By Thomas Musselwhite
Spring is the time of year that homeowners begin researching and planning major outdoor living and curb appeal projects. Successful hardscapes contractors know that now is the time to take stock on operations, increase visibility in the marketplace, and focus on ways to improve business in order to make the most of the high season.
Invest in yourself
Take this time to do regular maintenance on all equipment to make sure that everything is in perfect working order. Blades should be kept sharp; motors should be in good shape. This is also an excellent time to look for continuing education opportunities. Get certified in another installation technique, take a sales or marketing class, or find a one-day seminar on time management. Look for any opportunity that can potentially help you grow, both as an installer and as a businessperson. If you don’t already have uniforms for your crew, purchase logo-embroidered golf shirts for your salesmen and coordinating screen-printed t-shirts for your work crew. Each worker instantly becomes a walking billboard for your company. Make the most of your t-shirts by putting your logo on the front and a catchy slogan on the back. Also realize that if uniforms are torn or horribly stained, it can negatively affect your company image. Check and make sure that all existing uniforms are in decent shape, and stock up as needed.
Develop a social media marketing plan
If you are not already on social media, you are missing a tremendous amount of consumer networking opportunities. Venues such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram allow you to post examples of your work that can be shared and re-shared, expanding your reach exponentially. Before-and-after transformations, in particular, tend to generate a lot of interest. Another idea is to use your smart phone to record short testimonials from happy customers on how much they love their new outdoor living spaces. These videos can be easily uploaded to most social media sites. Be sure and get each homeowner’s permission in writing before uploading a testimonial video.
Networking, networking, networking
Canvass neighborhoods, looking for new home construction in progress. Visit these sites and introduce yourself to the builder or foreman. Many hardscape projects are won by being in the right place at the right time. Another idea is to call the local representative for the hardscapes company you use most regularly and set up a date to go on a sales blitz together to visit custom homebuilders either on job sites or at their corporate offices. A good manufacturer sales rep can help you both answer builder questions and put together packets of leave-behind marketing materials. Be sure to bring a notebook, which will help you make a psychological connection with each builder by listening attentively and taking notes. Also remember to follow up in a timely manner with a thank you e-mail or additional information, if requested.
In addition to networking with local builders, look for opportunities to build relationships with local dealers and other industry professionals who can be long-term referral sources. Also align yourself with quality brands that can help lend credibility to your business and provide you with additional growth opportunities and support. Take advantage of the business-building programs that these manufacturers have to offer to help stretch your training, operations and marketing dollars.
Guerrilla consumer marketing
Although referrals play a primary role, you cannot consistently grow your business without proactively attracting new customers through an organized marketing effort. You have to continually get the word out that you exist. Having your name regularly presented in the marketplace will also lend credibility to your business. Advertise to local homeowners with targeted consumer marketing pieces such as door hangers and postcards. Some hardscapes manufacturers, such as Belgard for example, print high-quality customizable marketing pieces in large quantities, making the cost considerably more affordable for the small business owner. Check with your local dealers and manufacturer reps for availability of these types of programs. Target specific neighborhoods that are more likely to install hardscapes. Don’t waste your time trying to convince reluctant homeowners that they can afford hardscapes. Fish where the fish are already biting. To be successful, be prepared to spend at least five percent of your gross revenue on marketing and advertising, and build the marketing costs into your overall budget and pricing. Also, consider partnering with a local bank to develop a low-interest financing program, which could help homeowners decide to increase the scope of a project.
Strategic home show marketing
In some areas of the country, there seems to be a home or garden show every other weekend this time of year. Pick the show, or shows, that will give you the most bang for your marketing buck and reach the caliber of homeowners that would most likely be interested in hardscapes. People go to these shows looking for ideas on how to improve their homes. Help them visualize the possibilities with eye-catching displays of beautiful outdoor living areas. Mount a large television to run a slide show of quality photographs of your own projects, mixed with professional images from the manufacturers with whom you work. Also, talk to your manufacturer reps about display materials for your booth.
Create systems for multi-crew operations
The first key to success in growing your business beyond a couple of crews is to standardize pricing and payment systems. Although it will be tempting to bill by the hour, it will be easier to ensure consistent margins by billing per square foot or by creating a task-pay system of billing by the type of job. Be sure to factor in variables such as difficult access and geotextile needs. If organized properly, you will consistently earn an average 30 percent gross profit with net profit margins of 10 to 15 percent. You will also need a system for tracking the multiple crews, which can be as simple as a system of work orders. Each work order should indicate exactly what the crew will be paid on the job, and they should finish one job before starting the next.
For both quality control and safety reasons, take a proactive approach to OSHA compliance, and protect your crew from themselves. Workers won’t always be concerned with how their lungs will look 20 years from now. Make sure you are up-to-date on all of the latest codes and required safety equipment. Stock up on eye protection, ear protection and dust masks. If you have a multi-crew operation, consider hiring an inspector who can travel from jobsite to jobsite to make sure that the proper safety and quality protocols are followed on all of your jobsites.
Now is the time to start staffing up. The two most important elements for new hires are referrals and training programs. The most reliable resource for finding new workers are referrals from competent members of your current crew. However, in this time of economic recovery, qualified crew members may be hard to find. Be prepared to advertise opportunities and train internally. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stop recruiting once your crew is fully staffed. Plan for attrition. Recruitment should be an ongoing activity.
The Importance of delegation
As your business grows, your management skills need to grow with it. Once you hit critical mass of billing $4 million to $6 million annually, you cannot survive unless you delegate, delegate, delegate. For example, anyone billing more than $1 million who is still doing his own bookkeeping is making a mistake. Delegate operations and focus on training, growth and business development.
Thomas Musselwhite is trade marketing manager at Belgard. For more information, www.belgard.com.