I’m not a very good planner, really. When I started this business, my attorney poked some fun about that shortcoming. “And with your so-called ‘plan’ in place, how do you intend to gather customers?” He used the little two-fingered hand sign for quotations marks when he said “plan.”

My response was, “Largely by not talking ‘down’ to people who have hired me.” I returned the quote mark hand gesture thing when I said “down.”

There was a momentary pause. Then we laughed about it, and still do on occasion. Friends can laugh at each other in a way that’s not laughing at each other, if you know what I mean.

No, my plans weren’t very specific back then. They basically included, “Don’t go bankrupt,” “If the phone rings, answer it,” and other motivational sentiments like that.

Through grace and because of wonderful clients, things have worked out. Yet I still spend a couple weeks asking — and answering — questions about the upcoming year.

Interestingly, two of my questions are the same as the top two we get from you. (And in case you wondered, yes, we rank your questions in order of frequency. There’s a hint in that near-obsession your phone trafficker and techs should be sharing with management.)

The No. 1 marketing question we get is, “What do I do next?” The second is, “When do I do it?” After that, you ask us, “How much do I spend?” and, “In which media?” — and then a whole bunch of stuff we have to charge you for. But, essentially, all the answers are contained under a single umbrella called planning.

Some of you may roll your eyes and say, “I’ve heard it before,” or, “How do you plan a business that’s so seasonally dependent?”

Well, if you’ve heard it before, it’s like the preacher who’d given the same sermon 21 times in a row told his congregants: “I’ll give a new sermon when you all start doing this one.” And by the way, seasonality makes your business far more plannable, so that’s two excuses down the tubes. (How do you think I am so familiar with them?)

A simple marketing attack plan gives you a strategy that considers the needs of your market and provides a year-round plan to meet those needs. It gives you a calm, rational approach to anticipate and counter slow times and ways to level off or stretch the busy seasons.

The trouble is that three out of four contractors don’t have one. Why? We hear it’s — take a deep breath — too much time, trouble, effort, not worth it, don’t know how, too costly, too much work, etc. All that is clutter and none of it is getting you any closer.


Making resolutions

It’s time to de-clutter your mind and make a couple New Year’s agreements at the same time:

Quit thinking your old marketing will suddenly get new results. Amazingly, contractors crumble up thousands of dollars in “dead” ads a year. If it’s not helping your image or your lead count, chunk it. Get fresh and watch your market respond.

Quit thinking of co-op as your main requirement for advertising. Use co-op to supplement your advertising message. I encourage you to “brand” your company with your own ads, your benefits and why customers should choose you, not just the equipment. Your company is worth its own unique message.

Lose the fear of being different. How in the world are you supposed to stand out if you blend in? It’s so obvious, yet contractors still use the competition as a model. Parade your unique benefits over the “same old thing” offered by your boring competition. (For a list of “21 Fun, Wonderful, Unique Ways to Make Your Contracting Company Stand Out,” send us a fun and wonderful request.)

No more manic marketing. Instead of panicking and throwing something together at the last minute, have ads ready to run across different media. All it takes is a little forethought. You already know the seasons, your product line, the service offerings and perhaps even the financing offers — why not have ads ready that fit these situations?

Set a marketing budget. This is so simple, yet fewer than one in eight contractors do this right. If you’re aggressively pursuing market share, it’ll cost you 8-10% of your sales; moderate marketers, 5-8%; and conservative marketers, 3.5-5%. If you’re trying to be aggressive but spending only 2% of your sales on marketing, you’re looking for diamonds at the price of cubic zirconium. Spend what it takes.

Set a marketing plan in motion, no matter how small. At the most basic level, divide your year into quarters and define which ones are your peak seasons and which are off-peak. Figure exactly what you’ll spend to promote what during that time. Then decide how you’ll deliver that message (which medium). You’re ahead of most of your competition just by doing this.


Finding solutions

If you can accomplish just three of the above, you’re probably off to a fantastic year. However, you may have “planning” problems that go beyond marketing. If you’re really stuck, there are a few things you can do.

Find a colleague who’s had and beaten the problem you’re facing. Quit fiddling around industry chat rooms complaining to others who enjoy the complaints but aren’t even remotely qualified to answer. Find someone who has actually been there and won. That’s the advice you need.

Or, invest in your life and pay a consultant who’s recommended by people you trust. Not all consultants fit all people. I have a copywriting coach who’s a level three genius on that topic, but I wouldn’t ask him for a word of advice on building relationships.

Combining the above, consider a “MasterMind Approach” where colleagues — even from different industries — meet and exchange ideas. Joining an aggressive member group, attending trade events, and sharing can keep the fires burning all year.

So at the time of year when we are all thinking about planning, please know that you can either make plans, or they can make you. Your choice.