Amerimix
BMJ Stone
Echelon Masonry
EZG Manufacturing
Federated Insurance
Fraco USA, Inc.
Hohmann and Barnard, Inc.
Hydro Mobile, Inc.
iQ Power Tools
Kennison Forest Products, Inc.
Mortar Net Solutions
Non-Stop Scaffolding
Pullman Ermator
SPEC MIX LLC
Stabila
Tradesmen's Software, Inc.
February 12, 2001 11:48 AM CST

The Greatest Marketing Tool of All

The contractor's secret weapon for success

By

When you consider marketing options for your company, the first thing that generally springs to mind are the more conventional advertising and promotional vehicles such as advertising, direct mail, company brochures, and trade shows, and these are all fine options, but perhaps you're overlooking the most important method of marketing that any contractor (or any business for that matter) can possess: you and your employees.

It's true. In our haste to purchase the latest, greatest brochure-publishing software or build the biggest trade-show display, we often run around (or run over) the very quarry we're attempting to corner - our client. We miss out on the opportunity for social interaction - the
necessary human networking - that has proven time and time again to be far superior to any newspaper ad. Remember, construction contracting is - and always has been - a service industry. Our customer is our product. Yes, we do create physical, touchable structures from sticks and stones, but it's our client that remains the focus of our endeavors - and the one thing that we should always aim to please.

The Repeat Customer & the Contractor
But there's a side-benefit to customer attention: more work; work in the form of repeat business. As a matter of fact, it's arguable that there is no industry that relies more on repeat customers than construction contracting. I know it's true for me. I have single clients with whom I've performed dozens of separate construction projects (many of them major) over the years.

These repeat customers are the heart and soul of the success we enjoy. You probably even know fellow contractors who have molded entire careers from only a handful of patrons. These firms get involved with giants like GM, AT&T, or IBM early on in their business lives and never do leave. They go for years in the same plant or facility. Instead of focusing their energies on going out to find new customers, they discovered that all they needed...they already had.

The Forest for the Trees
Many times, your next sale is standing right in front of you in the form of a an existing client. All you have to do is treat them right (again).

But it shouldn't just be the prospect of securing another job that propels your effort. There's also the matter of profit. "How so?" Well, it has to do with efficiency. There's little argument that a lack of efficiency - in both the field and office - will almost always translate into a loss of profit for a contracting company. By eliminating new and unknown working environments, you avoid the need to start learning curves entirely anew...and the loss in production that often accompanies it.

It's really very simple. You already know your customer. You know their needs, moods, patterns, and idiosyncrasies (did I say eccentricities?). There are fewer surprises and - remember - surprises are a bad thing in construction. The more familiar the client and the scope of work, the better your chances will be to control both costs and operations...and the greater your prospect will be for controlled, sustained, and solid profit.

A Case in Point
Such is the case with a hospital client of mine. We've been with this customer continuously for over three years now. Most of the work involves renovating patient rooms (which are quite similar in size and scope), doctor's/staff offices, special areas (such as the pharmacy or chapel), and occasionally, they'll throw an entire wing at us! We have an open-book policy with the hospital representatives and have grown quite familiar with what the hospital expects in construction and the ways of the hospital staff.

With this level of familiarity, we very seldom (actually never) take a hit on our profit line item. Granted, there are no major windfalls either (familiarity can work both ways), but it's steady, predictable income for our company. And to think that what started out as a simple handicap ramp (really) three years ago has now turned into over a million dollars per year in sales volume. Now that's marketing!

Everybody's in Sales
But it didn't just happen by itself. We had to sell ourselves. I had to sell myself (as an estimator and project manager) to hospital administration, the workers in the field had to sell themselves through the quality of their work and their professionalism, and our office staff had to sell themselves by offering prompt, courteous, and efficient accounting and administration. We were all in marketing.

Were there problems? Of course. Nothing ever goes perfectly all the time - especially in something as technically and socially diverse as construction. Rather, the positive promotion for our company came in the way we handled those unpleasant situations when they did arise. We took (what could have been) an uncomfortable situation and used it to increase customer loyalty. As soon as a problem was unearthed, we communicated immediately with the client and then followed through with a sincere and genuine attempt to remedy the situation as professionally, promptly, and responsibly as possible.

Before long, our customer grew satisfied that we weren't the kind of contractor that would leave him lying in a lurch in his time of need. He knew we were there for him. We didn't run away or avoid contact with the client when things didn't go as planned. That's all most people want. Now, certainly no one likes complaints, but these situations gave us the opportunity (in an left-handed kind of way) to prove that we were genuine in our commitment to our client. The way we handled our customer's problems and complaints told more about us as a company than any brochure.

Take a Look Around
Think about it for a moment. Think of a company or service with which you work that you're particularly fond. Chances are your reasons for liking or not liking that company have little to do with their product or pricing structure (even though that's what you seem to hear the most about) and everything to do with their attitude, abilities, and service - especially in those situations where things don't go quite as planned.

The truth is, most customers understand mistakes are going to happen. They know that everyone is human. Besides, it never seems to be the mistake itself that causes hard feelings between a customer and a company. Rather, it's when that business doesn't offer (or even try to offer) a remedy to the customer's problem that causes the animosity between the parties. These types of experiences - both positive and negative - mold our feelings about a particular company. People simply want to conduct business where they know they will be treated well...and will remember forever those places where they weren't!

Turning Lemons...
So, your simplest - yet most effective - marketing tool may lie in you and your employees' ability to handle and resolve problems and conflicts in an expedient manner that won't offend. So, it pays to take a closer look. Here are a few tips for turning customer complaints into positive promotion for your company:

Always be sure someone from your company is accessible to the customer. Yes, this sounds elementary, but I still walk into contractor offices where absolutely no one is around.

If you have a voice-mail system - loose it! In my opinion, voice-mail is one of the most vile and ill-conceived inventions ever visited upon human society...and often only serves to infuriate existing (and potential) customers by wasting their time with endless directories and transfers that end up in hyper-space. A human-being should always answer your phone.

When faced with a customer complaint, always show genuine interest and offer up a sincere and responsive demeanor. Cavalier and casual attitudes will always further inflame the situation.

Listen completely and calmly before offering any help. Many times, a major part of quelling anger and resolving conflict is in simply letting the customer "get it off of his chest".

Never make excuses for a problem. Don't blame the workers in the field or the girl in accounting. The customer sees you as a company - not a group of individual personalities. Passing blame only serves to make the problem more diffused than it really is. Besides, most customers don't care nearly as much about "why" as they do "when" it will be fixed!

Repeat your understanding of the customer's problem back to the customer. This shows the customer that you not only understand the problem, but that you understand how important the situation is to him, and that you're sincere in providing a remedy. Let them know you're on their side and that you appreciate them bringing their problem to your attention.

This next one is directed more at owners. Do not - under any circumstances - do that dopey, dopey thing (that, for some reason, many fast-track companies do) wherein you demand that your employees not use the word "problem" in conversation with customers or with each other. "We call them "opportunities" (or some other mindless, first-grade euphemism) here", you sternly tell your employees...as if they've just blurted out a four-letter word.

I don't know where this practice started (or what marketing seminar started it), but in short, companies that stoop to such ridiculous diversions inevitably accomplish nothing other than becoming the next subject of a Dilbert cartoon. Remember, your customer isn't stupid - and he or she will only find this type of childish diversion condescending and insulting.

As hard as it can sometimes be, don't become defensive with a complainer. Yes, there are some nasty chaps out there and sometimes they can talk pretty rough (especially in our industry). Keep cool and maintain your interest in their problem. Most callers will calm down after the first burst.

Here's a good trick...and one I use myself all the time. After you've addressed the problem at hand to the customer's satisfaction, ask them, "Is there anything else I can do to help you?" This simple exercise of adding one more concerned sentence (as opposed to getting off the phone as fast as you can) gives the customer the chance to pour forth any remaining frustration...and is often the point in the conversation where "the walls come down."

Always try to agree on some mutual solution to the customer's problem at the time of the complaint. If a complete solution just isn't possible right then and there, arrange for a defined and specific "next step." If you need to check with a superior or another party, set up a time that you'll call the customer back...and then keep your promise.

Once the problem is fixed, follow up with a call to the customer just to make sure everything is fine. Most of the time it will be. But if not, treat it as a brand new situation and start the whole process over. Of course, you don't need a complaint to follow up with a customer. Always make a point to call or stop in to recent project owner "just to see how things are holding together." They'll almost always appreciate it, and it often gives you a chance to discuss future work opportunities.

Conclusion
Most of what we've discussed is common-sense and nothing greater than practicing the golden rule. It's just that in the heat of our everyday business battle, swamped in technical details and deadlines, we often forget the very basics of simple socialization. We forget to be human. But always remember, we're in a people business - the very same people that will spell the difference between our ultimate success or failure.


About the Author

Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at www.masonrymagazine.com.

 

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