Are you adapting your marketing to ensure it remains effective in changing times? Ideas on how flowed freely from a Deck Specialist-sponsored panel discussion at the recent DeckExpo in Louisville, featuring James and Morris Carey, who host the nationally-syndicated radio show On the House, and fellow contractor/columnist Brendan Casey, of Maryland’s Casey Fence & Deck.
Q: What do you do to bring in more calls?
Morris Carey: About 20 years ago, a young contractor asked me, “How’s your business?” And I said, “It’s great!” And he said, “Well, what do you recommend I do?” And because I was on the radio and filled with ego, I said, “Get a radio show.” It was probably the stupidest thing I ever said in my life. The bottom line is there’s a lot more to getting to asking people for work than getting a radio show.
James Carey: If you’re trying to get found and keep the calls coming, you have to do one thing. It’s fundamental—to our business and to any business. You have to make money. That is absolutely essential. You have to know what your business is doing, you have to have a mission and a plan, you have to know what your costs are, and you have to make money, so you can accomplish all the things you need to accomplish to get found. You can be out in front of the public. You can do cause-related marketing. You can advertise. You can be a hero to your clients if you have the resources to take care of the things that go wrong. We all know that things go wrong in our industry from time to time, whether we get a bad batch of material or we have an installation issue. If you’re not making enough money because you’re not charging enough, you can’t arrive with your cape on to take care of the customer. You don’t have the resources to allow the customer to always be right. So from my perspective, it’s not about newspaper or radio or digital media. It’s not about trade shows or farmer’s markets. It’s about having the resources you need in order to take care of those things.
Brendan Casey: We like to do trade shows. The kick-off for our season is in the spring and we always attend our annual spring home show. We do at least 25% of our annual sales from the home show. Now we also have probably 50 other contractors doing decks in that same show. So we are always looking for a way to stand out and be different. We restored a 1937 Ford truck, put our logo on it, and had it made to look like it was painted back in 1937. In doing that, we found that there was a huge crossover of individuals who were looking for a deck. We also realized that guys who have an interest in these vehicles also have a very discerning eye for detail and they also have a little bit of disposable income. So the next thing you know we moved ourselves away from the rest of the herd into the team that was in the eye of the people who wanted to spend a few extra dollars and have it done right. That got us away from price fighting with people and back to being able to sell quality.
Q: What advice do you have for companies when things are slow?
Morris: If your business is level then your business is actually dropping. If you’re not constantly attempting to grow then you are taking a chance that you’re gonna go broke. Because the minute things slow down, you’re gonna be without a job. You try to grow as much as you can so when things do slow down, you can fire a few people, cut back on a few services, and slough through. And the way you keep growing is to market like crazy. We do radio. Newspaper. Magazines. Yelp. Houzz. Job signs. Our truck signs are very important. We have $2,000 wraps on our trucks to attract the eye.
But no matter how many different media we use, the person who sees the sign has to feel that we are a reputable business. “Oh, I saw them in the newspaper! That’s one of their trucks!” “Oh, I heard those guys on the radio!” We do radio commercials like crazy. Because radio has such a far reach, we sometimes have to say no, because people call outside our market area. And it’s better to say, “Gee, I’m sorry, I don’t go to your town” than not to get the call in the first place. We get three calls a day, seven days a week. We get calls day and night. It’s a very, very satisfying feeling to know that all your media is working.
The other day I heard someone say, “You know, I saw your name, and I’ve heard you guys are very reputable.” That too is important because the marketing ties directly to your reputation. Build a good reputation. We choose to do upscale construction—not seven layers of crown moulding, but good, solid quality and very clean work. And that has ended up shining through.
Brendan: We have the old truck, we wrap our vehicles, and we don’t just do the old magnet on the door. I think that’s kind of cheesy. We spend the same, about $2,000 on it. And one thing I’d advise is don’t be afraid to ask a couple of manufacturers to help you with that. Spending somebody else’s money is always better than spending your own. We reached out and asked some vendors if they’d be interested in having their name on our truck. In turn, theirs is the first piece of literature we hand people when we go on the appointment. Not only do you have to get the phone to ring, but once you get there, you want the job, otherwise you just wasted your time. So we’re always looking for a way to get people so that they want us. Exactly what James said: so they have that good feeling about you.
A lot of our neighborhoods do not allow jobsite signs. You can’t put a sign out, you can’t canvas a neighborhood, you can’t do door hangers, there’s no soliciting. So they have private Facebook pages. One thing we really like to do is incentivize our clients to promote us on their Facebook page. We throw little things, because you can’t pay them for it. We’ll throw in lighting on their deck. We might add a little curve somewhere, an inlay or a border, so when we’re there we want to help promote ourselves through them because nothing speaks better for you than a satisfied customer.
James: I am proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Funny, having a building business for nearly 40 years and a radio show for 33 of those years, one would think that we’re astute and on the leading edge when it comes to marketing, but I had to wake up and really embrace digital and social media as an integral part of what we do. Not as a stand-alone, but to lend credibility to the other forms of what we do. So if we’re doing broadcast, direct mail, magazines, trucks, job signs, when people see them, the first thing they do is they pick up their smartphones and go right to one of the rating services, whether it’s Yelp or GuildQuality, or something like that and they check you out. And if you don’t have the positive reviews, or if you don’t have the visibility that consumers now expect, then all of your efforts to create visibility through all of the other platforms is in many ways money poorly spent.
Q: How do you use already-finished projects to market future projects?
Morris: We ask for Yelp reviews. Before the days of digital, we asked for letters of recommendation from our customers, but now it’s digital because we don’t even use a showroom anymore. My brother has sold jobs where he went into the customer’s home only once, yet met with the customer online a half-dozen times and then signed the contract online.
We have a sophisticated computer program that connects every advertising source to each customer, whether they came to us because they saw a truck sign or a job sign, heard us on the radio, or read our ad in a newspaper or magazine. Then we take that customer all the way through job costs. So we can actually take our most profitable jobs and tie them to media. In fact, not only do we do that with our media, but we can do that with our salespeople based on profitability, beyond their closing rate, and we can do it with our crew people as well. So if you start tying your crew people with your customer, your advertising method with your customer, and your salesperson with your customer, and bring that information all the way through job costing, you end up finding out who your most profitable salesperson is, who your most profitable workman is, and what’s your best advertising method.
James: We do beautiful post-photography and videography. Look, you can use a smartphone and photograph your project, but there’s nothing like a wide-angle lens with great lighting that’s done professionally and staged properly. The other thing we do is we have a rating service. We use GuildQuality. So we want our clients to weigh in, we want them to tell us what we’re doing right, we want them to tell us where we need to improve, and we even send surveys to those who didn’t select us. We want to know why they didn’t select us. We’re constantly doing things to get feedback that will help us improve our overall business.
Brendan: It’s funny you say that because we ask every customer after we finish the project, “What was one thing we could have done better?” Because we always think, “Okay, you got the check, you did a great job,” but there’s always something you could have done better and you don’t know until somebody tells you.
Now as far as using our past projects to get work, one of the things we like to do (and we didn’t used to do it in the past, it just felt like it was an ego-stroking thing) is enter our projects in contests. It’s great to be able to show that we have won awards. We wait until the season is slowing down because there’s no sense in overwhelming people for us because we can only do so much at a time as a small family company. So we wait until it’s later in the year, and then we start to promote those things to people. It’s funny how once Labor Day ends, all of a sudden we get a big boom until just after Thanksgiving, when people start thinking about their holiday spending. A lot of people want a new deck to celebrate their holidays with, whether it’s Thanksgiving dinner on their deck or going out there on Christmas. By showing somebody something really fantastic later in the year rather than just putting it in front of their face in the beginning just seems like a nice option for us to invite them to call us.
Q: How do you incorporate old media practices with the new?
Morris: Back in the day it was signs on golf course benches, the newspaper, the Yellow Pages, and what we discovered back then was that if you were selected from the Yellow Pages you were one of a dozen, but if somebody read your ad, you were one of one. That person called us and they weren’t calling a bunch of different contractors. And for those who used the newspaper instead of the Yellow Pages we found that we had a great closing rate. In fact, the only reason we were in the Yellow Pages after that—and we had the biggest ad—was for presence; somebody would see our ad and go check us out in the Yellow Pages. But there are certain kinds of advertising that put you into a group of bidders; we’re not a bid company. We don’t bid against anybody. We have a price and we require a design agreement before we do anything. And if the customer won’t buy a design agreement from us, we move on. Today what we’ve learned is we are in social media and we’re one among many. So we’ve had to change how we make it one among one. And that is by forcing a design agreement; that winnows out others and brings us to a one-on-one relationship with the client. Then we can close the sale.
Brendan: We’re a small family company. I’m a one-man gang. I just never wanted to become a big manager. I don’t want to manage a whole lot of people. I don’t want to work for my employees; I want them to work for me. So I sell as much as I can manage. And that’s why our marketing works for us. We are on Google Search. We don’t spend a ton of money on it, but because we’ve been on there for 20 years, we’re always at the top of the page. We’re the first guy that comes up after the paid ads. People don’t click paid ads much; they click on the guy who’s an organic search. So we come up and then we do everything we can to get them to go to our website. I think our website sells a lot of our work for us, and it gives an impression—that we’re not the cheapest guy in town. We’re going to have 100 large, really nice projects on there. We’re not gonna have a lot of little ones. People are gonna call us up and say, “I don’t know if I can afford you,” and we’ll say, “You probably can’t afford not to have us because if you go with the cheap guy, you’re gonna call me later anyway.” But it gives you an impression before you ever pick up the phone and call me—or email us because we’d rather you email than call, so we have a digital contact for you that doesn’t get lost in the phone system.
James: We talk about getting the check, but I want to wrap my comments up by saying there is no check, there is no amount of money that we get that can compare to the satisfaction that I get in my heart from a satisfied customer. Not conversely, I am devastated if one of my clients is not satisfied. There’s nothing like a happy customer. And there’s nothing like being called again and again and again. We had one client call us for a small job that nobody else wanted. He wanted to have the toilet angle stop replaced and a few other things in the home that he just bought. The realtor recommended us. We did what nobody else wanted to do, and in the ensuing three years, he spent $600,000 with us over three additional jobs.