Planning is the path to profit

It may be October, and you've got fall in full focus, but that's no reason to keep your plans for the new year on the back burner. In fact, that's why I'm devoting this column to the topic of planning. If you wait to start your annual plan in the middle of January, you'll be behind already. So be advised, the best time to plan for next year is before it gets here. The best tip I can give you is free,

It may be October, and you've got fall in full focus, but that's no reason to keep your plans for the new year on the back burner. In fact, that's why I'm devoting this column to the topic of planning. If you wait to start your annual plan in the middle of January, you'll be behind already. So be advised, the best time to plan for next year is before it gets here.

The best tip I can give you is free, and it's yours for the asking. Our 12-month planning calendar has just been released, and it's a great tool that will get you started now in establishing a strong marketing framework for the year. In the meantime, I've got a lot of other things to tell you.

The No. 1 contractor marketing question is, "What do I do?" The second is, "When do I do it?" The right answer to each question takes planning. And the effective marketer knows the answers long before the questions are asked.

A simple marketing "attack" plan gives you a strategy that considers the needs of your market and provides a year-round plan to meet those needs. It gives you a calm, rational approach to anticipate the slow times and gives you ways to keep promoting yourself when business is booming.

The trouble is, three of four contractors don't have one. If you're in the sad majority, don't worry; help is on the way. To get your "strategic thinking" in gear, look to these ways to get on the right course:

1. Quit thinking your "old" marketing-will suddenly have "new" results.Amazingly, contractors crumble up thousands of dollars in "dead" ads a year. If it's not helping your image or your lead count, chunk it. Get fresh and watch your market respond.

2. Quit depending on the Yellow Pages as your salvation. More than 70% of contractors spend half their entire marketing budgets here. If it's not pulling an equivalent lead count, that's a big mistake. Trim your Yellow Pages down to 24%-31% of your marketing budget. If you can get away with less, do it. (For a free critique of your Yellow Pages ad, fax it and your request to us at 334/262-1115.)

Your marketing message
should be the most unique
thing you have.

3. Quit thinking of "co-op" as your main requirement for advertising. Use co-op to supplement advertising. "Brand" your company with your own ads, your benefits and why customers should choose you, not just the equipment. Your company is worth its own unique message.

4. Zig while your competition zags. You cannot stand out by sameness. That's so obvious, but contractors still use the competition as a model. And that's a bad idea. Your ads and marketing message should be the most unique thing you have. Parade your unique benefits over the "same old thing" offered by your boring competition.

5. Quit "Manic Marketing." Instead of panicking at the last minute, or "throwing something together," have ads ready to run in different media. All it takes is a little forethought. You already know the seasons, your product line, the service offerings and perhaps even the financing offers. So why not have ads ready that fit the situation?

6. Set a marketing budget. This is so simple, yet not one in eight contractors

do this right. If you're aggressively pursuing market share, it'll cost you 8%-10% of your sales; moderate marketers spend 5%-8%; conservative marketers spend 3.5%-5%. If you're trying to be "aggressive" but spending 2% of your sales on marketing, you're looking for diamonds at the price of cubic zirconium. Spend what it takes.

7. Set a marketing plan in motion, no matter how small. At the most basic level, divide your year into quarters and define which ones are your peak seasons and which are "off-peak."

Figure exactly what you'll spend to promote what during that time. Then decide "how" you'll deliver that message-(media). You're ahead of most of your competition just by doing this.

It's all in the timing

Your marketing plan should give a great deal of weight to marketing timing. In other words, when you hit the market, hit it with services your market actually needs and wants.

Although drippy faucets happen year-round, certainly there are times of the year when plumbing contractors reap the benefits of seasonal patterns. So let's take a look at a "theoretical" marketing focus over a year's time. Some of these suggestions may not be appropriate for your market or your company. But you can use it as a start in the thinking process for your own annual schedule:

1st quarter Coming off a Christmas lull, buyers can be hard to shake. Still, your marketing plan and budgets should be in place, and so should your newspaper contracts. What will you be pushing? With cold weather in much of the country, common plumber issues are frozen/burst pipes and boiler replacements and repairs. TOMA ads keep your name at top-of-mind. Direct response can help with water heater replacements. Send postcards to tout your service business.

2nd quarter As cold weather starts to break in parts of the country, frozen sill cocks need repair and replacement. Customers may need dewinterization. If spring brings rain, sump pumps can be in demand. Send postcards out to non-closed water heater replacements, direct-response letters on end-of-season boiler replacements. Plus, customer newsletters help your customers remember who you are.

3rd quarter Getting into summer brings a greater demand for water sprinkler systems and sprinkler stubouts. Also look for mainline replacements, drain cleaning (roots), and bathroom/kitchen renovations and add-ons. Send irrigation system and plumbing upgrade letters, then follow up with reminder postcards — before the weather heats up. Radio can increase now; make sure your company name is mentioned twice.

4th quarter Boiler servicing, repairs and replacements will begin to hit. Your customers may also have need for pool winterization. Get ready for frozen and burst pipes and secondhome winterizations. Media spending occurs in October and November but should decline in December — when no one's listening. This is a good time for image ads. Send a newsletter to customers in early fall, then follow up with a holiday card at year's end.

That quarterly breakdown is only a rudimentary attempt to give you an idea of how to start building your plan. The good news is that, after you build it, it can run itself. I don't mean, "Build it and forget about it." I mean you can build it, chart its results, monitor it and then only modify what needs work.

After the first planning efforts, your workload is tremendously reduced!

TAGS: Marketing