How to use itinyour business and onyour business togrowyour business.

Special note to readers: Click on any of the hyperlinked items in this column this month to take you to invaluable resources. We're going surfing!

“Free” is one of the most powerful words in the dictionary. The Pilgrims faced untold perils to come to a land where they could be free and people from across the globe still make that trip in search of freedom. A free press fosters free exchange of free thought among free people who can freely act on their free ideas. Great wars have been fought on behalf of freedom. And a free cup of coffee will bring plumbers to a supply house.

Marketing agencies know they can get attention by adding “free” to just about anything - and they do. Right now, you're reading the most influential magazine for the plumbing and mechanical professions - and it's free!

In this month's column, I want to share “free” in two ways. First, we'll outline a way to use “free” in your business, then I'll share some excellent free resources to use on your business.

Give To Gain

It's no secret that making the phone ring can be expensive. Depending upon your business and market, you could easily spend more than $200 just to get a new customer. Referrals, on the other hand, can deliver new customers for free or nearly free.
  • Free smiles. Referrals begin with free smiles. Get your customer to smile and they're more likely to give you referrals. How do you make them smile? Treat their homes and furnishings with respect. Smile as their Yorkie gnaws at your shoelaces. Smile when the snot-nosed three-year-old scampers away with your six-way screwdriver - the one you picked up for free at the last free trade show you attended. Pick up your trash, clean up your mess. All this is free and, besides showing good manners, these courtesies win referrals.

  • Free speech. It doesn't cost extra to talk to your customers and they can't read your mind, so talk to them! Offer options to repair, replace or upgrade. Clearly describe how you propose to solve their problems. Practice writing neatly so your customers can understand what you did for them. Penmanship and vocabulary are practically free investments, so make the investment.

  • Free service. Earn a smile from your customer by lighting a pilot light or installing a flapper - for free. One referral can pay for a case of flappers, so don't be a tightwad! Right about now, some of you are thinking I'm off my rocker. After all, installing flappers and lighting pilot lights are part of what we do for a living, right?
I'm not talking about driving across town to give away a toilet repair. Try this: If you happen to be working on a water heater and you hear the toilet running, offer to service it for your customary fee, just like any good service representative should. If the customer declines the repair, you can assume they're going to run down to the home center to buy a flapper.

Save them a trip by offering a free flapper installation. “How about this, Mrs. Jones - sometimes this flush valve seal will solve a leak, sometimes it's more involved. I'll save you a trip and replace this seal at no charge. If that's all it needs, then you're in great shape. If more extensive repairs are needed, then at least we saved you a wasted trip to the home center.”

What if the free flapper doesn't stop the leak? You've saved your customer from a frustrating trip to the home center and very likely opened up an opportunity for a complete tank repair or toilet replacement. At the very least, you've proven to your customer that your company isn't going to nickel-and-dime its clientele. Use this example to determine other free services you might offer.

Free Business Tools You Can Use

I hope you understand that when a business offers you something for free, they're hoping you'll enjoy the experience so much that you'll send them money for even more services. Welcome to free enterprise!

I've compiled some of my favorite free Web offerings. Each link offers free resources to help you improve some facet of your business. If you're reading online, just click the link. If you want me to e-mail these links and more, just send me an e-mail.

Learn the “bookmark” command. In most Web browsers, you can add a Web page to your “Favorites” list by pressing the CTRL and D keys simultaneously. This saves you much grief later on when you try to find that really great page you remembered seeing.

You should already have www.PMmag.com bookmarked in your browser. This way, you can get a couple of week's head start on your contracting buddies by reading PM online. The printed version is important, too, since its wireless connection allows you to multitask in the necessary room.

  • Free e-letters - (1) The e-PHC Profit Report, by our very own Jim Olsztynski, is the e-mail version of his award-winning newsletter. It's worth the subscription just to get the lawyer jokes but he always offers information and news that can help our business. By happy coincidence, his link happens to be on the upper left corner of the PM magazine Web page.

    (2) Comanche Marketing, by Matt Michel. A few years ago, Matt started a hobby of sending out free marketing tips by e-mail. Currently, thousands of business people across the globe subscribe to his free Comanche Marketing e-mail newsletter. Visit the Service Roundtable Web site to subscribe (more about this site in a moment).

    (3) The Navigator. Gregory Smith helps you motivate your employees and yourself with his insights. Visit his Web site to join his newsletter and for free material - www.chartcourse.com.

  • Improve your communication skills - I'm not the only chirographically challenged plumber, but at least I'm doing something about it. If we can't legibly fill out an invoice, how is our customer going to know what we did for him or her? Quit scribbling and learn to communicate. You can print practice pages from this free Web site: www.handwritingforkids.com/ handwrite/cursive.htm. (Note: your donations help improve penmanship for students everywhere, so think of them as your ability to communicate improves and your revenues grow.)

    Penmanship aside, if you can't type, you're on the outside of the conversation and the silence grows louder by the day. Here is a free and elegantly simple typing trainer that uses whatever text you choose to practice with. It simply tells you when you mis-type a letter and shows you which finger you should use as you type: www.senselang.com.

    Once you conquer dysgraphia, you can improve your vocabulary skills for better communication. There's just something about “fix busted pipe - $900” that rubs a customer the wrong way: www.vocabulary.com. (This one is fun - make that delightful - no, maybe it's enjoyable.)

  • Free video about being free - Speaking of free, what can be more fun than hearing Ellen Rohr talk about giving away free service? You'll be amazed at the insight she shares in her “Widow down the street” presentation: www.hvactv.com/ hvactv/new_ site/archive/archive.php?brand_key=8033-136.

  • Sales training - You must get this free DVD from “Tec Daddy” Charlie Greer - it's great entertainment even if you don't care about sales. You'll have to pay shipping, but at least there's no late fee - www.hvacprofitboosters.com/DVD/Page_1.htm.

  • Labor and safety - U.S. Department of Labor. Bookmark this site to hear straight from the bureaucrat's mouth: www.dol.gov/dol/audience/aud-employers.htm.

    There are many safety training sites. I like the way this one is laid out: www.pp.okstate.edu/ehs/Training.htm.

  • Marketing smorgasbord - Comanche Marketing, break-even calculators, criminal background checks, postcard templates, Mobile Marketing tips, the Buford Chronicles and much more are all free from Service Roundtable (www.serviceroundtable.com).

    I've shared the tiniest sliver of all that's free on the Web, but the pay-off is up to you. You can make it your goal to gather all the free material in the world, but it can be the worst investment you've ever made if you fail to use it!