Make your phone and cash register ring with smart marketing.

In a declining economy, it can actually be far easier to generate more leads and out-muscle the competition.

How? It’s two-fold, actually. First, your fearful competitors have trimmed back on their own marketing presence to the point of near-invisibility or adopted the sorry tactic of “wait and see.” Wait and see what, exactly?

In any event, the competitive retreat opens a wide path for the prudent marketer. Ad revenues are down across the board, thus media negotiability is in the buyer’s favor. Now the “perfect storm”: Fewer advertisers, less advertising dollars, plus zero drop in service transactions equals more leads per contractor, for less money. Count me in.

1. Remember that your business is service.An old saying goes, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s not any different in the contracting business. Brad, a Midwest service contractor, found this out firsthand.

“We realized that we were not taking care of every customer that called in,” Brad says. If a customer called with a crisis - and it wasn’t a regular customer - Brad wasn’t as welcoming or accommodating as he should’ve been.

“Our thinking was ‘Who were they using? Why didn’t you call us before the crisis?’” Brad admits sheepishly. “Our marketing is now aimed at generating these calls - pre-crisis we hope - but we’ve added hundreds of customers by ‘soft-selling’ benefits to a good customer group.”

Strategy:Two-page introductory letter to a well-chosen list. Followed up with a postcard that doubled as a “coupon” 10 days later.Optional:Follow with a magnet-mailer. Results from Brad’s first 1,800-piece mailing: $12,920 in sales. By the end of year, sales to this group increased 94 percent.

2. Get a better response from your biggest expense.You’re spending good money on your Yellow Pages ad, and likely spending over half your marketing/advertising budget in there. The answer to the problem of the huge decline in YP traffic is not to buy a bigger ad; the problem is dull, boring, copycat ads. Stop that, please. But start using a headline, bulleted “reasons why” copy, a powerful call to action, and hierarchy of sales triggers.

John, a plumbing contractor from Illinois, was running a full-page Yellow Pages ad, but the results were dismal. The money was going out for the ad, but the leads and sales weren’t coming in.

Strategy:Cut John’s Yellow Pages ad down from full page to 1/6th page. Saved $21,870. Leads increased 12 percent. The same can work for almost any YP ad - replacing a big, bad ad with a smaller, more prospect-oriented ad will work every time.

3. Market when - and to whom - it matters most.Too many contractors “guess” at the target, then run “something” that goes out “whenever.” That’s like fishing blindfolded. It’s wiser to trim the targets to a manageable “gold list” and focus on them with laser-like offers. Timing can make it even better. Here’s how:

Got a seasonal product or service? Offer it 21 days out to your best list, then in 14 days to the next best list, then seven days out to the broadest list. This keeps your job flow consistent, plus keeps your customers out of your competitor’s grabby hands.

Bill in Georgia had relied on the “same old, same old” for years. His old approach to a 13,000-person list was generating about 40 leads per mailing. He adopted the “message to market match” approach with a hard-hitting offer.

Strategy:Service letter was sent to chosen list using 21-day method above. 13,000 mailed, 266 leads, 131 agreements sold, $182,454 in sales.

4. Invest in customer retention.Without question, your best list is your current customer list. Too many contractors treat them like an invoice, expecting them to remember to call you when they need service. It’s not their responsibility to remember you; it’s your responsibility to be remembered. Keep in mind that these are paying, active customers, so this is your highest value list by far.

A good relationship with you means they’re less likely to shop, more likely to accept the up-sell, and are more likely to refer you. With small effort, they’re also far less likely to leave you for the competition. Problem is, most contractors don’t have any active form of customer retention. If you don’t prove you care about them, why should they care about you?

Newsletters are the No. 1 tool. Also use thank-you cards, seasonal reminders and referral generator letters.

Strategy:Invest 8 percent to 12 percent of your marketing budget in an active retention program. Stacy in Texas compared one season’s group who got newsletters with one who didn’t. Sales difference was $266,000.

5. Don’t put all your eggs in one marketing basket.Sorry, I don’t have a magic bullet. A Web site is not your marketing savior, nor is any one method. Your marketing is a “team” of different ad types in different media. A balanced marketing approach kicks bootie, and is simple to do.

Strategy:Pick a sales goal, pick your marketing and create a plan. Any plan is better than none.

The bottom line is that the best trained and most skilled contracting company will still go bankrupt if the phone doesn’t ring enough. Learn to make the phones and cash registers ring with smart marketing.

PM Reader Freebie Bonuses This Month

Sick of your Yellow Pages ad that doesn’t pull the leads? Fax us your ad to 334/262-1115 or e-mail it tofreestuff@hudsonink.comfor a free one-page critique that’ll show you how to make your YP ad a winner. Also, ask for a Plumbing Personality Profile to help with No. 5. Just fax or e-mail us.