Drumming Up Job Leads

Shop owners offer a double handful of ways to direct-market your work to qualified buyers. July 9, 2007

I am a one man show with part time help (on call basis). I started out of my garage in April 2006, and have since moved into a 2000sf shop in a business park north of Atlanta. We've done everything from exterior repairs (for cash flow at first) to wine cellars, and we just completed our third full kitchen remodel. I've done better than I expected first year, but business is feast or famine, and I really want to focus on cabinets and related work. I can't seem to find an advertising vehicle that's reasonably priced and makes the phone ring. I've dabbled with Valpak mailers and like products, but they have a short shelf life and seem to create the feast that causes the famine. Does anybody have something they're using that gets steady results? Customer referrals are working for me so far, but I haven't been around long enough for them to create the steady cash flow I need to stop crawling and start walking.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
I have always been a fan of the Yellow Pages. This is not the be-all and end-all and I am sure there are many on this forum with different opinions, but I have gotten many opportunities to meet potential customers through the phonebook. You don't need the largest ad and of course the price is a function of ad size. If you can come up with a descriptive tagline for your business, it will help people to decide to call you.

From contributor F:
Hit the road, start driving around. If you see a remodel or new home going up during the foundation or basic framing stage, talk to the homeowners or builders. You may even be too late, and maybe after 10 or 20 visits to job sites you may get a good customer. It beats sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring, when nobody knows you're even there. I just built up a friendship with a startup small cabinet guy in town. I needed someone who would take over small jobs. He wouldn't go out and talk to people like I suggested; he just waited for the phone to ring. He had to give up and get a low paying job. Most builders won't give you the time of day, and some are sharks and want your business only to not pay you after completion. But the more contacts you build, the more your phone rings. Yellow Page ads do work, but not as well as you might think.

From contributor B:
I'm with contributor F on this. Get out and beat the bushes. If you don't have a website, get one up today, and make it look nice. I get lots of work from my website. Never had a Yellow Pages ad, cause I think it is way overpriced. Talked with a friend yesterday who cancelled his YP ad this year. Says he hasn't seen any business drop-off as a result of canceling the expensive ad.

From the original questioner:
I like the "beat the bushes idea" - I used it with good results in my previous business. But when I tried doing this for cabinetry, I couldn't figure out how to get to the customer. Around Atlanta it's hard to find someone who speaks English on a job site. Is there a way to find out who's building the house so they can be approached? I hear you loud and clear on the builders. I got shafted by one already, and two others tried before I learned how to say no. I do have a website, but marketing it has been a challenge.

From contributor G:
In my business startup class, they told us that it takes 6 repetitions of your name before you enter the customer's identified/comfort zone and start to call you. Whichever route you take, be sure to let it run 6 cycles, i.e.: 6 consecutive weeks in the weekly paper, and ask for your ad to be in the same place every issue.

From contributor H:
The quickest way for me to come up with work is to call other, bigger shops and ask if they have anything they need help with. Many large shops have jobs that they would love to give to someone else. This last week I built a solid wood top, made some face frames, built an island and finished some doors - all for other shops that were too busy to do the work.

Even if the phone does ring and it is a customer that wants you to do a job, it takes a lot of time to get to the point where you have work in the shop. You have to meet, design, bid, and wait for the customer to make decisions in between all of these phases of a job. If you do work for other shops, then usually these decisions have been made and the job is to the point that they just need someone to build it.

From contributor R:
Go to the municipal offices in your trading area and view the list of building permit applications. Send out mailers or call them directly. This way you're not spinning your wheels and burning up all your gas and time trying to find quality leads. In my area there is a publication that supplies this info along with other construction data that is E-mailed to me once a week. I copy the ones I want to a database and send out form letters which can direct them to my website. There may be a publication like that in your area. It costs me about $450.00 Cdn per year and it is by far the biggest bang for the buck. I now only select a few each week to send to, as the referrals are the main source of leads. There is no other way that I can think of that is more effective. Our biggest problem is not finding work, but finding time to do it all. When there are plenty of bids to do, it also makes it easier to keep your prices high enough to make a good profit.

From contributor V:
Advertise in the best local paper. Specify that you would like to be on the same page as the obits. Every person over 40 reads them daily. Works the best.

From contributor W:
I agree with those who say you can't just wait by the phone - you need to pound the pavement. My partner and myself have always been busy enough just by word of mouth. But like most wells, they eventually dry up. So we just started advertising via brochures. I'm not talking about your run of the mill hang a flyer on a doorknob. It's all in the packaging. Our brochure comes in a nice white 9 X 12 envelop with our company logo on it, a nice sounding frais on the cover, a short testimonial about the company, several pictures of the scope of work we do, and most importantly the type of work we are focusing on in that particular area.

We have the brochures hand delivered right to their doorstep. When they come home from work, that's the first thing that they see before they walk through the front door. We haven't been doing this for very long, but the turnaround has been pretty good. On average we get 3 or 4 callbacks for every couple hundred we put out and out of that, our job percentage has been about 47% of what we bid.

From contributor K:
While we're on the topic of gorilla marketing, has anyone ever cold-called in your target neighborhoods? I've thought of just handing out my flyers personally, with no big sales pitch, but just to let them know of my service. Sound like a good idea or bad?

From the original questioner:
I've tried the cold calling thing, and I always leave fliers in areas where I have a job working. But the problem is you can spend all day walking a subdivision and never find the person who lives among 400 homes that might be interested. If anyone has a way to at least find the lukewarm prospects to call on, this could be very effective I think.

From contributor T:
I once put a fellow employee's truck in the paper for $40 - call after midnight. That got the phone ringing.

I've gotten the best results from radio and TV. They are both cheaper than the newspaper, at least in this area. Referrals have always been the best, but like you said, it takes time.

From contributor L:
I once got about $15,000 of work from a brief flyer that I faxed from my computer. Company names and fax numbers are available online and the cost of the fax is the cost of a phone call.

From contributor Z:

We used to hand out flyers to neighbors of clients, but what turned out to be more effective, and less costly (no 4-color flyers in the trash), is clover-leafing the neighborhood when starting a job with a simple courtesy flyer saying that work will be performed at their neighbor's house, and letting them know what time you will be starting and ending each day, with contact information should any concerns arise, and that they are welcome to stop by at lunch time or at the end of the day to ask any questions. We also include a before photo of the customer's existing kitchen (or whatever project we are working on), with am empty box to the right that only says "After" in it. At the bottom left of the page are bullets listing what services we provide. When we are at the end of the project, we drop off another simple flyer with the "After" photo included this time, thanking them for their consideration during the project period and hope that they keep us in mind for any projects that come up. Of course, get your customer's permission ahead of time.

For the ones that actually stop over at the job site, we give them the full package (intro letter along with one-page before and after photo page, and CD), and get their info. If we get a reference letter from the existing client, we will forward it to this warm prospect.

On average, we get a new customer out of every three to four jobs we do.

For quick results, the best suggestions above are the ones about hitting the streets, contacting other shops for overflow (make sure it is cash and carry), and contacting the municipalities. When contacting the other shops, don't just offer fabrication; also offer installation.

P.S. If the Valpak is actually working for you ("seems to create the feast that causes the famine"), then you need to time the cycle to keep the flow steady.

From contributor C:
Has anyone used direct mail? I've been using direct mail to architects and general contractors and it always gets results. I get about a 4% return which is about 400% higher than bulk mailers. If nothing else, it puts your information in front of the remodelers, contractors and architects and designers. I type in their info in MS Word and use tools for mail merge. Once the list is in, I use it over and over. I send about 4 -6 mailouts a year and get consistent results. I'm sending out another today. I don't have to find home sites and meet plenty of builders who call and make an appointment and come to me. This also qualifies them, as the ones I get are willing to give me 50% up front to fund the materials and initial build time and another 25% for doors upon completion. There is a national database for GCs and architects (licensed). This is where I get the names of the exact counties I prefer to do business in, within my state. Try it - I think you'll like the results... From today's mail-out, I expect to start getting phone calls by Monday the 15th.

From contributor I:
What website are you using to get the list of GCs and architects?

Also, I would like to second making a personal appearance to potential customers. When I need a day away from the shop, I make my rounds through town to say hi to businesses I have done jobs for or think may be potential jobs. I haven't tried job site hopping, but have gotten good results introducing myself and handing out a few cards and showing off some pictures. The pictures say more than you ever can, then direct them to your website to view the rest of your work.

From contributor X:
Back in the days before computers/printers came along, I went to a swap meet out in Simi Valley, California and purchased a very small mimeograph machine for a quarter. It could only do 3" x 5" cards.

I had a large truck that was sitting idle and thought I would put it to use hauling whatever. I made packet after packet of cards describing my services with the truck. My young son and I went to all the shopping malls in the valley and placed these cards on the windshields of the vehicles there. Results were great - we got lots of calls. Also we got a call from the local postmaster telling us that it was a federal offense placing them on U.S. mail trucks. Oh well. Live and Learn.

Advertising on the obituary page of your local newspaper brings in results. Placing a stack of business cards where people gather also helps. The secret to getting results is to let people know that your are in business and you're available. Plaster your area with your advertising. Simple inexpensive advertising does just as well as the expensive advertising. Everybody occasionally reads the bulletin boards in your area. Signs on your vehicles gather attention also. Advertise yourself and products wherever you can.

That means joining clubs/chamber of commerce, etc. The more you devote yourself to advertising means the more business you will have. Your fellow cabinetmakers have a lot of good suggestions - pay heed to them as they will save you time and money.

From contributor N:
Personally, if I'm looking for someone to do some work, I go to Google, even if it's just for a phone number.

Tip #1 - put a phone number at the top of every page. I also look at how much thought someone has put into a site. I figure that if they put some planning time into their site, they will give me the same kind of attention. If they got the kid down the street to do it, I figure they don't understand that it takes time and training to do a good job.

Tip #2 - check out the work of the person you are considering. I know it's not comfortable for everyone to have a photo of themselves on their web site, but as the person calling, it sure does make me feel a lot more comfortable!

Tip #3 - give me a reason to trust you, and I'm more likely to call you. I've taught web marketing and design since the 90s. Most of my students are small business folk - many of them have paid way too much for poorly planned sites. But, in my opinion, a web site is the best long-term marketing utility.