Creating Opportunities

Sometimes getting the work you need involves first creating opportunities for your sales force to cash in on. That groundwork is often laid well in advance of any sales, so payback can't be expected immediately. For contractors looking to create sales opportunities, here are some tested approaches to consider.

Refocus on marketing and sales. Guy Gruenberg, Grow Consulting, says he spent much of his time with clients last year focusing on marketing and sales earlier than ever. "Mostly we're creating a marketing action plan, giving some structure to what many contractors are already doing or are considering, so it's not just hit or miss marketing," Gruenberg says.

Focus your marketing. Gruenberg suggests identifying the top 10 or so prospects you want to do business with and then pursue that group hard. Questions to ask as you define that group should include, do you want to work with them? Do they hire contractors? And do they pay their bills? Once you narrow the group down work to learn who the decision maker is in each company and work to set up a meeting with that person.

Market around a theme. Create a longer-term promotional effort based on a single theme, such as gambling, baseball, or movies. All marketing efforts are then tied by that theme, and special themed gifts are sent regularly to a targeted list. "I guarantee that if you follow this through by the time your salesperson walks through the customer's door everyone there will know who he works for," Gruenberg says.

He says most of his clients' recent marketing efforts have been creative direct-mail efforts focused on getting the name in front of a customer or prospect as opposed to making a sales pitch. "We've stayed away from pictures of potholes in favor of attention grabbers," he says, mentioning one campaign that included a Happy Groundhog Day pencil that fits in a #10 envelope. The tagline on the pencil mailer was 'Now is the time to sharpen your pencil for work you haven't done.' So far it seems to have worked pretty well," he says.

Build relationships. "People want to do business with people they have relationships with. Honesty and trust are paramount in this day and age."

Broaden your marketing approach. Pavement Advisory Board member Nick Howell, T & N Asphalt Services, Salt Lake City, believes that the more a contractor can get his name out in the community the more secure the community feels about hiring him. So he tries a broad variety of marketing approaches including sponsoring local sports teams (his company name is on their uniforms), and T & N Asphalt is an official sponsor of the Salt Lake Bees Triple A minor league baseball team affiliated with the California Angels of Anaheim. As official sponsor a brief commercial is read over the ballpark's public address system while the company logo appears on the park's video screen.

T & N Asphalt also participated in a local parade, driving its clean and lettered dump truck along the route, tossing candy to the spectators. "I don't know if we got any work directly from it but we know we had a few people who called after they saw us there. That kind of thing helps give us some credibility and helps get people over the fear of 'asphalt guys' who often don't have a great reputation. It makes us more visible, makes us look more professional, and shows we're involved in the community, that we're not going anywhere."

Reconsider phone book ads. While Gruenberg isn't saying no contractor should advertise in the Yellow Pages, he does think money can be better spent elsewhere. "Phone book ads just don't produce very well," Gruenberg says. "When people do call from a phone book ad they are generally price shopping and they usually call a number of the ads and give the job to the lowest-priced contractor. Most contractors would be more successful diverting dollars from their phone book ads to other marketing efforts."

Consider radio advertising. "It's not very expensive and we had one radio spot that we know turned into a $12,000 job for us," Howell says.

Attend local home center shows and other events. This can be effective on both a local and national level. It gives you a chance to meet buyers ? homeowners or property managers ? face to face, hand out some literature, and answer questions as an expert. "It's the same principle as direct mail: The more you keep your name in front the better you are," Howell says.

Track your marketing dollars. Whatever marketing approach you take, it's essential to find out which marketing dollars are working for you ? and which aren't. "Take a real hard look at where you're getting your business from," says Brad Humphrey, Pinnacle Development Group. "Make sure you're getting a return on all your advertising, whether it's Yellow Pages, direct mail, radio, whatever you're using. Find out what's getting the best return and shift your dollars to the most-effective area."

Host an open house. Designed for both prospects and current customers, an open house is also a great opportunity to turn to files of past customers. Alan Rose, Rose Paving, is a Pavement Advisory Board member who conducts an open house every year. These events, held at your office or yard, are costly and are complex (don't hold one if you can't brag about your facility).

But if you do operate out of a facility your customers would find amenable, an open house is a great opportunity to mix prospects with customers, thank existing customers, show off your place, equipment, and crew, and even expose prospects to the various pavement maintenance options your company offers.

Get involved in your customers' organizations. Note the first two words: get involved. Many of the people Pavement talked with encouraged contractors to join as many associations related to their work as was reasonable, but all said that "joining" was not a solution. To get anything out of your relationship with any organization you need to get involved, play a role, and make an impact.

Pavement Advisory Board member Bob Paradise, Paradise Asphalt Maintenance, Lee's Summit, MO, says getting involved in organizations is the first recommendation he would make, naming specifically the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) as one possible group. He says the first year he joined IREM "I didn't know a soul."

"Getting involved with that group and staying involved really opened up doors and opportunities for us, and it also helped establish relationships needed to get business and to get repeat business," Paradise says. He says he has become involved on various IREM committees, working on and donating to golf outings, and helping volunteer when the organization needs assistance. He says that getting involved with IREM lends credibility to his company, adding that many of the people he works with now have become friends. "You learn about their lives, their families, and you develop trust and you become friends, and that's all part of sales anyway.

"But that also means expectations are high," he says. "There's a level of accountability for everything you do because they are your friends."

Another organization contractors should consider is any local apartment association. The Apartment Association of Kansas City (AAKC), for example, is made up of managers of more than 30 apartment complexes. Property manager members deal with multiple properties, so a contractor who is an AAKC member is more productive at AAKC meetings than driving around the city looking for parking lots that need maintenance. Paradise says being a member of a local apartment association also helps when the manager of a property is local but the owner or final decision maker is out of state. "At least that way you might have an advocate for you, even if the bid goes out of town for approval," he says.

Mike Musto, U.S. Pavement Inc., enthusiastically agrees, highlighting his contracting company's participation in the local chapters of the Community Associations Institute (CAI) and the National Apartment Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and the International Facilities Management Association. Musto, who serves on the local CAI board, says it helps "in a big way" to get involved. "It gives you extra credibility," he says. Musto, who also markets vanity phone number 1-800-PAVEMENT, says having the vanity number is especially helpful when attending association's national events. "It's an easy number to remember where maybe your company name is not," he says.

Howell says T & N Asphalt is a member of the Utah Apartment Association (UAA), exhibits at UAA trade shows, and advertises in the UAA directory. As a member T & N Asphalt also was able to obtain a mailing list of all UAA member apartment complexes and will be conducting a direct-mail campaign to them this spring. "It's relationship building," he says.

Howell says T & N Asphalt joined a new local association last year and he attended association events and eventually had an opportunity to bid some work through that association.

"We got called to bid some work because we are a member of that association," he says. "We had been at their event and a customer was looking for three bids, and if we weren't at that show I don't know if we'd even had the opportunity to bid those jobs."

But the key to joining organizations is to make sure to get involved. "Most contractors who belong to groups pay their $400 or $500 per year but they just don't go to meetings and they don't participate," Paradise says. "Or if they do attend meetings they sit at a table with all the other vendors ? people they know and are more comfortable with ? while a table away might be four or five prospects with an empty chair. That's the table I'm going to sit at."