Brand yourself, and your customers will stick to you like ABS glue.

Stand on a busy street corner. Ask a passerby, "What name comes to mind when I say 'hamburgers'?"

He'll say, "McDonald's."

Ask him, "What name comes to mind when I say 'soft drink?'"

He'll say, "Coca-Cola."

"How about 'doughnuts?'"

"Dunkin' Donuts."

"Plumbing and heating?"

" É ?"

You see, in the PHC world, that top-of-mind market position is still up for grabs. Roto Rooter has done a good job creating a brand name for drain cleaning, but there is no one at the top of the name-brand hill in the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling world.

Right now, the consolidators and large service providers - Service Experts, GroupMac, Sears, Home Depot - are making plans to get to the top of the hill. They understand the power of brand naming. McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Dunkin' Donuts sell a lot of product. Do they make the best burgers, sodas and doughnuts? No way. But they are consistent. Consumers know what to expect, so they buy. It might not be the best product, but it is better than the unknown product.

To become the national brand, the big companies will have to clone their services from shop to shop in every major city across the country. No small task, but it is possible. Picture McDonald's with wrenches and voltmeters. And when somebody pulls that off, they are going to sell a lot of water heaters and capture a bunch of customers.

Does that make you nervous? Do you see the demise of the small shop operator in the shadow of a nationally recognized plumbing uber-power? Fear not! Because you have the one thing that the national company doesn't have - you.

Maybe you aspire to selling your small company to a big company. Cool. But, if you would like to maintain your independence a while longer, play your trump card. Brand yourself.

What is it that makes you unique, and how can you market that to your customers?

If You Love It, Do It

Start by identifying what it is about your business that you absolutely love to do. Does radiant heat make you hot? Are you a wizard at urinals? Can you fix anything? Are you the absolute best at making customers feel comfortable and cared for? If you love it, you are probably very good at it. Make this your niche business. The big companies will be generalists - you can be the specialist. They will be very good at handling 80 percent of their customer's problems - you can be the master of the 20 percent they neglect.

If They Do It, Don't Do It

Now, look at how a national brand is marketed. It will communicate its consistency, efficiency and, perhaps, low prices. Don't even think about going head-to-head with them on these issues. You can't beat them there. Do the opposite. Communicate to your customers how you are different from them.

Recently, I read an article about a computer consulting company. The company slogan was "business at the speed of molasses." They positioned themselves squarely opposite Bill Gates and Microsoft's "business at the speed of thought." The CEO pointed out that if you move too fast you might go speeding over a cliff. Better to slow down and think things through. Customer's who are uncomfortable with today's lightspeed pace might choose the "molasses" brand.

Here are a few more ideas to differentiate yourself, and establish your brand.

  • Be exclusive. Deer Valley Ski Area in Park City, Utah, strictly limits the number of skiers allowed on the mountain every day. It sells a pre-set number of tickets, and then cuts it off. Skiers pay a hefty premium for the exclusive use of the slopes. They love racing down the lightly populated ski trails!

    Tell your customers you only work with a select few homeowners, that way you can promise unbeatable service. It is amazing how limiting supply increases demand. When you start saying, "I'm sorry, we are only taking new clients on a referral basis now," customers are going to sign up on a waiting list.

  • Get personal. When you work for a limited number of customers - and as a small shop operator, you can only handle so many anyway - you can treat them very well. Learn their names, nicknames and kids' names. Remember to ask about their recent trip to Italy. Buy Girl Scouts cookies from their kids.

    Keep meticulous records on their equipment and service history. If you have a software system that can handle this kind of data, great. If not, use a notebook and write down pertinent information about each customer. Treat them respectfully. Look them in the eye. Seal each deal with a handshake. Let them sleep on it if they don't want to buy today. Love them like family. Your personal touch will keep them calling you, even when a national brand catches on.

  • Be a personality. You are unique and wonderful. Let your customers see you and get to know you. If you want to brand yourself, then you must be yourself for the entire world to see. Put your picture in your ads. Offer to work on local charity and community projects. Wear your company jacket wherever you go. Assure each customer that you are the buck-stops-here guy. Promise that you will personally handle and resolve any problem. If you are a small shop operator, you would do this anyway. Let them know.

  • Tell stories. You've been working in this industry how long? You have rare and useful knowledge. Educate folks about the skill and art of plumbing and heating. Remind them of plumbing's contribution to their health and safety. Remember the disaster in Chernobyl? A nuclear reactor melted down, threatening a global catastrophe. It caused incredible amounts of contamination and damage, but it could have been much worse. You know who saved the day? The plumbers. The plumbers figured out how to get water to the reactor to cool it down. They diverted the contaminated run-off from over-running the town. As you work, share the oral history of the trades. People will hire you for the entertainment value alone!

  • Be discreet. A few years back, Hot Rod and I attended a swanky charity function in Park City, Utah, where we had our plumbing and heating company. It was a very high society affair. Local politicians, celebrities and prominent business people had assembled to raise money for a worthy cause. As Hot Rod scanned the room, he commented quietly to me, "I have been in the basement of the home of every person here."

    Hmmm. I bet there are things in those basements that those folks would not want everyone in the world to know about. But Hot Rod is a man of well-selected words. He never gossips. He is trustworthy. These are very attractive traits to high-visibility customers.

    Develop a trusting and respectful relationship with your clients and they will never dump you for a lower priced service. Say only nice things about people. Never discuss one customer's plumbing with another customer. Never talk to the National Enquirer about your famous clients. Discretion is a highly sought after commodity.

  • Be sane. The word sane means, "mentally sound and healthy; sensible; rational." Don't laugh. You can differentiate yourself from most of the world by being a sane and reasonable person. Would you agree that life is chaotic? War, disaster, violence. Even simple things, like renewing your driver's license, can feel like a page from a Kafka novel.

    What if you brought order and sensibility to each business transaction? Doing business with you would be a breath of fresh air! A big company offers Bermuda triangle voice messaging and urban legend follow-through. But you could create and maintain neat and simple systems for handling customers' plumbing problems. You could use reason in the moment of decision. You could provide the sanest moment in your customer's day. That would be something special.

    In a recent issue of Fast Company magazine, I read an article by business guru Tom Peters. He discussed the concept of branding yourself as an employee to expand career options and move up the ladder. His words work well for owners, too, as you consider branding yourself in the PHC world.

    Tom says, "No matter what you are doing today, there are four things you've got to measure yourself against. First, you've got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you've got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you've got to be a broad-gauged visionary - a leader, a teacher, a farsighted 'imagineer.' Fourth, you've got to be a businessperson - you've got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.

    "It's this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else."

    The big companies have nothing on you.

    Return to that busy street corner. Ask a passerby, "What name comes to mind when I say 'plumbing and heating?'"

    He'll say, "Yours."