Ok, class. Take out your No. 2 pencils and a sheet of paper. It’s time for a pop quiz.”

First of all, why did it always have to be a No. 2 pencil? What was wrong with the others numbers? Secondly, who came up with the pop quiz? When I was in school, nothing could instill the same sense of dread or foreboding as those two little words. Well, except for maybe, “Here’s your report card.”

I promise this has something to do with marketing. See, sometimes it can seem like every day on the job is like living a pop quiz. Between dealing with customers, handling employees, and actually running your business, there are a million things you have to know — and you never know when you’re going to need which of those million essential tidbits of knowledge.

I used to wish the teacher would give us some warning before just springing things on us. But the older I got, the more I realized that was the whole purpose of class — preparation for test day. I hope that’s how you see these articles — as your own mini-marketing exposés. And since class is now in session, I’d like to take the chance to hit some of the high points we’ve covered this year.

Just think of it as your review before the big exam. Or you can send me tons of hate mail telling me to find a better analogy. It’s really up to you. Regardless, these are the things that will help you end 2016 with a bang and start 2017 on the right foot.


Lesson No. 1: Customers are important

OK, perhaps an understatement. But Lesson No. 1 is, always has been, and always will be that without customers, your business will fail. I’ll go so far as to say that without customers, you don’t have a business. That means two things. First, you’ve got to get customers. Second, and perhaps most importantly, you’ve got to keep customers.

You’ll accomplish the first by differentiating yourself from the competition. That means delivering high quality, unquestionable integrity, and over-the-top value. Notice “low prices” and “cheap” labor didn’t appear anywhere in that list.

Keeping customers means showing them you care beyond the initial monetary interaction they have with your company. Establish and build a relationship with them that makes it impossible for them to leave for the competition. You have to establish a customer-retention program that makes you their contractor and not just “some guy from some company I can’t remember who came and fixed my house.” Great ways to do that include sending newsletters and holiday cards, for starters.


Lesson No. 2: Money matters

Unfortunately for most, this is a seasonal business — unless you know how to work with the weather. I’m talking about generating perpetual income even during the slow season. This is something that goes hand in hand with customer retention: loyalty programs.

Best advice: If you don’t have a maintenance agreement program, get one. Loyalty programs lock customers into a relationship. And guess who’s paying for it? Hint: It’s not you.


Lesson No. 3: Planning means everything

I’ve said it hundreds of times, but just in case you missed it, I’ll say it again: Failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s really that simple. For example:

When you sit around for months and then eat too much pizza at 3 a.m. and decide that sending a mailing designed by your sister-in-law’s uncle’s cousin’s son to everyone within a 100-mile radius of your business is a good idea, please do not be surprised when the results don’t exactly meet your high expectations. And you’re stuck eating the postage on a couple thousand poorly thought-out letters.

Your marketing requires the same precision and care as installing a new water heater or piping system. You can’t just throw it together and expect it to work. Sure, there’s always a little risk. But calculated risk is far better than sinking the whole ship before you’re even away from the dock.


Lesson No. 4: Remember who’s the boss

You control your business. Say it with me: Y-O-U (well, in your case, M-E). It’s not the reps who depend almost entirely on commission for a living. That means before you sign up for a two-page, full-color ad, consider this: A smaller ad that is well designed can save thousands while out-pulling larger poorly designed ads. Yes, you just heard that from a guy who designs ads for a living.

It’s time to end this epidemic of overspending among contractors. Most of you are shelling out over half of your entire marketing budget on one ad that gets poor results. Stop, think, and then pull back your Yellow Pages budget to around 30 percent of your marketing budget and get an ad that actually generates leads. Consider that your homework assignment. (Or, you can just call, and I’ll tell you how to double your YP results.)


Lesson No. 5: It never ends

If you only get one lead, and that one lead turns into your one customer, then the lifespan of your business is exactly as long as the life of your customer. Guess where that puts you? Out of business and looking for a “new career path” — or you could consider it an engineered mid-life crisis.

Your business is a cycle of leads, sales, customers, referrals, and upsells. The day that cycle ends, so does your business. Keep the cycle flowing smoothly with a balanced marketing approach that generates leads when needed, builds relationships, cements credibility, and asks for referrals. 

Without action, none of these lessons really amount to anything more than the ramblings of an underworked, overpaid marketing guy who likes to see his name in magazines. But if you’re brave enough to follow through, they can mean the difference between your business floundering and flourishing. But, according to Lesson No. 4, you’re the boss. It’s completely up to you which direction you — and your future — take.


This article was originally titled “Signed, sealed, delivered” in the December 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.