The modern world would do just fine without philosophers and sociologists. But not without plumbers.

Per tradition, editor Steve Smith asked PM's columnists to devote their first month's writings to a common theme. This year it's, "The Top 10 Things A Contractor Can Do in 2003." Here are my suggestions.

1. Return phone calls. It's the little things that count in contracting or any other business, and this is one of the little things that drive customers bonkers. Contractors hate phone messages because they usually mean trouble or at least inconvenience. ("I want to change something.") People generally don't call to tell you they loved your work.

But suck it up and return those calls - immediately. Procrastinate and the messages will pile up into an hour's worth of telephone time. Find out what's wrong and deal with it.

2. Use e-mail more. Get into the habit of using e-mail for routine communications with employees, customers, suppliers and everyone else you come in contact with day by day. You can dispense with a dozen e-mails in the time it takes to complete a single phone call.

Use good judgment, though. Sensitive or time-critical messages are best conveyed in person or over the phone. And, be aware that e-mail leaves permanent evidence of your thoughts and actions, so never say anything in e-mail you wouldn't want someone else to see.

3. Take time off once in a while. Stop missing your kids' ball games and school plays. Make them a priority in your life. Even if you don't have kids, take a "mental health" day off on occasion to do whatever it is you like to do with leisure time.

Can't afford to do this, you say? The business would fall apart without you staying on top of everything? Proceed to item four.

4. Organize your business to run without you. Read one of Michael Gerber's "E-myth" books. He says it all. If you are indispensable to your business, you are not an entrepreneur, but a slave.

5. Concentrate on people, finances and marketing. Many contractors excel in turning the wrench or managing projects, but you can hire people to do those things for you. The world teems with bankrupt plumbers who thought all they need to succeed in business was to do good, honest work.

As a business owner, you will succeed or fail based on how well you handle people, money and marketing. You cannot hire people to do those things for you, at least not until you preside over a big company that can absorb the cost of a CFO, an HR department and marketing specialists. But you will never get to be a big company if you insist on running every job.

6. Realize that marketing is essential to your business. Many contractors like to brag that all of their business comes via word of mouth. These folks scorn companies that spend big bucks in the Yellow Pages and other forms of advertising. They think all they need to do is sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

Stinkin' thinkin'. On average you lose 9 percent of your customers each year to normal attrition. You need to gain 9 percent more just to stay even. Marketing is a good thing to do, not something to be ashamed of.

7. Ignore your competitors, except ... Don't get obsessed with how competitors run their business. If you think they're doing something wrong, be happy about it. It can only make you look better.

However, this advice only holds true for competitors you regard as weaker than yourself. When someone is doing better than you in the marketplace, then ...

8. Learn from your competitors. Stop sniping at the companies that land the big jobs, buy the fancy trucks and equipment, and make a lot of money. They're doing something right. Find out how they do it and imitate them.

9A. If you're a T&M service contractor, raise your labor rates by just $5 an hour. See how much business you lose. If customers don't seem to notice, raise it another $5. Keep doing this until you start to lose more revenues than you make. I bet you'll end up making a lot more money than you thought possible.

9B. If you're a flat rate contractor, try cutting costs to the point where you can reduce your hidden labor charge by $5 an hour. Then keep doing that until you're making just as much money with a lot fewer complaints, and without being hassled by consumer protection agencies.

10. Take pride in your profession. The plumber protects the health of the nation. That slogan has been around for decades. It's time to embrace it and spread the message to your customers.

The modern world would get along just fine without philosophers and sociologists, but not without plumbers. Hold your head high every day and in every social setting.