Marketing lessons from Tony

Nov. 1, 2008
Hello Mr. and Mrs. Hudson. Right this way, the friendly matre d' said as he whisked us to a pair of leather chairs. Charles will take care of you both while we prepare your table. Marcia and I were spellbound that he knew our names and skipped right over the do-you mind-waiting-for-a-table question. We glanced, mouths agape, at the hundreds of framed photos signed by recognizable people lining the

“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Hudson. Right this way,” the friendly maître d' said as he whisked us to a pair of leather chairs. “Charles will take care of you both while we prepare your table.”

Marcia and I were spellbound that he knew our names and skipped right over the do-you mind-waiting-for-a-table question. We glanced, mouths agape, at the hundreds of framed photos signed by recognizable people lining the wall. But we were interrupted by the host before we could break our trance.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hudson,” my name is Charles. “While your table is being prepared, I'm here to offer you a beverage. What may I bring you? You don't have to pay me. It'll be transferred to your meal service later for convenience,” Charles beamed.

The whole night was like this. People would just appear and give us service beyond description. I felt like I was in some dream - where all the supporting cast had my Visa card and got bonus points for remembering our names.


We were in St. Louis, without the children, to attend the wedding of our architect friend. With one night to ourselves, we thought we'd pretend to be actual married people, instead of our usual role as study hall monitors and cab drivers with an ATM feature. Our search for a good restaurant began. We consulted the visitor guides, the entertainment book and travel planner. We asked the courtesy van driver and the concierge to suggest some restaurants.

In our queries, one name came up - not just once, but every time - Tony's. People could scarcely explain their choice. The van driver's enthusiasm almost caused an accident. “Man - Mr. Tony does this radio show three days a week where he gives away his recipes. It's awesome. I try ‘em out. I can't afford to go to his restaurant, but the day I do have the money, I'm there. Me and my wife: the works,” explained the van driver.

In a retreating economy, this tells me that “the food” is no more the reason he would choose Tony's than your customers reason for choosing you for “the plumbing.” Hold that thought.

From a marketer's perspective, please note these in order of appearance: Testimonials, welcome, familiarity, and assumptive closes (“…will take care of you while…,” and “what may I bring?”); testimonial reinforcement (the photos on the wall); pain reduction (“you don't have to pay me yet.”); convenience; and finally the van driver's aspirations - he wasn't planning to go alone or cheap. And I'm only eight minutes into the evening and haven't even mentioned the food yet.

Yes, the food was beyond fantastic. Yes, the price we paid made an air-raid siren sound when they ran my credit card. Yet I'm telling 50,000 of you right now that it was worth every dime twice.

This was an experiential event. So laudatory was the experience that cost comments are immaterial. That goes for me and the other 80 tables of multiple diners on an otherwise non-descript Thursday night, resulting in a roughly $17,000 night for Tony at margins that would probably make Bill Gates fall into the flambé.

We've all been to good restaurants. Yet for the three hours we were at Tony's, we were in a relationship. Everything went beyond food service, elevating their position. They redefined, raised the standard and raised our standard to a new point-of-reference. I'm sure we're not alone, and probably thousands of customers now rate restaurants in comparison to Tony's.

So fully realizing that you don't serve asparagus gazpacho, how do you measure up? Is your plumbing company merely a standard and easily confused with other companies? Are you a contractor whose differentiation is centered around van lettering or because you have a full-color talking toilet in your Yellow Page ad? (Don't get me started! Oops…It's too late.)

My question to you is why in the world would someone remember, rave about and refer you? Answer the above questions, focus upon them in your marketing and you're on your way to a commanding advantage.

Basically, it comes down to the following three marketing techniques:

  1. Introduction, image and identity: If your marketing, which is your primary means of communication with prospects, is sloppy and unprofessional, then prospects can only make the same assumption about your service. Sorry, I don't make the rules.

    If your image is nonexistent it either means you don't attempt to build one or you don't market yourself - let's play marketing roulette! (I've always wondered why that's a point of pride to the plumbers who've been barely hanging on for 25 years.)

    Your image reflects who you are through unique messages that tout company quality and professionalism. Image ads convey attitude shift (credibility) instead of behavior shift (leads). They counter the sameness of the other plumbing ads whose height of creativity is having drippy letters in their cartoon-laden ads. Cute is great, but squirrels are cute, and I don't want to get near one.

    Image ads are a marketing requirement. You have negative ground to make up - thanks to your competitors. Yet improving your image should be easy - thanks to your competitors.

  2. Tactile recognition of value: This just means “prove it!” People want to see, touch, feel and know that their wants are met. Often, a customer's sole understanding of the value is when he's holding an estimate. That's all they know…And you wonder why you get raised eyebrows and lowered offers?

    We've consulted with many of you who clean and wax the water heater on an annual service call and put on a fresh company sticker. Maybe you wear floor protectors or use a logoed mat to lay your tools on. Guess what your customers remember on service calls?

    Hand customers a green sheet that shows what you will do on the visit. Make sure to check off what you do and mark-up what should be done. Other items to put on your green sheet include your guarantees, benefits of your preventive maintenance agreement, how you're different from others, your training policy, soft referrals request, what to do in an emergency, three to five testimonials and a brief payment policy.

    Other tactile value reminders can be your presentation book with before and after photos of you handing or showing customers their old part in a clear baggie (to prove your work's worth). Make sure to leave a copy of your newsletter (no postage and mighty impressive).

    This entire effort cost you mere pennies to improve the service experience for a customer who's getting educated on great service along the way. Now they're more qualified to be your extended sales force.

  3. Retouch, remind, reward and get referred: The more you touch your market, the more you gain penetration and recognition. The more known you are, the more you're called. The deeper this relationship, the less you're left for a competitor. How?

A thank you card or call is for all customers. Newsletters (covered in a previous article) are tops for a regular retention program. Maintenance agreements (also covered) build an inner circle of recurring revenue. What to do right now?

Clearly, for this time of year, holiday cards are the method of choice. If you think it's too late for Thanksgiving, get yours out for the holiday season now. (See 14 samples of cards at

All of this means you're referred more by your unpaid sales staff. This is because you're different, memorable and better at creating an experience long after the bill was paid. You want customers to be dissatisfied elsewhere because you've raised the expectation level. They can't go back.

An epicurean epilogue

By the way, Tony's cleans the collective clocks of their competitors who close up early to send the minimum wage help home - even though they have good food at good prices, they blame the economy.

People can get food lots of places. Homeowners can get plumbing lots of places too. But that's not the point, is it?

As a valuable aside, many restaurant workers would like to work at Tony's. It's probably not so easy to get hired there since so many people want to work there. Out of four people I asked, the average employee has been at Tony's for 14 years.

Strive to become the Tony's of your plumbing/HVAC market. Yet unlike anything on their menu, your marketing should be rare and well-done at the same time.

Free thing this month: Get a free report, Hot Holiday Marketing, to learn more techniques for differentiation this holiday season. Simply make your polite request to [email protected] or fax your letterhead to us at 1-334-262-1115 with your polite request and mailing info.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson Ink, Contractor Marketing That Works and author of hundreds of articles and several books. His latest, Contractor Marketing Secrets Your Competition Doesn't Want You to Know is already in its second printing. See more at or email to [email protected] to subscribe to his marketing newsletter.

Hot holiday marketing ideas

In a down economy, customers flock to stability. During the holidays, you can be the stable, ever-present contractor while gaining these advantages:

  • Differentiation - All contractors know the word, but only a fraction practices it.

  • Customer Retention - All contractors have heard the phrase, but only a few have it as a program.

  • List segmentation and cleaning - All contractors roll their eyes when I mention it.

Here's how to get all three, right now, in one effort:

  1. Send a well-worded non-standard holiday card - don't you dare put an offer in it. Also, don't send the same cards offered to everyone from accountants to zipper makers. Make yours unique (see the six to 10 samples at Don't waste a good differentiation effort by blending in with the crowd!

  2. Mail first class not bulk. This is an inexpensive way to clean your list since you'll get back non-deliverables. Better yet, a holiday stamp is more attractive. Mail first class at least once a year to clean the customer list, then use standard rates throughout the year and save a fortune in wasted postage.

  3. Send to every customer within 48 months of activity or to all in your database for a thorough cleaning. Sending a holiday card is a quick, inexpensive, effective and appreciated way to get differentiation, retention and list segmentation and cleaning.

Check out the selection at created strictly for contractors.

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