Some simple things you can do to improve in your day-to-day activities

Foster Customer Service

Make it a point to spend a little time training employees in customer service. Most business owners pay lip service to customer service, but most really don't regard it as an important business function. Most contractors don't even pay lip service to it. They think the only thing that counts is that their people know how to work with the tools of the trade. But a surly employee can cost you many jobs.

Here are three steps you can take to establish a customer service culture in your company.

1. Make customer service the highest priority by authorizing every employee to drop anything they are doing at any time in order to respond to a customer request. Some important tasks might get put off, but what you are saying is that nothing is more important than customer service.

2. Create measurable customer service goals, such as reduction in number of complaints, or an increase in repeat business.

3. Give your employees incentives to provide excellent customer service. Consider restaurant certificates or other awards to employees who generate the most customer testimonials.

Your Advertising

Large ads outdraw small ads overall, but there are exceptional circumstances in which a smaller ad not only saves money but also can be more effective than a larger ad. For instance, in some cases you might be able to do just as well dominating a page with a 2⁄3-page ad in three-column publications. It's cheaper than a full page and usually precludes other ads being placed on that page. Half-page ads often, but not always, appear alone as well.

Suppose your budget only allows tiny portional ads. Three techniques can help draw attention to your small ad even when it's surrounded by bigger ones.

1. Go with a distinctive border.

2. Use large type with few words.

3. Use reverse type.

Promote Security

Make crime pay. What I mean by that is to take advantage of security concerns that are in the forefront of people's minds. Surveys show some 90 percent of Americans believe that crime is on the rise, but this really isn't true. Nationally, the rate for most types of crimes shows significant declines due in large measure to an aging population, coupled with advanced police work. Still, acting on perceptions, the American public has stepped up purchases of security equipment ranging from heavy-duty locks to guns to guard dogs to electronic security systems.

What's this mean for your business? Use security as a marketing tool aimed at both residential and commercial clients. Supply all field help with I.D. badges and business cards. Make it a point to call ahead when your crew is on the way to a job. Promote yourself as a drug- and alcohol-free company (make it true, first).

Improve Your Meetings

For shorter and sweeter business meetings, consider the following:

1. Hold stand-up meetings. Meetings without chairs move quicker than those where people get comfy.

2. Schedule meetings to start at odd hours, say 2:40 instead of 2:30. People will be more serious about showing up on time. Also schedule an ending, say at 3:05.

3. Breakfast meetings. People are more time-conscious and businesslike first thing in the morning. These morning meetings are less expensive than lunch or dinner confabs.

4. Compute the cost. Break all attendees' salaries/wages into hourly segments and multiply by the time of the meeting. Then ask yourself, “Did we get our money's worth?” You'll probably find yourself doing away with a bunch of meetings.

Change Order Costs

According to a study by the construction consulting and research firm FMI, the most frequently overlooked change order costs are:

  • Additional time

  • Consumable supplies

  • Small tools

  • Cleanup

  • As-built drawings

  • Bonding

  • Project insurance

  • Material handling

  • Safety

  • Gas and oil

  • Warranty reserve

  • Cost of money

Donate to Local Charities

Charity begins at home. Be a good corporate citizen of your community by establishing a yearly budget for charitable contributions.

In so doing, put aside a separate category for “special donations” unforeseen at the beginning of the year. Let employees choose how to disburse this money. It's an ideal way to get them to feel a sense of “ownership” in your business, and helps support their own community involvement.

Best Hiring Practices

Don't ever hire anyone who cannot provide a handful of references on their employee job applications, and don't automatically assume references you are provided are legitimate. People who get fired from jobs for malfeasance often will list friends and relatives as former employers and ask them to provide phony endorsements when asked.

Ask applicants for the names and contact information about past supervisors. If the applicant balks at providing this information, ask if they had a falling out and ask for an explanation. It's not always the employee's fault. Sometimes supervisors may resemble the wrong end of a horse, but if this is the case, try to get the applicant to discuss in detail why they didn't get along - especially if it comes out the applicant was fired. I wouldn't go so far as to say never hire employees who have been fired from a previous job, because as noted, sometimes it's not their fault; sometimes they may even have acted on high principle. But be wary, and get all the facts before deciding. Be sure to seek out points of view other than the applicant's. If you can't speak to the former supervisor, ask to contact some former co-workers to get their input.

Hit Home Shows

Home shows pay off. Home shows, usually held in the spring, offer some of the best marketing bang for the buck for construction contractors. If you participate in any, try these tips for the biggest payoff.

1. Go with a big booth - preferably one in the lobby, even if you have to pay extra.

2. Put on demonstrations of products or services that interest people. Involve the audience in hands-on demos if possible.

3. Offer munchies. Rent a popcorn machine. I guarantee this will increase your traffic. Visitors can smell the popcorn from aisles away.

4. Offer long-lasting premiums. Forget literature bags. They'll be thrown out right after the show. Give out hats, t-shirts, notepads, shopping lists and other items with staying power.

5. Sell, sell, sell. Don't look at a home show only as a PR opportunity. Come loaded with literature, discount coupons and special home show offers.

Other Suggestions

  • Se habla Español! Are there any fluent foreign language speakers on your payroll? Be sure to promote that in your advertising. Sometimes that's all it takes to win a lucrative job.

  • Develop a customer satisfaction review form to pass out after completion of every job. A key question to put on this form: “Can we put your name on our referral list of satisfied customers?” Instant testimonials!

  • Smart contractors issue throwaway cameras to their field people to take photographs of vehicle accidents, unusual jobsite conditions and other situations with the potential for litigation.

  • Top marketing professionals use a little psychological trick when it comes to prices. When you wish to minimize a price, say “only $80.” To emphasize savings, write “save $80.00.” Decimals and zeros make amounts seem larger.

  • The U.S. Armed Forces have established Operation Transition to help hundreds of thousands of military veterans and their spouses find civilian employment after their terms of service. These people helped comprise the most highly educated, trained and motivated military forces in our nation's history. For further information, call the Operation Transition help line at 800- 727-3677.

  • Companies that make shaving razors sell them for next to nothing, or even give them away for free. That's because they make their money selling the replacement blades. Likewise, ever notice how cheap computer printers are these days? The computer companies that make them sell them virtually at cost, but they make a killing on the replacement ink cartridges that go for $20-$50 a pop. Also, auto dealers make hardly any profit on the cars they sell, but they aggressively push extended warranties and their service departments to make up the difference.

Many construction contractors miss the boat on similar aftermarket opportunities. Think in terms of service agreements and extended warranties for the products you install. It's a way to lock in repeat business without always having to win a low bid, casually assuming the customer wants to buy from you.

Whenever you talk pay with employees, don't focus just on their wage or salary. Put a dollar value on all the benefits you provide, which usually will add a third or more to the compensation package. Turn the conversation from, “I'm only making $25,000 a year,” to “You're costing me $34,000 a year.”