Recent opinion polls show consumer confidence in the economy is sharply down. With talk of recession in the air, convincing homeowners to invest in a gutter system can be a challenge. Yet adversity can create opportunity. While businesses nationwide are cutting back on advertising, some veteran gutter installers say now may be the best time to get noticed and increase your customer base.
Since entering business 32 years ago, B&B Seamless Gutters and Replacement Windows of Rainbow City, Ala., has seen its share of economic cycles. Even a few years ago, reports owner Jimmy Fazekas, “The phone was ringing off the hook. We had lots of referrals and it was easier to get business. But today, in a post-9/11 world and with gas prices going up, it’s a greater challenge to get people to think about their gutters.”
Since Bruce Andrews founded Bruce Andrews Seamless Gutters in 2000, he says his advertising strategy has changed every year. “My advertising plan depends on the economy,” says Andrews, whose company is based in Maiden Rock, Wis. “I base my ad budget on 10 to 12 percent of my gross sales. Although word of mouth is always the best advertisement, I market mainly through newspaper inserts, direct mail, home shows and job signs.”
If the economy goes south and Andrews’ profits are down, that means trimming his budget for advertising. But because his business cannot afford to decrease its presence, tough times call for innovative strategies to boost advertising efficiency and get more bang for the buck. If executed well, such creativity can force gutter installers to become more effective marketers, increasing their visibility when their competitors are laying low. And once good times return and homeowners are ready to take care of their gutter problems, savvy installers will have a head start in name recognition and customer contacts.
If your marketing budget is tight, a good place to get more mileage from your ad dollars is the Internet. “We looked at the website we built six years ago and realized it was outdated,” relates Fazekas, “and so we just launched a new site (above). Now we have content and videos that make our customers and potential customers better informed.”
If the phones were still ringing off the hook as they were a few years ago, B&B Seamless Gutters might not have reevaluated its website. But the economic downturn prompted the company to consider improvements, especially since the work could be done at a manageable cost. Now the new site has positioned B&B to enlarge its market share.
Though companies can purchase web design software and create their own sites, few gutter installers can afford to put a webmaster on the payroll. Outsourcing the work allows installers to tap the expertise and technical support of professional web designers — who are themselves hungry for new clients. Some designers offer training so clients can update text and images on their own.
In 2004, after Bruce Andrews Seamless Gutters had been in business four years, Andrews decided the time was right to elbow his way onto the World Wide Web. “We hired it out because we knew the computer age was upon us,” he relates. A website lends credibility to a business and initiates the selling process even before a new lead contacts the installer. “Customers can see the products we offer. So by the time they call us, people have an understanding of what we have. At that point, they’re ready to get our pricing.”
At B&B Seamless Gutters, Fazekas adds, “We promote certain products on our site, like gutter protection products that we believe in. It makes a difference because our website is giving customers helpful information and added convenience. Five years ago, when people saw that you had a website they thought you were professional. Now a website is a necessity.”
Fazekas has likewise found a second cost-effective strategy for using the Internet. “We send out newsletters to e-mail addresses that we capture,” he explains. Keeping in touch with past customers generates referrals and email is now the preferred communication method for many consumers.
“Even when we receive telephone inquiries, we try right off the bat to capture their e-mail addresses over the phone,” Fazekas notes. “In fact, e-mail is how we do a lot of our invoices. It’s a great medium to advertise a sale and a cheap way to market new products. In the newsletter, we’ll sometimes offer discount coupons.” Andrews also sees the value of e-marketing and is planning to incorporate it into his business strategy in the near future.
Making wise investments
Having a website is little help, though, if nobody sees it. Yet online and traditional advertising can work in tandem as print and broadcast ads drive traffic to your site. But which traditional media are most effective? As Andrews explains, “We’ve found that inserts in the local paper work better than direct mail in rural markets.” To reach potential customers in more populated areas, Andrews sets up a booth at home shows. “We’ll run a full-page ad at the same time of the show to coordinate our efforts.”
The change in seasons also affects advertising strategy at B&B Seamless Gutter. “It’s possible to do good marketing, but to do it at the wrong time,” notes Fazekas. “So our plan varies by the time of year and even by how much rain we’re getting. Or if we’re in a drought then it might not matter how much we spend.” As a result, most of B&B’s advertising dollars are spent six months out of the year, from February to April and then September to November.
Though timing is vital, keeping the message fresh is important for getting attention. Some information, such as financing options, are constants in ads run by Bruce Andrews Seamless Gutters. “But we vary the messages in our ads and change the photos around,” reports Andrews. “And we’ll emphasize certain products. You’ve got to be on top of new products to stay ahead.”
Fazekas agrees: “Especially if you don’t have a long history of being in business, then your advertising can set your company apart by offering an exclusive product.”
Along with a new website and electronic newsletters, B&B continues to bank on some old-fashioned ways. In performing gutter jobs, the company asks homeowners’ permission to plant a yard sign for two weeks. “But we make sure to ask the customer twice,” adds Fazekas, “first only through the salesman, and then through the scheduler who calls the day before the job starts.”
Finally, saying “thank you” never goes out of style, even in the computer age. “When we do work for customers, we try afterward to contact them back,” says Fazekas. “It’s always a best practice to let customers know you appreciate their business. We might even give a dinner gift certificate. But saying thanks can also be an opportunity to ask for referrals.”
Tried and True
Effective marketing, however, is more than just running ads and designing websites. Smart installers also track their results to see which advertising strategies are working and which are falling flat. To get feedback Andrews takes a simple mathematical approach. “We monitor the return on investment by comparing the number of leads we generate to how many signed contracts we get,” he explains. “Since we know how much we’re spending, we can come up with an average-cost-per-lead.”
Knowing which ad generated which lead is the next step. “We track all of our leads through a computer system that prompts for an answer to how the customer heard about us,” says Fazekas. “Sometimes it’s the person who answers the phone who gets the prompt, or it might be the person who does the estimate.”
Tracking advertising costs keeps marketing budgets in line. Yet for installers who simply “pay as they go” for advertising, Fazekas has some basic advice. “You’ve got to set a budget in the first place,” he counsels. “You can get in trouble if you just go through the year and don’t set a budget. Then, when you have a budget, stay with it. Remember that people will try to sell advertising to you throughout the year. Try not to go over the amount you set.”
History is a good indicator of where dollars should go. “Look at your track record to find out what months are slow,” Fazekas suggests. “You might want to try advertising during those times and see if business picks up. In the past, we used to have a lot of referrals. But now, in the current economy, we must be more aggressive in advertising to stay competitive.”
Staying competitive, however, does not mean having the cheapest price. “Selling your company is definitely better than selling your price,” Fazekas asserts. “You can’t be the cheapest in the market and be around for 32 years. You have to make a profit to stay alive.” To survive even tough times, he continues, “We look for the best product and give the best warranty. But that means you’ve got to make sure that you can count on your supplier’s product and service.”
Keeping your name before the public, even when ad budgets are stretched thin, may require gutter installers to use some creative thinking. But knowing “what works” is likewise vital. Andrews says his own company’s experience has shown there is at least one advertising medium he can always fall back on. “When our budget gets tight, we tend to use a lot of newspaper inserts,” he says. “It’s something people can hold onto, or even pass along to someone else.”
Consumer awareness requires repeat advertising. Potential customers must see an ad more than once to remember its message. For that reason, before launching a new campaign gutter installers should first consider whether they can sustain it. “Instead of jumping into expensive television and radio ad contracts, start slow,” advises Fazekas. “Begin with cheaper ads, like yard signs and e-mails and work your way up. But don’t respond to a tight economy by doing no marketing at all. Even a little effort is better than none.”