A dizzying result

BY ADAMS HUDSON SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR Some thought it could not be done. Some thought I was a big loser dummy with no sense of well-being. OK, at least the first group was wrong. The Marketing Makeover contest was where we took an otherwise innocent plumbing company, Basnett Plumbing & Heating in Littleton, Mass., and forced it to reinvent its marketing. Then we bared the "test" results for all of

BY ADAMS HUDSON
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR

Some thought it could not be done. Some thought I was a big loser dummy with no sense of well-being. OK, at least the first group was wrong.

The Marketing Makeover contest was where we took an otherwise innocent plumbing company, Basnett Plumbing & Heating in Littleton, Mass., and forced it to reinvent its marketing. Then we bared the "test" results for all of you to see! The poor folks at Basnett, and they thought they "won" something!

Kidding. They won — and won big — but as we've mentioned, the unfolding of this event has been yours for free too, courtesy of CONTRACTOR magazine. There have been thousands of dollars of ad creation and media testing, resulting in tens of thousands of sales dollars generated. And it was all for you. (Everybody say, "Aww.")

Sure, we could've sent all of you gold bullion instead, but what fun would that be? We wanted you to learn, knowing why things worked, so you'd realize this effort made you a better person. (I'm the father of a teenager; I must continue saying these things until I believe them myself.) Now, on with the program.

Yellow Pages redo
Early in the contest, Basnett Plumbing & Heating was given a list of marketing directives. These included yanking its Yellow Pages budget, beating it into submission and then creating a smaller, "high-performance" ad whose job was to grab prospects by the lapels and shout, "Call now!" So far, this has worked.

Bottom line: Savings for the smaller ads total $8,920 and sales from Yellow Pages as a source went up more than double to $47,046 from January to June's test period. Yes, this can actually be done. We offered all readers a critique of their ad. Nearly 100 responded. We focused on Yellow Pages first because of the immense cost and relatively poor results.

After that, it became a matter of investing some of the savings into driving Basnett's name deeper into the community mindset. Recognition breeds results. Like so ...

TOMA program
This type of marketing is critically important in plumbing, more so than in many other trades. Why? To gain new customers means you must be "in the prospect's mind" when they have a need. And since postcards don't typically clog drains (unless you can somehow convince prospects to deposit them there), having consistent "top-of-mind awareness" accomplishes the goal. You want a relentless effort to build top-of-mind awareness.

Finance Manager Maryann Swift of Basnett found this out in a big way.

"I have been blown away by this TOMA stuff. It works!" she exclaims. "Our call counts have increased across the board. Far more people in our town know us as a result of repeated messages that cost us pennies to run."

Hear me on this. There is no point in being a "secret" in your town. "Hoping" for word of mouth is great; yet strategically forcing more mouths to speak your name is another matter entirely. And that's done by making your market notice you.

We have Basnett on a steady TOMA diet that includes three different TOMA ads per week in the local newspaper. This effort cost the company $2,600 for a 22-week run, far less than in many communities, and we still wonder if the newspaper made a mistake. But I'm not calling its accounting department.

Likewise, Basnett has four new yard-sign designs to stab in at every opportunity, including while stopped at a traffic light. (Hey, it was worth the suggestion.) The company has door hang-ers for nearby jobs, magnets to send with the "thank-you" letters that we created and "bill stuffer" notes that ride along for free. Though these are "penny programs," the effect is powerful, gaining huge points for "differentiation" and quality image.

Bottom line: You can be virtually assured that no other plumbing company is doing this, which puts you in a field of exactly one. Be "in" the customers' minds when they need you. If people haven't heard of you, do you even wonder why you must keep proving your credibility? If you want calls, you must first be known.

Direct response
Basnett received leads from many sources during the contest (we provided about 130 ads from our Plumbing Marketing PowerPack, with maybe 15 getting used. The others can be used whenever Basnett feels like it).

I chose to review three unique lead generators:

1. Welcome Wagon. I wrote about this effort previously in the Marketing Makeover series (and in the accompanying sidebar on pg. 45). The point is targeting works.

2. The Val-Pack. I normally despise card-deck mailings, but Basnett had done well with them, so what do I know? Wait, don't answer that. Basnett's "previous" card was sent to a list and generated $1,724 in sales. The card we "revised" went to the exact same list and generated $3,478 in sales. The company doubled its results for zero additional cost. The point is your message matters.

3. The $20 postcards. These have been sent to a "broad" list (not customers) hoping to pull in new business. Early results were only fair: $4,841 in sales from $1,218 spent. I'm not pleased with this, but still, at three times the marketing cost, a contractor can send a few hundred of these per month, every month to generate long-term customers.

Bottom line: Maryann Swift says: "Most of the time we would run ads and 'hope' somebody would call. Ad reps were telling us, 'Just keep branding yourself.' With direct response though, we're making these calls happen. We run these whenever we want to turn on some leads."

Now, the bad news about branding.

Branding
I don't believe in branding as a broad marketing effort for plumbers. Heck, I'm not real sure what it is, nor is the American Marketing Association whose own Website has more than 40 definitions under "brand."

Fun game: When ad reps tell you to "invest in branding," please ask them to define what that means. While they ponder, you'll have time to go to a museum, Disney World or paint your house.

To me, the only branding worth doing for small business is personal branding, which can be done with publicity (just six press releases a year) and by building your relationship among customers.

Sorry, to me, "branding" for a local plumbing company comes after you have a customer, not before. It would be unwise to invest heavily in a pure "branding" effort. Leave that for Nike, Coke and somebody else who can afford to lose it. Please do not have your ad reps call me about this; it will not go their way.

Customer retention
You have two options to retain customers: You're either going to do it, or you're going to let your competitors have your customers. No, I'm not being funny or mean. "Attrition" or "migration" rate among contractors is about 10% a year. And I'm pretty sure those same "lost" customers (who used to be on your database) plan on using their plumbing again, with or without you.

So just kiss off 10% of your sales each year due to inattention. It's cheaper to keep them, I promise.

Retention starts with a belief that your customers are worth keeping. I know you just nodded your head "yes," but what are you doing about it?

Owner Rob Basnett and Maryann Swift admit — as do most contractors —

that they love their customers but were poor at proving it once the invoice was paid. Sounds cold doesn't it? But that's how customers perceive a non-effort. They just think, "They don't care if I'm here, so why not leave?"

Yet contractors willing to actively retain customers prove it through thank-you cards, calls, newsletters, and earn the right to offer them a maintenance agreement. That last one is the ultimate step, aided by all the others before it.

Bottom line and big winner: "We started a maintenance agreement through QSC," Maryann Swift says, "and had moderate success. We weren't sure how to get the word out. So we sent the letter you redid for us, plus a 'renewal' letter you created and were amazed: 1,900 letters went out to our customers and $67,445 came pouring back in. I've never seen anything like it."

The main point is hat's off to Basnett Plumbing & Heating and to Quality Service Contractors of the Plumbing-Heat-ing-Cooling Contractors — National Association for this program. But if it sits on a shelf unmarketed, it doesn't matter how good it is. The sales above are not as important as the following statement: Its customers are now paying Basnett to remain a "locked-in" customer.

"Now those customers get our newsletter twice a year as part of the program," Maryann Swift adds, "and they love it. The best part is, I don't have to write it or mail it!" (Basnett uses Hudson Ink service, but there are other publishers. Call, e-mail or fax us for a sample of the same newsletter Basnett is using.)

Do not allow customers to "forget" about you.

Was any of this worth it?
"Before this contest, I used to wonder, 'What do I do next?'" Maryann Swift says. "I was running around doing the planning, budgeting, calling the media, trying to write ads, not sure what to spend where and on what! It was slowly driving me nuts. Maybe not so slowly!

"Now my ads are on schedule. They're professional and part of a marketing 'system' that was planned out and budgeted in advance. If Adams taught me one thing well, it's to 'let go' of the marketing burden and that we had over-complicated it. It's so simple now, and best of all it works This has saved us time and added tens of thousands in business we wouldn't have gotten without it.

"Word of advice," she says, "is let professionals do what they do best and get it off your list."

I'll add that Basnett was easy to work with, which means it probably is an easy company to do business with. I enjoy doing this type of marketing when you know the customers you add will be well cared for. I think Rob Basnett says it best:

"I see the true value of a marketing program. As a company owner, I used to think people would choose the best plumber. But as Adams pointed out, how can they see your professionalism with unprofessional ads? He helped me target opportunities that we never focused on and give us name recognition. Most importantly, we take care of our customers even when they're not buying, which proves to them we're different and better — just like I'd been hoping but not practicing.

"The leads, sales, and profits generated from this one change have not only decreased our stress but increased our results. Thanks to CONTRACTOR magazine for helping make this a reality."

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson Ink, a marketing firm for contractors. He will speak at ISH North America in September in Chicago on "High Performance Marketing" and show samples from the Marketing Makeover series. Go to www.ish-na.com for details. Visit www.hudsonink.com for free offers.