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie at the Ontario General Contractors' Association Annual General Meeting. (Photo courtesy Janis Rees)

The Ontario General Contractors' Association invited Major-General Lewis Wharton MacKenzie to speak at their annual general meeting in Ottawa. Maj.-Gen. MacKenzie established and commanded Sector Sarajevo as part of the United Nations Protection Force UNPROFOR in Yugoslavia in 1992.

With totally inadequate resources, and a confusing (and irrational) U.N. command structure and mandate, MacKenzie structured the media to bring in humanitarian aid and some semblance of order to this chaotic region. According to Wikipedia, his observations are controversial, especially his dispute about claims of Serbian genocide in the region. At one point, opponents accused him of taking money from Serb organizations -- but he responded that his usual speaking fee is $10,000 minimum.

I'm not sure if the OGCA paid Maj. Gen. MacKenzie this fee (but it is quite possible, given the AGM's budget), making the opportunity to listen to him at lunch something of a special, exclusive treat as there were perhaps 100 or so in the room.

He indeed is a great speaker, and his points about leadership and management ring true. Here are some points from his presentation that stick in my mind.
  • "I learned more from the three or four bad leaders I had, than the good ones."
  • "Leadership is not management. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things."
  • "If you have someone who can do both right, don't let them go."
  • "The definition of leadership is getting people to do things they don't necessarily want to do, and have them enjoy the experience."
He also offered some simple tips:
  • "Be yourself".
  • Practice LBWA -- Leadership by Wandering About. "The more senior you are, the more you are trapped by your in-basket."
  • Listen. "I discovered most people who work for me are smarter than me. I listened, implemented their ideas, and gave them the credit -- and I was forever associated with the idea. They got the credit, I got the credit, and the organization was better."
  • "If you know nothing about the people working for you, now one thing, what's their passion -- something that really turns their crank -- if you know that, that's the key, and that will allow you to get through to them."
  • "Set difficult but achievable objectives."
  • Have a sense of humour and be approachable.
And, to me, his most important suggestion:
  • "Accept responsibility even when you are not responsible, for the good of the organization."
This concept stopped me in my tracks but is so important I would like you to consider its fundamental importance. MacKenzie said at a public inquiry into an awkward racist incident in Somalia, several officers said: "Yes, I was responsible . . . but" and ended up spending a long time explaining and justifying their situation.

MacKenzie suggests that you need to truly accept 100 per cent unconditional responsibility for your organization, no matter what or who really might have mucked up. This can be painful and superficially may seem unjust, but if you don't, you can never truly lead it. After all, if you are not responsible, who is?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life is not fair (and therefore, why you should be aware of construction marketing)

Tonight, I spent the day and evening at the Annual General Meeting of the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA).

Partly an expenses-paid break (for those fortunate to have the money for such indulgences), partly an informative event with insights and observations and lessons, I looked a little beneath the surface and remembered an life lesson: "Life isn't fair, and if things are fair, you will wish they aren't."

The issue that brings this concept to life arrived in my email yesterday. A general contractor, interviewed for an unrelated story, told me about his problems with the pubic bidding process at the Ontario Realty Corporation (the crown corporation which administers provincial buildings.)

He said the number of contenders for simple jobs had grown truly outrageous recently. More than 50 prequalified contractors are bidding for some jobs, jamming up site meetings, and making it virtually certain that any regular and well-established business would lose to a low-ball offer from someone barely eking out a living, with no overhead and little sense of what needs to be done to earn a fair profit for the work. (Certainly, the contractors winning this sort of public work would not be able to spend a few thousand dollars to bring their wife to a weekend in Ottawa for the OGCA conference -- in fact, most could not even afford the association's membership dues.)

Trouble is, as the contractor reported to me in a letter he had sent to OGCA President Clive Thurston, the excessive competition resulted from the OGCA's negotiations with the ORC for a transparent and fair bidding process. Previously, general contractors felt they had no chance at the public-sector work as service providers and third-party contracting organizations played games and favorites. How could businesses which played by the rules and really could do the jobs break into the closed circles of qualified bidding lists and restrictive tendering?

Clive Thruston confirmed today the ORC has listened to the association's concerns about transparency. Trouble is, the Crown Corporation is responsible for many smaller projects, which require limited bonding capacity, and which are within the range of many smaller contractors. And, like lemmings, these contractors are chasing after the dream in the open bidding process -- with dozens of bidders competing for each simple job.

Thurston acknowledged the contractor complaining about problems has a point; this excessive competition discourages reputable contractors from bidding, and could result in badly managed jobs with bidders under-pricing their work. He said the optimal number of bidders for a job is six to eight -- this allows for fair competition, but not the craziness when 50 or more are competing.

Solutions might include some system of rotational qualification. As well, Thurston noted, contractors are evaluated on their past performance, so if they mess up once, they won't be back again.

Many small construction businesses can perform the same services. Without marketing or relationships to differentiate themselves from the others, their only option is to compete on price for openly publicized projects.

There is only one escape from this trap: Marketing and sales. If you can differentiate yourself from the others, if you can stack the deck to your favor, if you can win the opportunities that are invisible to others, and discover clients who wish to do business with you because they want to, despite all the competition out there, you can earn a fair price, make a profit, and afford the conference fees which allow hours on the golf course and five course dinners.

Otherwise, prepare to struggle, hoping to "earn" less than you could if you took a job at a fast food restaurant.

Life isn't fair.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Past, present and future

A video with music which evokes memories of the African adventure three decades ago.

Last night, I opened an email from someone I had last seen close to 30 years ago.

I still remember that final moment. A few days after Zimbabwe's independence, and a week or so after I had been dismissed from my employment as a sub-editor at the Bulawayo Chronicle, I returned to the newsroom with a parting gift, a bottle of Canadian Club.

Ian Watson, who had worked in Canada in the 1960s as a strike-breaker at the Globe and Mail before heading to Zimbabwe where he combined his work at the Chronicle with para-military service with the British South Africa Police, had sat next to me for close to 18 months, handing the motley crew on the "subs desk" news wire copy for editing and headline writing. Part of our work included removing Robert Mugabe's name from the stories and turning the Zimbabwe leader into "an external terrorist leader based in Mozambique".

When I walked out of the room that day in late April 1980, I didn't know if I would ever see any of my fellow Chronicle employees again, but I knew for sure the experience had permanently changed my life.

Last night, Watson invited me to call him at his home in Hong Kong and I reached him there this morning. Now in his 70s, and in good health, he brought me up to date on various co-workers and their fate over three decades.

We pieced together common acquaintances and friendships. Notably, the impressive number of people I know who made their home in Hong Kong, not only from Rhodesia, but also from Vancouver and my former student newspaper peers.

It seems the South China Morning Post had become a haven for expatriate journalists from my circle. One of them, Gary Coull, went on to fame and much fortune as an investment banker before his untimely death a couple of years ago. Watson worked with Coull on the Post before starting his own publicity and communication business.

As you read these words, you are probably wondering: "What does this have to do with Construction Marketing?" Nothing, specifically, but much, generally.

When we are young, we cannot know for sure our life's trajectory. The events and decisions that led me to Africa, and the things I learned there, however, set the course for my future and allowed me to define and establish my values.

Ian Watson remembered the tense battle I had with another young co-worker, in the final days before a wildly insane evening of drinking and self-discovery that led to me being asked to leave The Chronicle. I sensed this colleague had serious problems, especially in lacking respect and concern for women.

Watson said the former Chronicle colleague also turned up in Hong Kong, drinking himself to death in anger and hostility.

Keeping score, I realize I now know someone who grew rich and successful, and died, and someone who died poor, broke, and alcoholic. Two I know are divorced. One, a young colleague seemed to have everything going for him, has been at the desk of a London England newspaper for years going nowhere, slowly.

Then, there is me. Married for 16 years, with a 12-year-old boy and a five-month-old dog, not extremely wealthy, but certainly not impoverished, I can look forward to years of healthy adventure, dreaming and risk taking. I realize that when I was young, I made a decision not to grow old, at least in spirit and values. And that means I am truly fortunate.

I cannot suggest to you when or how you should decide to break your barriers, to reach out beyond your presumed limitations, and head in directions like the one I took in the late 1970s, when despite a personality beset with fears and social skills inadequacy, I decided to go half way around the world to witness first-hand the end of a seven-year civil war in Africa.

The biggest lesson I learned occurred at the end of the journey, however. I attended a gathering of the International Press Corps and looked at the people around me. "Is this the life I really want for my future?" I asked.

Yes, I had broken the bounds, but I realized my life dream would truly be fulfilled with a stable home life, married to a woman I love, with a family and security. I discovered what really matters. You can travel far and wide, seek new adventures, and try to find answers in faith and experience but often the truths are simple, and right in your backyard.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Some thoughts about CRM systems (2)

Several fellow bloggers who I respect greatly participated in a group blogging initiative this week about Client Relationship Management (CRM) systems.

I think if you read through these posts you will discover some of the key elements of effective CRM systems -- and what to avoid. Certainly, if you are preparing to spend significant funds/implement these systems, read these blogs first.

I'm humbled by the thought put into these postings and need time to digest things to see if my previous posting on the topic a few weeks ago needs updating.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When things aren't working . . .

Our primary business consultant, Bill Caswell, believes that many business people focus on superficial problems. This failure to get to the bottom of the issue results in floundering, frustration and ultimately defeat.

His hierarchy, in order of depth, is:

  1. Results (Current Mood, Miscommunication, Wastage, Crisis)
  2. Operational (Sales, Production, People, Money)
  3. Strategic (Mission, Planning, Structural, Strategic Information)
  4. Accountability (Responsibility, Authority, Metrics, Information Flow)
  5. Mood (Individual - Leadership, Group, Department, Company
  6. Environmental (Company: 1. Can have some effect on it; 2. Can have little effect on it, 3. Can have no effect on it, 4. Is caught by surprise)
Caswell suggests that if the underlying issues are not resolved, nothing you do at the higher levels really matters -- your problems won't be solved.

This is fair enough but the problem is, how do you know what the real underlying issue is?

A few years ago, for example, as my business endured a major crisis, I initially attributed many of the problems to environmental causes. For example, our business had grown in the U.S. and we had been profiting from truly lucrative exchange rate differentials -- as these narrowed, our margins slipped dramatically. We obviously had no control over the exchange rates.

But I'm satisfied that the environment wasn't the cause of our problems during that business crisis; we had failings on several higher order issues, notably my ability to lead, manage accountability, and clearly define strategy.

In the last year, things haven't been easy, either. "It's the recession, dummy," may be a quick and easy answer -- but where do our responsibilities begin?

Today, we conducted interviews for a new administrative employee (our key office person is leaving for a new career in a field she prefers -- showing that recessions don't stop great people from finding opportunities.) Previously, in filling this spot, we had trouble finding people we would like to hire; now there is no shortage of candidates.

Our former editor visited the office in between these interviews. I had to lay him off earlier in the summer as the numbers declined and it became a choice of maintaining my salary or inviting him to use the government's Employment Insurance program. He doesn't like sitting around, and was ready to take a much-lower-paid job at a remote community publication. But that local newspaper, short of staff by about half of its key employees, can't hire anyone because of a corporate hiring freeze. So the employees who are left there are working themselves to the bone, while our editor sits at home. (I can't give him part-time work, which I have, because it would mess up his employment insurance benefits.)

Of course the other part of the equation is that while we have many candidates vying for available jobs (and we have a few posted, especially in sales, where we pay a starting salary), sales are much harder to come by. While advertising makes real sense in a recession, it is hard to justify discretionary expenses when you are laying off long-term, good employees.

So what do you do when the four letter hits the fan and you realize that things really are bad out there, and it isn't just your business management, accountability, mood, strategy, operations or current results? In other words, you are doing most things right, but things are still turning out wrong, for reasons which are beyond your control.

The answer is to remember some universal laws of business and life. I'm mangling some concepts of Brian Tracy and Bill Caswell, but here they are:

If you can't change the overall environment, you can adapt to where you are within it. If there is a recession, you may need to do what you have to do, which means humbling yourself, if necessary, and getting down to some really hard work.

You can control the things you can control but not the things you can't. Focus on what matters. Sometimes you need to fight. Sometimes you need to run for the hills when you are in survival mode.

Keep things in perspective. Recessions end. If you are doing (generally) what you enjoy, and you are good at your work, you will land on your feet though you may need to adapt and change directions -- using your core skills and strengths to find the new route.

If things are going really well for you or someone you know, be thankful. If they aren't, be thankful for the elements of your life that are healthy and work to make them more central to you. This will help you pull through the rough patches around you.

I'm not going to paint an overly optimistic picture here -- looking at my own business now, compared to this time last year, I'm amazed by the changes, challenges, and contradictions in expectations and experiences.

In a few weeks, we'll meet to review our 2010 business plan and look back at 2009. Yeah, "It's the recession dummy". I can't change that overall economic environment. But I can be satisfied that the other elements of the business are in order, we are lean, well-managed and ready to capture the opportunities going forward. You can survive, and succeed, too.

Advertising ideas (2)

How can you reduce the trial and error and risk in planning your advertising? This question is important because, if you are like most businesses who have tried advertising, you know that it is not always successful but often can be very expensive.

The problem is compounded by the fact that you need to give your advertising time enough time and consistency to succeed.

Jumping from one "answer" to another will only lead you down the path of disappointment. Undoubtedly, however, you will be disappointed if, after consistently advertising for a year, you see no improvement in your business.

Here are some options to reduce your risk.

Study effective advertising from similar businesses in non-competitive markets similar to yours. You may find the advertising in your travels but you may speed up the process by reviewing success stories in relevant trade-focused forums like or If you are connected with your trade associations and groups, they also can be helpful; notably chapter or group leaders in other cities may be able to refer you to people in their communities who have achieved advertising success.

Speak with your current and recent clients and learn which media they like, read, follow and hear. You need to understand the tastes and interests of your clients, not your own personal values (though they may often be in alignment). These conversations also allow you to renew your acquaintances and connect with people you know.

Look for advertising media with high measurability, solid pay-for-performance standards, and low mandatory commitments. Does the Yellow Pages fit in this list? No. (But if most of your current clients originated with your Yellow Pages advertising, obviously don't ditch them for something untried.) Conversely, pay-per-click advertising can be really effective, though you need to know what you are doing or hire an expert who does.

Work with competent marketing/advertising consultants who you trust because you have been able to verify their work first-hand through references and referrals. These can, in some cases, be media sales reps, but usually you need someone more independent. You will either wish to work with a specialist agency focusing int he construction industry, or a smaller local agency who you know will delver the goods.

Will these measures remove all the risk? No. You also need to plan for things going wrong, and put enough money in your budget so that you are not intimidated by the failures along the way. The last thing you want to do is stop advertising just before your campaign is successful.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Advertising ideas

William Martin started a provocative thread on Michael Stone's Construction Business Owners discussion group asking about where and how to advertise. This is his blog.

William Martin, owner of WR Martin Co. in the Boston area, posted this question on the Construction Business Owners discussion group: "What are some of the best advertising venues being used today? What gets you the best results." (If you are a construction business owner, I encourage you to apply to join this group if you are not already a member.)

The responses from other contractors are both intriguing and significant.

Mike Davis at TMT Home Remodelers in Eugene, Oregon,wrote:
Advertising is not a one shot or one choice deal. What works best in your marketplace, depends on that marketplace. I you live in an area like ours, radio creates better results than TV. Reason, people spend more time outdoors here and are, therefore, listening to the radio more.

Our marketing campaign consists of radio advertising on the local talk radio station, print advertising in a local magazine that deals primarily with food, print advertising in a newspaper that is distributed once per month in a local destination resort (his newspaper goes to all of the homeowners), we are actively involved in our local builders association, we take part in all of the home shows in our area, we participate in our "Tour of Remodeled Homes" every year, we have a well developed website that shows on the first page in a Google organic search, locally.

I am quite sure that I am forgetting something. We don't count on any one thing to do the "trick" for us in our advertising & marketing. If you have questions about inexpensive ways to get your name out, but take some effort, read Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Levinson. If money isn't an issue, contact a local advertising agency to help you out.

First things first, however, you need to identify who your ideal customer is, what the product is that you have to sell, and how much money you have to spend to reach that audience. If you choose an agency, don't go after one of the "big boys," as they will charge you way more than you can ever come up with in your construction business. You will find that there are a number of high quality small companies around your area that can do a terrific job for a relatively small amount of money.

One more thing, when you choose to take a direction with your marketing, stay with it. Give it a chance to work. The biggest tendency that people have is to bail out on a campaign too quickly. Radio, for example, will take almost 12 months to actually work. That's not to say that you won't get any calls during that time, I'm just saying not to expect huge results just because you start advertising. About the time that you are tired of hearing your ad, your listeners are finally beginning to hear it.

The moral of the story is, identify your ideal customer, find out where they are, identify the best way to reach them, and then give your marketing a chance to work. Be committed when you make the decision to move forward with your campaign.

Kathe Russell, General Manager at DreamBuilders Kitchen and Bath, Inc., in Sacramento, CA. said:
I have found that advertising works best if you have a clear marketing plan. After spending 100's of thousands of dollars on advertising over the years in every publication pertinent to my market, I had to learn this the hard way. Now I don't advertise unless I have a specific, measurable goal.

The main lesson that I've learned is that advertising isn't very effective, in any publication unless you have a specific call to action. For example, one of my company's strategies for getting new clients is to give educational seminars. So we use advertising and other mediums to promote a particular remodeling class. The call to action is that they have to register or the class by a certain date and it will be free. Late registration is a nominal fee. Advertising is great way to get a message out.

We target local homeowners within a 10 mile radius of our showroom, so we use the local newspaper to advertise this. This works great.
The other thing that works well for us are home shows. Advertising an upcoming home show is another great way to call people to action. Just before a home show, we advertise free tickets that can be picked up at our showroom. If you don't have one already, take some time to create a marketing plan before you throw dollars at advertising.
Robert Wright at Citadel Renovations in Ottawa wrote:
What we do is two home shows a year...the next one is in a couple of weeks, have an active website, have a branding radio campaign, and make sure we have happy clients.

I only do the two shows as they are the ones that work for me. There are others that I pass on as they didn't work for me.

I also send out a monthly newsletter to 300+ addresses and growing. They generally are well received. I am also linked to other reno websites that link and use my materials. Lets see how well this works in the future.
More on this topic tomorrow.

Construction Marketing, branding and advertising: How do they relate?

Is having fun at events like the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Awards Sales and Marketing Awards event part of branding. Sure, but marketers must not forget that their great logos and showpiece sales offices and advertising will ultimately provide less long-term value to their company's brand if the overall client experience is not in alignment with the image conveyed by the marketing initiatives.

A fascinating thread on, Branding Your Business, has now reached its seventh page. You need to be registered with remodelcrazy to read this thread, but since registration is free, I urge you to do it.

The discussion touches around the core principals of marketing and what exactly "branding" means. This is a concept that is arcane and out of mind-reach to most people in the construction industry (and I'll admit, for several years, it was beyond my comprehension, even though our business provides a marketing service). But it is vitally important to understand if you are to succeed.

This post from Jesse Kirchoff of Handyman Solutions in Jefferson, MO, expresses the core concept of effective branding (in my opinion):
While I have been struggling to put my thoughts into written words these past couple of weeks - Chris Wright has wrapped it all up with a neat little bow in his last two posts - but especially in this one sentence "A brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer." That nails it right there.

Everything you do or say, the quality of your marketing, the clothes you choose to wear, your hair cut, your attitude, the look on your face ........ EVERYTHING adds to the perception of your company - be it good, bad or indifferent people are judging and putting a "perceived" value on us from that first impression like it or not.
This is why I believe contractors who have relied" on word of mouth and referral business in good times have a great brand -- their challenge is they haven't learned how to manage and control it, so are at the whim of forces beyond their control. When the economy tanked, they suddenly found their business drying up, and (without experience in marketing or advertising) discovered they were floundering.

Advertising of course can be part of your brand -- in fact, it, done right, will enhance and build it. Most contractors however won't want to try to advertise purely to build their brand -- they want people to call and purchase their service, or at least inquire about it. Branding, itself, is a difficult concept to measure, even for the largest corporations, and the benefits are indirect (but truly important, as a great brand allows you to put a higher price -- and thus earn a higher margin -- for your service.)

However, unless you are operating a one-time-visit tourist trap (I think of the line-ups snaking for a tour of the Empire State Building in New York City as an example) -- all the advertising in the world won't help you if people find the experience distasteful, overpriced, and irritating. They won't return for more. (The Empire State Building brand is so strong that the tour operators can deliver crappy service and still stay in business, of course.)

Next post I'll report how some contractors have successfully developed advertising strategies to keep their business flowing, which are consistent and enhance their business brand.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Powerful publicity: Your own communications strategy

If you are looking for an affordable, practical approach to generating business, you may wish to consider the new Powerful Publicity Service.

Here is what you receive:

  • Unlimited email guidance and consulting on media relations, online marketing, and blogging;
  • Up to five hours of free telephone consulting;
  • References, referrals and other ideas.
Your investment: $28.84 per week through Paypal (you can use your major credit cards if you wish.)

This is $1,500 a year, but the minute you think you aren't receiving enough value, just cancel, and you'll owe nothing more. And if you cancel before we complete publication of the article about your business (estimated work time about five to five weeks), we'll be happy to refund any money you spend at the start-up stage. There's no risk, because you must approve the article before we publish it: If you aren't satisfied for any reason, you simply need to cancel the arrangement and you won't be out a cent.

Compare this fee to a conventional advertising or even pay-per-click marketing budget, and you will see that you can afford the service even if you are working with the most limited marketing resources. We've designed this service to be ideal for start-up or very small contractors who wish to grow their business without squandering money on ineffective marketing.

If you would like more information, please feel free to email me directly at, or you can complete the Form below.

Powerful Publicity

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Races and Construction Marketing

Members of the Ottawa chapter of Construction Specifications Canada at the Rideau-Carleton Raceway. My only bet, a $2.00 ticket, lost. Of course I didn't actually purchase the ticket.

Although the local racetrack and slot machine emporium is close to my home, I've never visited the facility since it opened in its new and "modern" form several years ago. The idea of putting coins into machines in hopes of winning big when you know the odds are stacked against you from the start hardly excites my sense of rational business awareness.

More significantly, I know enough risk and chance in day-to-day business ownership. Compare this time last year to where things are today, and I would say that anyone who thinks business planning and assumptions can truly predict your future is dreaming in some very bad form of colour.

The difference between business risk and gambling risk, of course, is that the business owner has some choice in the outcome. I suppose horse racing gamblers have a form of choice -- they can review the handicaps and statistics before placing their bets -- and card game gamblers can try to count cards, but the gambling business has solutions to these risks: Odds adjust automatically as bets are placed, so at the races the house takes its cut (about 25 per cent, I estimate) no matter who wins, and card counters are banned from the casinos.

The world isn't fair, it seems, especially for those who think that dumbly playing the game is the way to win.

Fellow members of the Ottawa Chapter of Construction Specifications Canada are not dumb, however. We know that casinos and racetracks offer enticing deals on meals and entertainment, if you don't gamble. So we didn't. Instead we shared stories of how games are set.

Here is a good example. One member explained the simple convenience store owner rule for "pull tab" games -- you know, those little cards where you pay a dollar and hope to win a jackpot. Convenience store operators fill the jars with these tabs, and watch whether anyone wins as the jar empties. The CSC member explained that if the big winner didn't appear by the time the jar had reached 1/4 empty, the store owner "purchases" the entire remaining jar. Of course, at this point, a win would be inevitable. Knowledge certainly helps stack the odds in your favour.

In fact, in business, our knowledge, instinct and gut feelings, combined with an understanding of the rules and some genuine luck are all essential for success.

One person at my table, who insisted on not being identified or publicized in any way, spends $5,000 annually on a well-known leads service, for example. He then assesses the information and sends out information packages, seeking to sell concrete products to contractors.

He said: "I can't be identified because in fact the products I distribute are also sold by the company's other divisions, and if they have the information, they will compete against me." It turns out the end-user may purchase the same thing from the same company, but the distributor at the race track wins or loses depending on whether others know he is looking for the work and opportunity.

"Could the original supplier save some money by simplifying and consolidating its sales force and arrangements," I asked the distributor. "Sure, in theory," he said. "But the seeming inefficiencies actually spur competition and create more business for the manufacturer."

In other words, by allowing different players to compete in selling the product, the manufacturer actually sells more, at greater profit. This may not make much sense to the bean counters, but it certainly works in the marketplace.

Then the distributor relayed a story which shows how things evolve. A few years ago, before electronic equipment replaced mechanical methods, tolerances of up to 10 per cent were permitted for cut stone. These tolerances remained in the contract language for a major, high-profile project, even though then-recent technology advances had eliminated the need for them. One contractor bid the job, then creatively arranged to have the stone cut to the minimum tolerance, which of course guaranteed a 10 per cent gain -- and possibly even 20 per cent. This certainly improved the margin.

As some of us left early (after the fourth race), and walked through the slot machine section, we felt a sense of rational superiority over the fools playing the machines. They simply don't get it, and are poor as a result. The world is not fair to the dumb and the passive (and sometimes bad luck can bring down even the brightest and most honorable).

But when we are play the business game, we can choose our strategy and change course when we need to find a new direction. We enjoyed our inexpensive, information-sharing evening at the race track. We had found a way to win, sure-fire.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why every contractor needs publicity

Adams Hudson, in his Sales & Marketing Insider, posts this note which touches close to this blog's heart (and our business's core service.)

Why do you need publicity? Here are real-world reasons that everyone should understand.
Publicity makes you an expert. There are a variety of ways to become an expert. One way is just to say, "I'm an expert." But who cares if no one KNOWS that you're an expert. There's a better way that doesn't smack of puffing out your chest. Get the media to quote you in a story about water heaters or appear in a television segment about how to reduce heating costs and suddenly you're an expert. I like the word "anoint" because that is what the media is doing to your reputation.

If you make no effort with publicity, there's a strong chance that potential customers will NOT have an opinion about your business because they won't even know you exist. You need publicity so that when a customer is in a buying mood, they think of your company because they've seen or heard about it in the media. If you get on enough short lists of potential customers, you WILL close some of those deals. And make more money.

Publicity reminds your EXISTING customers that hiring you was a good idea. We all brag about people we do business with when that person is well-respected or well-known. It's the "Sure, Joe is a great accountant. He's my accountant, too, and has been for more than 10 years." No matter how good you are, you need to remind your customers that THEY made the right choice in hiring you. What better way (without blowing your own horn) than for them to see you mentioned in the media? It reaffirms to them that they really DO have an expert attending to their needs.
How can you obtain positive publicity for your business? You can of course reference my free Art and Science of Publicity e-book (see the sidebar) for more ideas, or communicate with me personally by email at (If you wish, you can also email and the autoresponder will send you a copy of the e-book.)

You may also wish to sign up for Hudson's newsletter -- see the sign up form on his website home page -- which contains much other useful information.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Real (virtual) communities

Within the Internet, I belong to a few real (virtual) communities.

The contradiction is ironic. The communities are virtual in that they are online and geographically diverse. They are real in that the relationships and networking effects are as strong if not stronger than conventional communities and association networks.

Many of the communities, of course, are related directly to this blog. Some are relevant to outside interests. Their common denominator is specialized focus.

Many have a degree of genuine exclusivity -- you can't get in unless you are invited, and in at least one or two cases, their websites are totally secret from the general public or even the average person interested in the topic.

From a marketing perspective, these online communities reflect the communities you find in the conventional world and have both strengths and limitations.

The numbers are (relatively) small
You won't find real communities with tens of thousands of members. You can't "buy reach" through conventional advertising and marketing, at least effectively.

You can build real relationships
In some cases, these reach the level of true friendship. You can understand and appreciate the individuality of each member.

They are enduring
While sometimes communities form through special circumstances and crises, they tend to last, even after the catalyst and justification for the community has long passed.

You can't barge in (but sometimes you can be accepted quickly)
Remember high school. Sometimes an out-of-town kid joins the class and is instantly accepted into the "in group", while another flounders, friendless. If you relate to the community's framework, and contribute rather than sell, you will often be welcomed quickly, but you generally can't gain acceptance if you are selfishly or insensitively pushy.

The biggest problem with these communities is your challenge of measuring time and effectiveness -- it can seem you are spending energy, effort, and resources without any return. The answer, of course, is to both participate in communities you genuinely enjoy, and are relevant to your market interests.

Then you can turn otherwise seemingly unproductive fun time into genuine business development opportunities. But you can't get there unless you want to be in the place.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Mexican Ambassador, rubber stamps, and money: Creative solutions at work

Javier Barrio Terrazas, Mexico's Ambassador to Canada (sitting in front of the whiteboard) addresses Bill Caswell's Discovery Conference in Ottawa yesterday. In case you are wondering what this presentation has to do with Construction Marketing, you should review Chaos Theory.

Yesterday, I attended the first day of Bill Caswell's Discovery 2009 conference. The event, an eclectic gathering of individuals and ideas, has proven to be the perfect environment for creative ideas cross fertilization and generation.

Whenever you put a bunch of bright people from different backgrounds in a room with some structure but much opportunity for individual dialogue and communication, things happen. Trouble is, you don't always know exactly where these "things" lead -- and I may not appreciate the benefits of this conference for months, if not years.

In the midst of the business sessions, Caswell introduced Fracisco Javier Barrio Terrazas, Mexico's ambassador to Canada.

In his presentation, and in the question and answer session that followed,Ambassador Barrrio Terrazas reminded us that the democratic principals and freedoms we take for granted in the U.S. and Canada are not common elsewhere in the world, including Mexico, until recently.

The Mexican envoy said as he grew up and reached adulthood, and in his early years in business, things like freedom of expression, association, the right to belong or not belong to groups, speech, press, and other basics of democracy were things that Mexicans could only dream about.

Then, he said, out of an economic crisis and hyperinflation fuelled by corruption and mismanagement, a popular movement arose to change the Mexican system. Gradually the groundswell built, but how could the opposition party communicate with the public when the Government controlled the media and restrained all dissent?

The surprisingly creative answer: The opposition party devised 20 simple messages and purchased rubber stamps. Then activists to cheques to banks and collected bank notes, and stamped each note with one of the messages.

The opposition leaders redeposited the stamped banknotes and then drew out more money, in a continuing loop.

You can imagine Government's consternation. It couldn't really ban circulating cash. It passed a law banning "money stamping" but how would you enforce this type of legislation? The Opposition began winning some local elections despite rigging and controls, and eventually the government fell to the popular will.

Of course the Ambassador is painting a specific picture of his country, but it is much different than the one I know from the tourist experience and media coverage. And his story has nothing to do with construction marketing, or does it?

We sometimes are constrained by our thinking within our universe of perceptions and forget how little things in one place can have big effects in others. Most of us at some point make decisions which transform our lives, and many times the decisions seem unrelated to anything important.

Certainly, yesterday I had many reasons to miss the conference -- in fact I needed (with advance notice of course) to walk out on the Ambassador's presentation to call into my company's regular Monday staff meeting. But I'm glad I could attend the sessions.

Consider these unofficial "chaos theory" marketing principals:
  • You may wish to set aside 20 per cent of your time and resources for off the wall and different activities and engagements. Consider trying something different each week; maybe taking a random book out of a section of the library you rarely visit (or visiting the library if you never go there, going to a movie you wouldn't otherwise watch, or speaking to a stranger, in a safe environment. Better, see if you can find yourself in a small group with different people from different backgrounds.
  • When you are searching for a bigger answer (maybe looking for a job), don't be afraid to call on people who may be able to guide you to where you want to go, even if they are not directly related to your final destination. Just listen and learn.
  • Don't sweat the little things and setbacks. In fact, enjoy them. You never know where they may be creating future opportunities.
I can't be sure how (or even if) yesterday's session will change my life, but I know the chances of it happening are much greater than not because of the diverse group of individuals,relationships and experiences. You need to break out of your space, sometimes, even -- maybe especially -- if conditions are stressful and you sense you don't have time and money to escape the grindstone.

When I think of hard conditions and seemingly insolvable problems, I now think of the Mexican political activists, struggling to get their message across, and finding the solution the help of rubber stamps and circulating banknotes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Workshops and marketing

If you have a technical product or service, or something that requires explanation and understanding for potential clients to use it effectively, perhaps your most effective idea to is to co-ordinate workshops or seminars to explain your systems.

Schluter Systems, for example, uses workshops to outline its innovations for ceramic and stone tile installations. These are geared to designers and contractors who actually work with ceramic tile. Schluter's Ontario regional manager Tod Valickis says the sessions are highly effective.

A Schluter Systems online brochure notes: "Courses consist of both classroom and hands-on instruction. Learn state-of-the-art installation techniques and the theories behind their innovation, and share your experiences with colleagues in an informative, energetic atmosphere."

You can view the Schluter brochure (and learn about upcoming seminars in Toronto -- the company offers similar programs in other markets) at

Can you use the same approach for your own business?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remembering the basics

Yesterday evening, after a string of setbacks and key employee resignations (yes, these things happen), I thought of my responses and strategies.

For a while, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to just put everything on hold for a year." Then I figured how I could finance this appealing diversion, and began imagining how I would live and spend the borrowed money to reset my emotional clock and priorities.

My wife (thankfully I am married to someone who is rational and wise, as well as beautiful) quickly put me into my place. She reminded me forcefully and effectively that debt rarely solves problems long-term, and if I want to take the break, I will have to deplete my savings. I can do this, of course, but should I?

These choices reflect the difficult decisions many people encounter; in exchange for short term or immediate gratification, they pull out their credit card or refinance their home and for a while live the good life. Then everything crumbles and the debt, if it is a problem originally, just gets worse.

Fortunately, I've followed my own advice to date in this blog, separating business debt from personal obligations (which are minimal) and this has given me a degree of security that people living on the financial edge don't enjoy.

But I admit that, for a while yesterday evening, I was tempted to break my own rules. Not everyone has the will or ability to defer gratification, of course.

Then, what is the right way for me to "find my break", if I want to take it?

These answers from common-sense business models apply:

  • I can reduce my expenses and fixed costs, including, if necessary, my salary, to balance the reduced income if I am not actively engaged in day-to-day work. This may mean giving up some of the treats and pleasures of life, and being frugal about my personal budget.
  • I can drain my savings. Hardly wise, but if I really need the break, I can take the money from retirement funds and feel the emotional pain of every dollar I withdraw. This will keep me firmly focused on restoring financial equilibrium and avoid the false feeling that "everything is normal" when debt is increased to maintain comfort or purchase pleasurable things.
  • I can improve the business income from current activities. Obviously a good idea, and one of the best ways to do this is to find and encourage people to buy more of what we have to sell.
  • I can develop new streams of income. Probably the most satisfying answer, because the additional revenue provides more security and of course allows more freedom. How? Some ideas are forming at the back of my mind (which of course require little if no financial investment).
As I thought about these options, I regained my spirit, composure, and hope for the future. Sure, I can take a break. But why not instead think about creating some new breakthroughs?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Online sales test -- another review

In January, 2008, I posted this reference to

This image is from the website of
Some years ago, I posted a question on the now-defunct Google Answers service, inviting researchers to help me find an inexpensive test to evaluate potential sales candidates. Other services were charging $100 or more per test -- and the tests were cumbersome things. Clearly, if the test is too expensive, we won't be able to afford to administer it widely, and thus would have to screen out candidates who might otherwise qualify.

I ended up using This Toronto-based service has delivered the goods. The electronic test is so simple it almost appears dumb (and hardly worth the actual cost per test of about $35.00; purchased in blocks). But the report and rating system the test uses is crystal clear -- and the results are instant. We send the test results to all candidates who complete it. It is the perfect 'brush off' to people we don't want to hire (its the test, not us!), and is a great motivator for those we want. And, while the test has not been 100 per cent foolproof, we've found virtually total success if the score is 8 out of 10 or higher on "prospecting" and "closing" and low on "need for direction.
A few weeks ago, Chase and I decided to review our sales test practices to satisfy ourselves that the test we had been using is indeed the best. We surveyed the market, and discovered, in addition to the incredibly complex and (in my opinion overpriced) complex psychological profile tests out there, another test which, on the surface, appeared to be less expensive than We decided to compare the tests to each other, using ourselves, current employees and new sales candidates in the evaluation.

Right from the start, however, I knew the alternative test had some real problems. It took 20 minutes to complete and, most disturbingly, asked questions which anyone with a brain could 'game' to give the presumably correct answer. I could not see how this test could measure anything except whether someone had years of experience in sales, with lots of "training courses" and knows how to speak the language of corporate-speak.

Notably, Chase (our top producing representative) and I achieved perfect 10/10 ratings in the key indicators on Now I don't claim perfection in real life (you just need to read earlier posters to know this) but a person who has the drive to start and maintain a business for two decades, even if he is not a stereotypical salesperson, has to be somewhat effective at selling.

Chase posted the comparisons between the other sales test and on his blog. Then the fun began.

The representative of the competing test sent a sabre-rattling email using legal-type words saying it is against that sales test's policies to allow any comparison with competing products.

We of course removed all references to the other test and I am not naming it here (I really don't want to spend time with my lawyers).

After this abortive experiment, I ] sent an email to Dave Pearce, president of

Pearce told me his company has about 1,400 clients and they indicate to him the test has about 90 per cent validity. He can't formally measure the success rate of individual clients, but the high-reorder rate is an indication that his test meets the needs of businesses and organizations seeking a reliable option.

He says about 75 to 100 of his clients are within the architectural, engineering and construction community. Most business is within the U.S. with some in Canada ( is based in Toronto), but the company has clients world-wide.

These range from small businesses who purchase the simple pack of five tests for $350.00, to a few large organizations who pay $20,000 for an unlimited licence.

So we're sticking with I think you should, too.

Editor's note: In January 2008, when I wrote the original posting, we received no compensation from for the endorsement. We have just established an affiliate marketing agreement, but you should note that I was ready to recommend this test without any compensation or reward 18 months ago.