Time to Reassess Marketing Strategies

Most remodelers didn’t start out as marketers. They became business owners and marketers almost as an afterthought, and some of them still aren’t comfortable in that role. Compared to framing a room addition, marketing is still something of a mystery. In good years, marketing wasn’t top of mind. Word-of-mouth and referrals kept many remodelers more than busy. In many cases, that has changed.

It doesn’t help remodelers’ comfort levels when someone like business author Seth Godin writes a book titled All Marketers Are Liars. Instances of chicanery and malfeasance in the remodeling industry are not hard to find, making Godin’s premise all the more uncomfortable for some remodelers. Fortunately, Godin has since seen the title as a marketing faux pas and renamed the book All Marketers Tell Stories.

Godin may be on to something, particularly with the new title that will set fewer teeth on edge. Marketing is about telling a story, the title posits, and looking at it that way demystifies the process. Thinking of marketing as storytelling also makes clear the risk of embellishing that story or telling it poorly; reality will quickly catch up with a fabricated or flawed tale.

What’s Your Story?

The back-to-basics questions that Godin says marketers should ask themselves are simple:

What’s your story? Will people believe it? Is it true?

"About seven or eight years ago, I decided this just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my personality, and I didn’t enjoy it." Daniel Wolt, president and founder of Zen Windows

Two remodelers with whom Qualified Remodeler spoke are indeed telling their stories, albeit in different ways. Nevertheless, it’s clear they’ve given their marketing plans a lot of thought and spent a good deal of time and effort crafting their plans.

Daniel Wolt, president and founder of Zen Windows, Columbus, Ohio, has simplified the marketing process, and he’s glad he did.

Wolt’s window business wasn’t always the “kinder, gentler window business” that it is now, he relates on his Web site. It was about telemarketers and canvassing to get leads, high-pressure in-home sales with both the husband and wife present, monthly payments and the whole bag of old-fashioned homeimprovement sales tricks, as Wolt calls them.

"We were doing what I call shotgun marketing. We didn’t have a plan, and we didn’t measure anything. We kind of knew from the phone calls that were coming in [some of the marketing] was working, but there was no consistency, and there was no plan." Dawn Steimer, owner of Master Custom Homes Remodeling

“About seven or eight years ago, I decided this just wasn’t for me,” he says. “It wasn’t my personality, and I didn’t enjoy it.” He looked around at his family, many of whom were professionals of one kind or another— lawyers, accountants, dentists—and realized “they don’t go knocking on doors, making phone calls, bothering people and pressuring them into doing things.”

Call Me

Wolt decided to remake his window business on that model. “My wife, a dentist, will not get on a phone and start cold calling people to see whether they need a root canal. If someone’s mouth hurts, they’ll call her,” he says.

Wolt asked himself why he couldn’t set up a business model where if someone’s house hurts, the homeowner would come to him. Skeptics will certainly doubt his model, but Wolt points out, “Since the inception of Zen Windows, we have grown from roughly $600,000 in year one with one crew and myself to current revenues of more than $2.8 million for 2010 with five crews always working, a full-time assistant and a full-time Internet-marketing guru.”

When people hear about Wolt’s business plan, “they don’t believe it, or they think I’m out of my mind,” he says. Nevertheless, he says he has consulted with other window installers, some of whom were not convinced and a few who saw the logic of the model. None, so far, have taken the leap that Wolt has.

The value of Wolt’s approach, even for those not willing to make a radical switch in their marketing, is that it challenges the status quo and forces remodelers to defend their own marketing plans.

Wolt has eliminated the salesperson from the process, a significant savings in overhead. “I have no sales force; it’s just me. I am the point man. Customers have multiple ways of contacting me whether it’s e-mail that goes to my smart phone, through my Web site, my personal cell-phone number or through my office. No matter what, they’ll always get me,” he says.

Although the key marketing concepts employed by most window companies used to be, and in many cases still are, the Yellow Pages, radio and television advertising, canvassing and telemarketing, Wolt focuses on SEO, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogging. “One hundred percent of my marketing budget goes into SEO marketing,” he says.

Ahead of His Time

The latter, of course, are marketing’s current buzz words, acknowledged by many but implemented to the extent that Wolt has by fewer businesses. “I believe I’m probably five to 10 years ahead of the game in my industry,” he says.

Zen Windows’ tagline is “Relax, window quotes in five minutes.” Wolt adds: “There’s really no reason for me to be there any longer. I honor and respect people’s time.”

Another factor that works in Zen Windows’ favor, Wolt believes, is that he doesn’t ask for a down payment and doesn’t pressure prospective clients to commit to a contract at the time the quote is delivered.

Ironically, because of the success of his Internet marketing, Wolt’s referral business, the old-school mainstay of many remodelers, has skyrocketed.

Those who find Wolt’s business plan a little far-fetched might want to look at Berkeley, Calif.-based Bath Simple (BathSimple.com), which allows homeowners to budget, select and design a complete bathroom renovation online. The products are then shipped to the home in a single container and installed by a Bath Simple-certified contractor or one of the homeowner’s choosing. Old fixtures are placed in the shipping box and returned for recycling. In-home consultants are available but are optional to the process, according to a press release from Bath Simple.

Switching Professions

Dawn Steimer, owner of Master Custom Homes Remodeling, Knoxville, Tenn., has given plenty of thought to marketing and telling the story of the company she began 13 years ago.

Her marketing plan is perhaps one of the reasons the modest-sized firm is growing despite the recent recession. “We’ve had a 30 percent increase in our calls since we’ve had a marketing plan, and we’re expecting a 77 percent increase in our gross revenues this year because of acquisitions, as well as the marketing campaign we have out there right now,” Steimer says.

It wasn’t always that way, however. When Steimer, a former optician, started the business with her father in 1998, they put a sign on their van and printed business cards. “Ninety percent of our business was word-of-mouth,” she recalls.

As the business grew, its marketing efforts grew haphazardly. “We were doing what I call shotgun marketing,” Steimer says. “We didn’t have a plan, and we didn’t measure anything. We kind of knew from the phone calls that were coming in [some of the marketing] was working, but there was no consistency, and there was no plan.”

Steimer’s solution was to hire an outside marketing firm to develop a plan and coordinate it, though she admits she didn’t always listen to her marketing director at first. “When I actually started listening to her and doing what she said, I started to get results,” Steimer says.

On the Air

Steimer also started a series of radio ads, which she recorded herself. Perhaps because of the novelty of being a female contractor and because her passion came across in the ads, she was invited to be on a local homeimprovement radio show called “Around the House.” Steimer now hosts the two-hour call-in show each Saturday during which she answers listener questions and offers advice. As a result, she says, “We became the go-to people; we became top of mind.”

At least two other notable changes came of the radio show, Steimer relates. First, she made the acquaintance of a local deck builder who was looking to retire; she acquired his business. In addition, talking to listeners, Steimer discovered a need for someone to do small handyman jobs, so she created a division called Master Home Medic. She also has made connections with subcontractors through the show. “I’ve met a lot of amazing people and had opportunities I never would have had, if I hadn’t been on the radio,” she says.

Branching Out Steimer also has branched into Internet marketing and has hired a manager for the company’s Internet and social-media efforts. “When we do a home show, all that information goes up on our Web site, our Facebook page and on our blog,” she relates.

The activity produces viable leads. “These are good people who are asking for quality projects. It’s exciting and I know it’s because of all the Internet activity,” Steimer says. “I think marketing is a long-term plan. It’s not something you can expect immediate results with.”

Her advice to remodelers is to have a plan and be very strategic in what you’re doing. “Know why you’re doing it; measure the results; and know what your goals are.”

Consistency is important, too. The first year she was in radio, Steimer engaged in a heavy advertising campaign, running 60-second ads 60 times a month. “That was a huge budget for a little company like ours, but the following year I could taper down to 30-second ads 60 times a month. I had already introduced our company to the audience; now, I just needed to remind them that we were still out there,” she says.

Staying the Course

Steimer stayed the marketing course during the recession, as well. “Honestly, we took on some debt because of the marketing we did. It wasn’t a lot, but I’ve never had any debt in my business. As a business owner, [debt] was like the death word in a recession. We stayed with the campaign because we believed it was going to pay off, and it did,” she says.

Co-op advertising is another avenue Steimer suggests remodelers explore. Remodelers who regularly install a specific brand should talk to their suppliers about the availability of such a program. Steimer recalls broaching the subject to a representative of a company with which she deals and being pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a co-op billboard with Master Custom Homes Remodeling. “There are a lot of co-op dollars out there,” she says.

Steimer is using the latest technology in her marketing efforts, as well. “We now take an iPad into our sales presentations because people want to see that kind of thing,” she says. “We have all the pictures of our projects on it, and we’re working on a video that will introduce our whole team in three minutes. They can meet our team, see who they just talked to on the phone to set the appointment, who’s going to be doing their estimate and who the project managers are. I think it alleviates some of the fear for them, and it’s great marketing for us.

“There are so many fears in this business because you’ve got so much to [think about],” Steimer says. “You get afraid to step out of the box and think about what has worked in the past and what hasn’t worked, what people are doing now, what makes them pick up the phone and what makes them excited.”

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