—and a sneak-peek at what we’ve been working on for over a year!
Face it, anyone who has ever tried to market a contracting company needs to realize that the greatest challenge is that we sell really boring crap! I’m sorry if this is somehow breaking news, but most consumers typically never even think about their water heater, furnace, or air conditioner until it stops working—and by then it’s too late to actively market to them. How many thousands of dollars has your company spent sending potential customers marketing that you wouldn’t even open or look at if you weren’t in the trade? If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how many of the four to five car insurance offers mailed to you every month you opened and read in the last year. I’m betting your answer is none. So, what makes your stuff any different except that you’re the one paying for it?
I’m not saying that investing in outbound marketing never accomplishes anything. But, typically, the stuff we outbound market that pitches the “boring stuff’ we sell only really gets noticed by one person out of every 400 we attempt to reach. And, this person only paid attention to it because they noticed that their furnace was making a sound it never used to, or that their toilet was no longer flushing right. I’m always amazed that, as an industry, we break out the champagne and do a happy dance whenever we are lucky enough to get a quarter of 1% (.0025%) response rate—especially when I consistently see from the national surveys we do, that 1 out of every 4 homeowners surveyed had a contractor work in their home that year! That means that, while we’re celebrating that one guy out of 400 who responded to our marketing, we missed connecting with the 99 others of that group who will have work done that year.
If you think I’m about to tell you that Marketing through Search Engines is the answer—you’re wrong!
I know that many of my contemporaries who also do Internet marketing will say the answer to reaching those who ignore your outbound marketing is simply to be on the first page of Google. That’s where a focused (i.e., panicked) consumer goes when some of his ‘boring stuff’ stops working, right? To some extent, yes. However, being found on the first page of Google only potentially narrows down a customer’s choices—it does not guarantee that you get a call. This, plus the fact that less than 13% of consumers use Search Engines to blindly find a contractor, also factors into how you should look at your marketing strategy.
The problem with Search Engines is that you don’t really get a chance to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Even if you’re on the first page, it’s really not much different than being in a bar with 10 or so guys, all trying to get a date with the woman who just walked in by jumping up and down yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” To be fair, your odds are better being among just 10 guys in the bar than 100. However, thinking that being near the front of the line makes you a ‘shoe-in’ is silly. Don’t kid yourself. I guarantee, unless she’s completely desperate, the woman will look at everyone in the room hoping to find a guy she somewhat knows, or has heard from others is trustworthy—rather than pick a total stranger. And that, in a nutshell, is the key to successfully marketing all the ‘boring stuff’ we sell. Be the ‘guy’ your community can relate to, knows, and likes!
As I’ve covered in previous articles, when in doubt, people will always choose the familiar over the unknown. If you question this, find someone who has never had their car in to have their transmission worked on and have them do a search for “transmission repair” in Google. When the search results load, ask them who they think you should use from that page—then watch them. They will typically scroll down to the bottom quickly, then come back up a bit slower. My question for you is this: If they didn’t have a clue who to call, what were they looking for? Why didn’t they just pick the top guy?
If you think about it, we all do the same thing when looking for any service where we don’t have a clue who we want to use. Everyone quickly scans down the page looking for something they recognize. We do this because we’re trying to jog our memory hoping to remember whether we have heard something about one of the companies, know of someone that used one of the companies, know someone who works at one of the companies, or previously had wanted to try a certain company but forgot which one (if you’re over 55 like me, you’ll totally get that last reason).
The unknown is scary to people and always easier to avoid. Look at how you go through your mail. I bet you look at who sent each letter, whether or not you open it. The odds are way better that you’ll open a letter from a company you recognize than one that you don’t.
The second reason I am cautioning my clients about looking at Google as an end-game for their customer acquisition, is that I believe that search engine leads will soon become cost-prohibitive. Google is already in the process of transforming local search into a pay-to-play game. If you only read the second and third paragraphs of my February article ‘Google as the Gatekeeper’ you’ll understand why I say this. For those of you who were in business in the 80’s and 90’s and experienced the stranglehold the Yellow Pages had on our trade, that’s where search is headed as Google monetizes it with Google Local Services.
As we showed in our Salt Lake City focus group, Google can easily divert everyone looking for service into their pay-to-play program at any time they choose. Even though the leads are cheap right now while they build the program out, remember, these are the same guys that turned Pay-per-Click into a bidding war to maximize their profits. The good news is that you can be immune to all this. How? The answer is simple. Be the guy in your community where people type your company name into the search box—instead of just for the service they need.
So, how do you ‘bullet-proof’ your business and become the “familiar guy” in your marketplace?
For years everyone has taught that you do this by “Branding” your company. Catch phrases like “Building your Brand”, or “Becoming the Brand” that I hear a lot of people use, basically only describe the goal—not the process. The actual process can be boiled down to three simple ‘keys’ that should be the lens you view all your endeavors through. The three keys are: Geography, Delivery, and Engagement. Of the three, the first two are the easiest to accomplish through management, but they are many times overlooked.
The first rule of becoming the familiar guy is this: You can’t have it all. This is why understanding the difference between your service area and your marketing area is critical to success. Although most contractors know the towns and areas where most of their work comes from, it amazes me that so many keep throwing away massive amounts of marketing dollars trying to market in areas where most people have no clue who they are. I’d thought everyone learned from their college years that long-distance romances rarely work. Just because a city or town is in the boundaries of your service area does not mean residents there will recognize you. Assuming the customer is like you, most of the mail you send into areas where you don’t have a daily presence will go in the ‘unopened pile’ along with the other businesses they don’t recognize.
In every extended database analysis we’ve done for contractors, without fail, 80% of their work is always done in about 20% of the zip codes they define as their service area. If you don’t believe me, run your own numbers and see for yourself. You would think that more contractors would figure out that even though they’ve marketed to all their ‘service area’ zip codes over the years, they would sell more by focusing just on the areas that have already proven their company is ‘familiar enough’ that their marketing works and people actually call. The payback for working your market area instead of your entire service area is that wherever you have 10% market penetration in a community—all your marketing will work there. It’s not rocket science to know that the biggest fish in a pond enjoys life more than the smaller ones he feeds on. The good news is that you can be the biggest fish as long as you choose—and stay—in the right pond.
No matter how much you market a consumer, you typically won’t get a referral without asking for it unless you ‘WOW’ them. If all you do is just fix their problem, what makes you different or more memorable than other good companies out there? Being memorable in a favored light, is a big part of being the ‘familiar guy’ they always choose and refer to others. With a ‘tip-of-the-hat’ to Matt Koop of the ‘New Flat Rate’, if you ever have the opportunity to sit in one of their Service Training Classes, it’s well worth your time and investment. They have ‘creating the ‘Wow’ factor with your customer’ down to a science.
Have a pricing plan in place that already takes into account delivering more than you promised goes a long way to creating the ‘WOW”. Whether it’s replacing batteries in the smoke detectors for free or giving them a free high-efficiency filter change at no extra charge, it totally changes the dynamics of the call. Since they already agreed to a price, doing more than they agreed to pay you for is what they will remember about you when you pull out of the driveway.
Have you ever wondered why we typically need to ask happy customers to give us a review—but the unhappy ones are publishing their frustration to every review site they can find before your truck even clears the driveway? The answer is simple and it all has to do with expectations. Customers call you because they expect good service. Nobody ever calls anyone where they expect to get bad service. If you give good service and meet their expectations, they will pay you and consider the transaction complete. You did your part and they did theirs. A good review may be part of your expectation, but it was never originally theirs. As far as they’re concerned, they got what they expected and handed you the payment which is what you told them you expected. It’s only when you exceed their expectations that they are ‘wowed’, and you’re guaranteed a spot in their head.
Of these three keys that you need to focus your business on, engagement has traditionally been the hardest to implement. The problem is time/scalability and the already-stated observation that we sell really boring stuff. You see, all our businesses would rock if we could personally meet, talk with and get to know everyone who had ever been a customer. In fact, that’s how most guys starting their own business gain traction until they grow and don’t have enough ‘time’ in the day to personally engage with every customer.
Face-to-face engagement is, hands down, the most effective way to engage with potential customers and you should find ways to do it as often as you can. The core fundamental of sales has not changed in the 40 years I’ve been in this industry: “People do business with people they like—and with people who are like them!” The problem is, because of the time and effort involved, the ‘face-to-face’ approach isn’t scalable when we try to engage our entire community to achieve the “familiar guy” advantage. This is where companies typically hit a brick wall.
With the face-to-face approach, you’re having a conversation that captures the customer’s attention and focus—which is what makes it ‘engagement’. In place of the personal touch, our industry’s typical fallback is to attempt to scale engagement through advertising, trying to convince customers that the boring crap we sell is somehow “not-boring” and is worthy of their focus and attention. Unfortunately, this never cuts it!
If we sold cars, fishing stuff, or hunting gear, engagement with potential customers in your community would be super-easy since people are already passionate about those things. When you sell stuff people are passionate about, they will read your ads, subscribe to your blogs, continually visit your website to learn what’s new, and even go out of their way to engage with you for your ‘insider’ knowledge. They pursue and identify with it because it’s their passion.
Unfortunately, we don’t sell cars, fishing stuff, or hunting gear. Instead, we sell attic jobs, sewer cleanings and parts they’ve never heard of. Show me someone not in the trade, whose life’s passion is about what we do—and I’ll show you a nutjob. I don’t care how much you advertise—you are not going to convince someone that sewer cleaning or regularly checking their air filter is something they should care deeply and be excited about!
The trick to engaging your community is not to move them into your box—but to break into theirs.
Too many times, we try to get the customer engaged in our world when it’s more productive and cost-effective to get involved in theirs. To make your company the “familiar guy”, get it involved in areas your customers are passionate about. The trick is doing it cost effectively and getting the biggest bang for your buck in doing it. This is where you need to get creative.
For example, every small community has parades in the summer that local businesses can drive a truck in. However, just having your truck driving in a parade isn’t much different than advertising trying to get people interested in the boring crap we sell. It won’t really register with the onlookers. However, give a donation to a local community charity so they let you pull their float with the same wrapped truck, and the dynamic totally changes. Not only do you get a huge ‘halo’ effect from the visual association, you’ve ‘tagged’ your company with something that many of those watching the parade are passionate about. There’s a much greater chance they’ll remember you when they need service from being part of something they are passionate about, than from any advertising you may have sent them. In fact, local charities are probably the easiest way to tap into a customer’s passion. By definition, since they operate through local donations, the fact that they exist is proof they have local supporters who care deeply about and invest in what they do.
A few years ago, one of our contractors, Jacob Carr of Nottawasaga Mechanical in Wasaga Beach Ontario, asked us to build some email submission forms in his website so that customers could fill them out and have their submissions counted as votes. When we asked him why he was doing it, he said that he was so tired of throwing money at marketing that didn’t produce results, he figured he’d rather give the money to charity instead. He decided to create a contest in his website where he could have a few local charities compete for a $1,000 cash prize by simply getting their supporters to visit his website and vote for their charity. The rules were that they could vote as many times as they wanted to—but only once per day. At the end of three months, the charity with the most votes got the prize.
As simple as this contest was, we saw his web traffic increase from an average of 30 visitors a day, up to well over 120 visitors daily—all local! Jacob later told me he doubled his service business in the first year after he started doing it—without doing anything else different in his company. What Jacob had discovered, was that instead of trying to drag customers into our world by advertising and marketing, by positioning his company within the traffic of what his community was already passionate about, the engagement with the community this created caused his company’s brand to explode.
The proof is in the pudding
Just so you know that what I’m writing about isn’t a fluke, over the last year my company, Online-Access, has been developing automated online systems to maximize our clients’ abilities to market through charities. Our own HVAC company, as well as some of our other web clients, have been part of the testing over the past year. The systems and web platform we’ve developed is designed to let companies scale community engagement profitably, by shifting funds typically spent for advertising into support for community programs.
Here’s a quick example of how successful this approach can be. Our HVAC company’s market area has about 30,000 homes in it where we currently do about $3 million of business annually. During a period of three months we ran a charity program with three local charities. During those three months, we had an additional 4,000 unique visitors from our community visit our website an average of three times, for a total of 12,000 hits. Because one of the charities we were working with involved our local hospital, we also got a glowing write up in the hospital newsletter that went to 1,400 doctors and nurses. All the promotion for the program was done by the participating charities, and their donors who pushed their friends to go to our website to participate. Every one of the 4,000 local visitors gave us a verified email address and permission to write them in the future if it was about something that helped their chosen charity. The entire program cost us just $1,750 in donations!
Best of all, there are many less-obvious benefits the program provided for us:
- By getting the charity’s supporters to engage with us on our website, for the next six months, any of those visitors who had Google history activated on their device, would see us on the first page results of any search they did for services we offer—whether we earned that position or not. By visiting our website, Google would see our URL in their history, and treat us as a favorite they needed to show if the services we offered match their search.
- In the process of getting their people to go to our website, our company was introduced to their donors by the charity they trusted, as being one of the “good guys” in the community. It’s always better when others brag about you than if you do it yourself.
- The fact that the charity supporter who participated went into our website on three different days as part of the promotion, gives us a better chance to be remembered and recognized in the future.
- By capturing the contact info from everyone who participated, we can leverage their passion for the charity they support into future business after the program ends using ‘affinity’ marketing. Affinity marketing is where two separate interests work together to increase brand loyalty, market awareness and, of course, sales or support. Since so many people are using social factors to influence their buying choices today—this is a no-brainer.
- Since the program was a company-wide project, not a personal one, knowing the company was helping fund good organizations in the community boosted morale and pride within our staff.
- Because the program made donations competitive between the three participating charities, we wanted all our customers to weigh in on what charity benefitted. This gave our techs an excuse to talk about our company’s support for the community with every customer we serviced, without looking like we were bragging about it. The charities benefitted from this discussion because they got free exposure to all our clients (i.e., potential new donors) and, as a byproduct, our company got a huge “halo” effect in our customers’ eyes for doing it.
Here’s a link if you want to know more about how our community engagement program works. The program is officially scheduled for release to our Business-Class and First-Class customers this September. One of the great things about this program is that I really don’t know of any companies that don’t already support their community. The difference is that now they can get more from it than just a good feeling.
From my perspective, what thrills me the most about this type of engagement marketing through charities is that if we can encourage all our current customers to run with it, it will be worth all the development and testing we’ve invested in putting it together. It not only has the potential to make their companies more successful but, in doing so, it can easily shift well over $2 million every year into deserving local organizations! That’s my definition of putting a big “W” in the win column.
Until next time… –dave
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