Marketing 101 for Contractors: Smart Planning, Spending, and Evaluation Give Life to Small Budgets

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Marketing may be the most misunderstood—and poorly applied—discipline in contracting. Many contractors confuse marketing with public relations, advertising, promotion, and buckshot communications. The results are wasted dollars, little or no additional business, and plenty of frustration.

Plan

You wouldn’t start randomly building a house without plans, a budget, a time frame, and a general idea of what you were trying to achieve. Marketing is no different. For even the smallest of contractors, planning is critical. The plan need not be complicated or long, but it should include:


  • Goals and objectives: “Getting more business” doesn’t qualify. Set specific, realistic goals, and include time frames. Maybe your goal is to increase revenues 10% over the next two years, to increase qualified leads 25% this year, to increase your margins in certain areas, or to increase awareness of your company name 30% in the next three years.

  • A target market: Just as billion-dollar companies don’t market to everyone on the planet, neither should you. The more you target, the better your results will be. It is much easier to grow from a known base than it is to attempt to do everything for everyone. Think hard about your specialty area(s) and your competition. Hone in on what you do best, what you want to do, and for whom. Whether it’s renovating bungalows in older neighborhoods or being the HVAC contractor of choice for mid-sized office buildings, make decisions and adhere to them.

  • A budget: A common recommendation is to spend approximately 5% to 8% of gross sales on marketing. In some specialties and some geographic areas, it may be lower, but in general, the range is a good one to keep in mind. In the early stages, you may spend a bit more for one-time investments.

  • Tactics for meeting your objectives: Choose tactics designed to meet your specific objectives. A good public relations program will help with awareness and reputation goals, but don’t expect it to bring in short-term leads in and of itself. Advertising may help bring in some short-term leads, but realize that marketing is a process, not an event. Results come from long-term, consistent, continual efforts, not random, one-time shots.
Implement

While each contractor’s tactics will differ, a few basics can go a long way in almost any plan:
  • Make a name for yourself: Contractors often favor their own names for their company names. This can work, but whether you opt for your own name or something else, think about it long and hard. A name must be simple to say, spell, and remember. If you choose one that spells out what you do (Smith Plumbing, for instance), you can afford a catchy or more descriptive tagline (“specializing in sewers and drains”). On the other hand, if you choose a less-descriptive name, make sure the accompanying tagline explains what you do. Test your name on friends, associates, and clients, taking care to choose something that does not offend or exclude anyone. A business name is not a venue in which to express political or other controversial opinions.

  • Lock in a logo: Once you have a name, you’ll need to put it in a format you can use consistently. Simple logos are best, even those that are text only (distinguished by font types). Make sure any logo you consider is distinct, readable (from near and far), and reproducible. Think about colors in light of the fact you’ll need to print, copy, fax, and email the logo. Best bet: use a professional. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but to make sure you get something that works in every medium—from letterhead to a potential website—don’t treat this as a DIY project.

  • Read the signs: Surprisingly few contractors post signs outside current job sites. Once you have appropriate electronic company identity (name, logo) files, a business/office supply store can help with a good sign. Many contractors say they get much of their best work from people who call after seeing their signs.

  • Show me the…information: As with signage, you can leverage current job sites (where permitted) by attaching a small brochure box, available at office supply stores, to your sign. Prepare a simple one-page summary of your service offerings to include inside. You can move up to a three-fold flyer or brochure that contains before-and-after photos, case studies, and references. Again, to obtain results, use the services of a professional here. Plenty of independent communications professionals are in business today to help other small businesses and offer reasonable pricing.

  • Get on the web: Today, it’s possible to obtain a URL and company email addresses even for the smallest of businesses on a shoestring. Web hosting companies and Internet service providers often offer very low-cost packages. You don’t need to start out with a full-blown website, but a presence on the Internet, ability to professionally handle electronic communications, and consistency in your business’s look and message are key to success.

  • Start small; think big: Once you have defined your target market and have your base materials ready to go, start talking to people. But rather than promoting, think about sharing the information you have to establish credibility and your reputation as the “go-to” expert.

    • HOA meetings: Homeowners’ meetings often provide excellent opportunities to provide information on timely topics. Offer to discuss winterizing homes or gardens, address common neighborhood issues, or provide base remodel information.

    • Town meetings: Similarly, many municipalities’ building or inspection departments offer open meetings to review base guidelines for remodeling and additions. Attending meetings in your own town or in towns where you already do some work will give you prime opportunities to offer non-promotional information on the subjects at hand.

    • Realtors: Introduce yourself to real estate and mortgage professionals as an expert who will visit properties with them (and/or their clients) to assess renovation, inspection, and other options.

    • Former clients: First and foremost, do a good job. Then keep in touch with past clients and make sure they’re still happy with the work you did. If so, don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals. Most people are happy to do so if they know you have time available and know the types of projects you prefer.
Stay the Course

No matter what you choose to do, be consistent. Use the same name, logo, imagery, message, and style in all materials, including brochures, business cards, your website, and any ads you might run. Presenting a consistent, repetitive message, look, and feel lets prospective clients know you are professional, serious, and in for the long haul. On the other hand, inconsistency can be deadly. Remember that just as Rome “wasn’t built in a day,” it takes perseverance to build a business. But keeping at it slowly and steadily will pay off in spades.

Plans of any kind call for review, evaluation, and modification. Evaluate your progress critically every few months and make adjustments. Typically, contractors have more problems in remaining consistent and patient, so take care not to jump too fast. But if something isn’t working after a good effort, modify accordingly.

About the Author

Dean Bennett is president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc., a design/build firm based in Castle Rock, Colorado. Specializing in custom residential design and construction, the firm’s projects include remodeling, interior and exterior additions, conversions, basement finishes, landscaping and fencing, and custom-finish carpentry.

The company offers concept-to-completion design, including working drawings, blueprints, securing of permits, and inspection coordination. Working with a business model of a single principal on site throughout the project, from architectural design through final construction, Bennett effectively integrates design and construction while eliminating the need to hire separate general and sub-contractors and architects.

Bennett has had a national client base since 1996 and has worked with many of his clients for multiple years. He holds Master of Architecture and Bachelor of Environmental Design degrees from the University of Colorado. Bennett is also an accomplished fly fisherman, golfer, skier, and snowboarder and enjoys swimming, running, cycling, cooking, and photography.

He can be reached at 303-513-2065 or dean@deanbennettdc.com.
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