Nearly every small business falls for it. They hear it so much they think it must be true, so they follow the advice and make very false, very damaging business assumptions built around it.

You see it with the restaurant opened by someone who is a fabulous cook. And it closes.
You see it with the very talented mechanic who has a lot of work but never any money.
You see it with the highly sociable, house-loving new realtor who can’t seem to close a sale.

And you see it with plumbing, heating and electrical companies — and most any other trade — that constantly struggle getting to the next level. They inch ahead, then drop back. Or they start off strong but fade just as rapidly. All due to the biggest business lie:
“If you’re good at what you do, you’ll be successful at what you do.”

Wrong. Devastatingly, awfully, ill-guided wrong.

There are many, many outstanding writers who starve. There are phenomenally talented musicians who can’t get enough gigs to pay their gas money between shows. Talent is no precursor to acceptance or success. So what is?

An audience.

A crowd of eager customers started off as a crowd of people who had no idea who you were nor that you were this good. Your food, expertise, essays, music and giftedness were a complete secret to them, until …

They became convincingly aware that they needed to just try you. One meal, one meeting, one song, one small mechanical test to win their allegiance. A message1 resonated with the crowd, and they said, “I’ll try it.”

They become fans — minor at first. You regularly remind these minor fans that you appreciate them, respect them and treat them well. You respect their time by showing up precisely when scheduled, you send them thank-you cards for using your services, and you check in with them on a regular basis so they can remember you and how great you are. They will tell others about your fantastic service who will, in turn, tell others.


Grooming your target market

Now you start to see a market2 emerge for you. You continue to remind them that you appreciate them, respect them and treat them well.

As your group begins to grow, because you are getting more and more people to try your services and retaining more of the ones who do, you will start to see major fans or advocates3 rise to the top. They will try any new dish, song, book or service you have to offer. Service agreement, anyone?

Finally, you start the cycle again and you tout to the not-yet-fans the very virtues4 that have attracted so many before. You invite them only to try you out, just this once. Let them be the judge. Your talent is obvious; the crowd grows.

Now you’re off to the races. Your prices can rise above the norm, as there is no norm for pricing5 the truly excellent. People pay up for excellence, as they should.

Except … who are these fans/customers? Where’d they come from? They weren’t here before?

Yes, they were and they are out there now. They are eager for the message, the music, the mechanic, the man or woman who “gets it” — finally — and they merely redirect energy from lost to found.

Yet, just as you wouldn’t send classical music fans to the punk rock club to see how they liked it, it is equally ridiculous to believe that if a person has a home then they must be a prospect for your trade. You do not target everybody. Only the somebodies seeking you, receptive to your message. They are called your target market for a very good reason.

Thus, the message-to-market match is the criteria by which Taylor Swift went from playing a two-bit gig in my hometown to multiplatinum Grammy status. And it is why a thousand people in your town haven’t yet chosen you as their contractor. Maybe several thousand. They’re just waiting and they are tired of waiting. They just want to be fixed, handled, resolved and confident that you’ll keep applying the skills that originally won them so they can cross that concern off their list.

Being good at what you do is where this all starts. But it also will be where it ends unless you tell the right crowd what makes you different, better and why they should care. It is marketing’s highest achievement.

You’ll notice that fanship — advocacy as we’ve described it — is rarely based on the bargain. If it is, meaning you have made “bargain” or “economy” as part of your message, then you have created that sensitivity. (Budgetel, The General Insurance, Mickey’s Beer, all intentionally serve that market. They do not have “excellence” in their messaging.)

When you get the message, the market and the major fans right, you can rightfully expect to raise your prices and only lose the customers who are weaned on bargains. A decent trade-off.

It is important to note, however, that once you have built your fan base, customer retention must become a priority. The best way to retain your customers is to nurture your relationships with them through a customer retention program. An example of this is a customer newsletter sent out two to four times a year. A newsletter is a place where you can become a customer advocate by giving “industry secrets” at no cost, give discounts on services you want to promote and highlight customer testimonials.

When customers feel like they have a relationship with your company, they will have a higher number of transactions at a higher price point. And they will tout your great services all over town, sending you referral after referral.


1Your marketing message. Position. Image. Branding. Is it erratic and sloppy or consistent and professional?

Which does Apple choose? Your message is not a license to brag, blend in or bash competitors. It is your differentiation or why would people bother to even call you? Answer: They wouldn’t, don’t and aren’t. Once you get this right, it must be aimed at your market.


2 Who gives a rip about your message? The tired, frustrated, wealthy, budget-conscious, younger, older, hipper, over-marketed and under-served, that’s who. Confused? Exactly. That’s who most contractors think they should be marketing to. Choose. Be selective. Draw a picture of them. A radius around them — an income, education, home, age — any commonalities whatsoever and aim your message to them. They will respond.

They always do.


3This means list segmentation. The high-dollar, frequent users vs. the once-every-two-years cheapskates.

Measure, define, trim and tighten focus. Quit spending $500 to attract a $100 customer.


4I also call them “distinguishing differentiators.” If the crowd loves your guarantees, your on-time techs, your consistently friendly follow-up, your charity work and online reviews, then it makes sense to include those in messages to win others like them.


5Would the typical NASCAR fan pay $100 to watch me drive in a circle for four hours? Doubtful. Would he pay an initial $400, plus food, beverage, headsets, program, hat, memorabilia, car model and wait in line an hour to buy this year’s T-shirt — now totaling nearly $700 — to watch “his” driver? Any Sunday.