As electrical contractors face an uncertain marketplace,it is tempting to cut marketing and advertising expenses. When you are concentrating on downsizing, belt-tightening and maximizing productivity, it is difficult to see the value of spending money on intangibles and equally hard to measure the impact of that spending. How do you navigate the confusing array of terms related to the process of earning profits? Should you be marketing, selling, promoting, advertising, branding, imaging or starting a public relations campaign?

Although the terms carry different connotations, they are reflections of the same process. Selling, for example, is the action of persuading someone to buy something. Advertising is creating public awareness of your products and services. Promotion implies building incentives, such as discounts or gifts, into the advertising scheme. The purpose of public relations is to build goodwill in the marketplace. Your brand is your corporate identity, and your image is the equivalent of your company’s character.

Finally, marketing is the total process of carving a niche that is consistent with your business strategy and attracts potential customers to your company. Uncertain economic cycles make it difficult to survive and profit, so it is imperative to select your niche carefully and earn a reasonable return on your investment in a marketing program.

A marketing campaign, like a political campaign, is based on promises to your potential clients. Once you determine what promises you are able to make, you can plan a specific marketing strategy.

Promises

Your marketing message is built around the promises you make to potential customers. What do they want, and how will they recognize it? Market research is supposed to answer that question, and business decisions are supposed to be based on data. Michael Gerber, author of “The E-Myth Contractor,” asserts that contractors are confused about what their customers want. He suggests that you select potential customers based on their reasons for buying. You should then design marketing strategies to appeal to those reasons. Decide what you do well, and you may find that your customers fall into a consistent type.

Gerber’s recommendations are simple: Find out what the customer wants, effectively communicate your ability to deliver it, get the customer to buy, keep him or her happy, and deal with any dissatisfaction promptly. That would be easier if customers made rational decisions and market research produced reliable results.

Malcolm Gladwell investigates decision making in his book “Blink.” In it, he states most decisions are made in the blink of an eye, and the people making those decisions are often unaware of the factors that influence them. Many innovative products would never be marketed if focus group opinions and market research were not occasionally ignored. Gladwell also makes an excellent case for relying on a “thin slice” of information, proposing that accurate predictions can be made without necessarily exploring situations in great depth.

You cannot control the marketplace, but you can control your message. Decide what you can promise, and design your entire corporate image around it—the more specific, the better. Beware of using the same buzzwords your competitors use. Differentiate, and be consistent.

Then, select the elements of your marketing strategy.

Will you be a gorilla or a guerilla?

Gorilla marketing

A gorilla marketing approach is aggressive, noticeable and costly. An 800-pound gorilla makes a bold statement and intimidates competitors. With this tactic, market research helps you refine your advertising to receive the best return on your investment. Make sure you know what kinds of projects you do best and what characteristics your most profitable customers share. A shotgun campaign is imprecise and risky.

How will you reach your potential customers? Television and radio are expensive, so become familiar with viewer and listener profiles for each station. In Chicago, the National Electrical Contractors Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have partnered on a humorous “edutainment” campaign, using an inept do-it-yourselfer to convince potential customers that hiring professionals is the only smart and safe way to do electrical work. The radio ads are positioned during morning and afternoon commuting times to reach several million listeners to this popular talk station. Such a campaign is too expensive for most individual electrical contractors, so the cost is shared through the union and the association for the indirect benefit of all members.

For direct ad campaigns, share the cost with product manufacturers or distributors. As a specialty contractor, you may be asked to share the cost of a brochure with a general contractor or developer who is willing to highlight preferred trade contractors. Regional publications, owner association newsletters, and industry directories provide the chance to target business customers. If you do residential work, consider local newspapers, door hangers or direct mail inserts. No matter what venues you choose, make sure your brand and image are consistent, and create a tag line or catchphrase that distinguishes you from your competitors. Every electrical contractor will promise excellent service and professionalism. Be different.

Consider joining the Society for Marketing Professional Services (www.smps.org), an association specifically formed “to advocate for, educate, and connect leaders in the building industry,” with a membership comprising constructors and design professionals. The association offers a Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM) designation, as well as chapter meetings, national conferences, and publications specifically for constructors and design professionals.

“Don’t do the marketing plan if you don’t have a marketing culture,” said Ron Worth, SMPS CEO. “By that, I mean everyone in the firm has to buy into the importance of the plan, and everyone must actively support it. If the firm does not have a marketing culture, the plan will never leave the shelf once it is completed, or the marketing team will not have the support of the management and field operations to ensure success.”

Your marketing campaign is based on promises to potential customers, so make sure everyone in the company is prepared to honor those promises, from the moment an inquiry is received to the final punch list. If you don’t follow through on those promises, all will be lost.

Guerilla marketing

If you can’t afford a costly, gorilla-marketing campaign, use the subtler guerilla style. This is the sneaky, efficient sniper campaign, hitting the target without a lot of noise or hype. Think of creative ways to reach potential customers. Encourage your employees to volunteer on Habitat for Humanity homes, sporting your company logo. Sponsor local sports teams, build an exhibit for a children’s museum, provide unusual lighting for a fundraising event, or install holiday decorations at the local botanical garden.

Education is another way to reach customers. Become a subject matter expert, and offer yourself as a consultant to design professionals and owners. Give workshops on saving energy, smart home technology, or electrical safety at schools, libraries, or professional meetings. Write articles or columns for trade publications or local newspapers, call in to radio talk shows, create a cable television show, and offer yourself as a source to journalists. Finally, use your Web site to educate customers, and make it easy to find contact information. Nothing is more frustrating than a company Web site that blocks customer inquiries.

Ask existing customers for feedback, testimonials and referrals. It costs five times as much to cultivate a new customer as it does to retain an existing one. Establish a reward system for loyal customers, and never take them for granted. Express your appreciation frequently, and ask about their interests and families. Customer relationship management is about more than updating your database.

Use inexpensive giveaways, and distribute them widely. An attractive pen or calendar on the customer’s desk serves as a reminder of your positive relationship. Post the largest sign possible on every truck and every job site. If you are not allowed to post your sign, use a panel truck or semitrailer with your logo on it to store equipment on the site. Use your people as walking billboards, but make sure they understand their language and behavior are a reflection of your brand, even when they are on their breaks or at lunch. Do you want the drunken loudmouth complaining about his boss at the ball game to be wearing your company jacket? He might be sitting next to the developer you are trying to cultivate.

Your reputation and image are dependent on performance, so every employee represents the company marketing strategy. Complicating matters is the instant access your client base has to information about your products, services, and your customer service process. You have control over what appears on your own Web site, but any mistake you make can be easily dispersed through blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and other sites catering to customer ratings and complaints. Do you want a video of your technician sleeping in the truck appearing on YouTube?

Finally, use “mistake marketing.”

“Mistakes provide you with a great opportunity to show how you can correct the situation to appease the client,” Worth said. “We all make mistakes.”

Listening without interruption for two or three minutes, acknowledging the complaint, and then asking the customer what will be an acceptable solution costs very little, and most customers will ask for something reasonable.

And, if you have the courage, ask friends or family members to pose as potential customers, or contact the company yourself to see how your staff handles inquiries. At best, you will be gratified at how well your employees “walk the walk and talk the talk,” and at worst, you will get a wake-up call and a chance to improve your image.

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.