Picking a name vs. earning a name.

Naming a business can be just as challenging as naming a youngster, but there's more to a name than what you print on the business card. For starters, you could put your own name on the business. After all, what are the chances that there's another plumber named Smith who is thinking about setting up shop in your town?

If your own name won't work (Leaky Plumbing may not be the best choice), you may have to be more creative. Yourtown Heating & Air is probably taken. So is AAA Air Conditioning, so you might consider something more general such as Citywide or A Plus Plumbing Service. Chances are these names are taken, too.

With a big enough marketing budget, you could create a name using selected syllables which reflect a certain meaning. Cingular wrapped up several smaller companies into one synthesized name designed to promote individualism. This convention is popular among manufacturers, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Have you ever heard of Nexium, Prilosec or Alleve (to name just a few)?

Big budgets, however, don't guarantee success for a name. One computer company became well-known for its friendly user interface. Customers liked the machines so well they even referred to them with an informal nickname. Another company decided to place a similar “good ole boy” name on an operating system in hopes that users would think just as highly of its program. After spending millions on marketing, Microsoft's “Bob” lies forlornly in the ash heap of software rejects while “Mac” continues to flourish. One lesson learned: Picking a friendly name doesn't automatically mean people will like your product.

Literature is another source of inspiration. Here's a fun little quiz: On a map, draw a circle with a five mile radius around the center of your town. Now, within that circle, how many shops are named after Captain Ahab's first mate on the Pequod?

The success of the above-mentioned franchise (have you guessed it yet?) invokes the success of nationally known franchises. Buy into a franchise and you'll get to use a nationally known name, along with a host of programs claiming to help you succeed. Franchises charge various rates for these benefits; some even expect a percentage of your sales. Whether this national identity is worth its price is a business decision you'll have to ponder, but at least you won't be spending a lot of time pondering a name.

More Than A Name

Whether you buy a name, make up a name or use your own, the name you pick isn't nearly as important as the name you earn. When consumers mention your company, are they talking about how cute or unique your name is or are they talking about how well you solved their problems? When your name comes up, are your customers discussing how you do what you say you'll do or are they warning others to stay away? You can have the most thoughtful, unique and powerful name in town, but if you don't deliver what you promise, your name is mud.

Can you create a good name for yourself and your company? If you're a smaller contractor, you may be tempted to act bigger than life. This is natural and understandable, since being in the service business means you want to serve your customer as much as possible. Admitting that you're not equipped or don't have the manpower to take care of a potential customer's needs may seem like you're letting your customer down.

But don't let this service-minded attitude lead you to bite off more than you can chew. If you're already on the way to the job that you squeezed in between two other jobs when yet another call comes in, it's time to say, “I'm booked.” Or, when a new “big” account calls, you'd better think long and hard about dropping several “little people” off the schedule so you can pursue this “opportunity of a lifetime.” A customer that you turn away may be disappointed, but they won't be as mad as the customer you jilt. The more often you drop the ball because you couldn't say “no,” the more you'll be undermining your good name.

Bad things sometimes happen on a job. Bad things can even happen to good contractors like you. That's why you charge enough to cover insurance and fund your customer satisfaction reserve account. If the new boiler doesn't keep a customer's home comfortable, don't quibble over how you sized it or who's fault it is that the boiler isn't getting the job done.

Instead, be eager to take the hit and fix the problem. If an item fails under warranty, don't make your customer wait until you can work him or her into your schedule. Instead, put that customer at the head of the line. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate how well you take care of your customers after the sale.

When advertising, focus on the value you offer rather than hollow promises. Be aware of your limitations so you can “under-promise and over-deliver.” If you can't deliver one-hour service, then don't advertise it. If you charge more than most of your competition, then why imply that you offer low prices? If you have to put an asterisk with fine print next to an offer, use a different offer. When your advertising includes a host of disclaimers, you're basically telling your customer that you don't really mean anything you say in your offer.

Earning the trust of your customer also involves your employees. Deal squarely with the people who represent your company to the world. Be careful about what you promise and, once you make a promise to an employee, do all in your power to fulfill it. Compensation and bonus plans should be based upon cold, hard numbers that don't require an accounting degree to understand. Don't use veiled or ambiguous incentives when recruiting or motivating.

If you make a rule, enforce it fairly and equitably. There's always room for grace and mercy, but if you dish it out too often, you're sending the message that you don't really mean what you say. Remember that the name you earn with your employees will effect how they represent you to your customers.

When your name comes under attack, be prepared to deal with it. If the attack or accusation is justified, own up to the problem and make an effort to correct it. The more you try to hide from the facts, the lower the value of your good name. When your name is attacked unfairly, your good reputation becomes your insurance policy. An unwarranted attack will have little affect on people and customers who know you. That's not to say that you shouldn't take steps to defend your good name, but don't let an occasional accusation consume all your resources.

The bottom line is that your customers want a name that they can trust. The old proverb still holds true: “A good name is better than gold.” It's easier to build a trustworthy reputation when you're careful to make promises you can keep, and then keep them.

Answer to the quiz: In the novel “Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab's first mate on the Pequod was named Starbuck. Has this unique name helped the company grow to nearly 10,000 outlets worldwide? Not likely. If “Starbucks” hadn't been the name of the chain, it was very likely to have been “Starbo's,” which sounds just as marketable. The name that was chosen had very little to do with the name that was earned.