Getting your phone to ring

When the construction market heads south, as it does about every five to seven years, we hear the desperate anguished cries from contractors near and far: “How do we get our phone to ring?”

If your phone isn’t ringing, you need to do a stronger job of advertising. One mistake too many business owners make is to cut their advertising budget when the economy tightens up. That approach doesn’t work.

Think about it for a minute. When the economy tightens up, fewer people are buying, right? That is not hard to figure out.
If you cut back or eliminate the money you spend on advertising, you are contacting fewer people. Fewer people hear about you, and fewer of them are buying – you have drastically reduced your chance of getting phone calls, and that’s the opposite of what you want.

When the economy tightens up, increase your advertising expenses so that you can reach more people and find the fewer people who are ready to buy.

If you are a general contractor building new homes, your advertising budget would normally be about 1 percent of your total sales. In this economy, budget at least 2 to 3 percent for advertising. That will assure you that you are getting the word out to those that are ready to buy. If you are a specialty contractor, your percentage would be about the same, maybe a touch higher. If you do remodeling, your budget for advertising should be in the 4 to 5 percent of total sales range.

A general rule of thumb is that the more specialized you are, the more you need to spend on advertising. If you are a specialty contractor, you may have to spend as high as 7 percent of total sales to find those who are interested in purchasing the services you provide.

Your customer’s point of view
If you want to make sure your advertising is effective, consider it from your customer’s point of view. Your customers have three questions or fears when it comes to hiring a contractor. Those fears are:
• Will they do the job I want done?
• Will they do my job on time?
• Will they do my job at a fair price?

Those are the same three fears that you have every time you buy something for yourself, your spouse, your family or your company. Unless you address those three fears in your advertising, people will not call.

Look at your own advertising and ask yourself, “Does my advertising address our potential customer’s three fears?”  If it does, that’s great. If it doesn’t, it’s time to make some changes.

Waiting to “see what happens” with existing ads that don’t address your customers’ three fears is much like pouring water down a drain. The money will disappear and you’ll have little to show for your investment.

3 tools you must use

Advertising covers a wide range of things. Most people think of advertising in terms of ads in newspapers, direct mail pieces, billboards, etc. While those work, they can be expensive and are not always effective. There are many more types of advertising that are more effective. You need to be in five or six different advertising mediums. We are going to talk about just a few that are proven phone call generators.

• Business cards are the first place to start. They shouldn’t just sit in your wallet, however. They won’t do any good there. Make a commitment to hand out one business card a day to someone you don’t know or have never met. Family, friends, suppliers and subs don’t count. A waitress, someone in the grocery store, a passerby in a parking lot — hand out one card a day. It will make a difference.

Keep in mind that your business card is a communication vehicle for people to be able to reach you. It should have at least four different ways for your customers to contact you. Your name, your company name and your address with city, state and zip should all be on the card. Additionally, you should have your e-mail and your web page listed on your card, along with at least two phone numbers. Put what you do on the back of your card; don’t clutter up the front.

Here is the acid test of a good business card:
Can they call and talk with you?
Can they send you an e-mail?
Can they send you a check?
If the answer to any of these is no, then it is time to redesign your card. Business cards have the highest return per dollar spent of any form of advertising you can do.

• One required form of advertising today is a well-designed web page. Our guess is that less than half of all contractors have a web page and most of them are not well designed. Many customers today go to the Internet to find a business before they use the Yellow Pages.

Getting a web site up and running doesn’t have to cost a fortune. If you find a web designer who says otherwise, keep looking. A web site today is the equivalent of a business card — today’s clients will look you up on the web before they call. You only need a few pages — a basic introduction to your company, information about you, pictures of some jobs and the ability to contact you. Make sure your phone number is prominent;  if they can’t find it, they won’t call.

Remember that your customers will almost always look at your web site, evaluate you and your company and do some mental comparisons between you and others before they call. That applies to commercial contractors as well as those doing residential work.

If you don’t have a web site, then you will almost certainly be eliminated from any possible calls. You simply can’t afford to have your name eliminated from the list of contractors who could build them a good job.

If you need help finding an affordable web site, give us a call. We don’t build web sites but do have contacts in the industry who do.
• Finally, good signage on your jobs and vehicles is a must.
Keeping in constant contact with architectural and engineering firms also can be a good source of leads. Be careful that you don’t get used to supply estimates and never get any work. If you don’t get one of every three jobs you quote, find others to do business with.
In today’s economy you must change the way you advertise and promote your company. The “old ways,” such as working by referral only or always being the lowest bid, won’t get your phone to ring and won’t make you any money.
Advertising is the first step in establishing yourself as the contractor of choice. That’s what you want to be if you want to sell your jobs at a profit.

Michael Stone, business coach, speaker, consultant and management trainer, has more than four decades experience in the building industry. He is the author of “Markup and Profit; A Contractor’s Guide” and “Profitable Sales, A Contractor’s Guide.” He offers business management assistance to construction-related companies throughout the U.S. and Canada with audio and CD programs available on his web site, as well as coaching and consulting services.

He can be found on the web at and can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 888-944-0044.

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