Never start in December what you can put off until January seems to be the mantra in some corners of the construction industry. As a result, the winter holiday period runs the danger of becoming one of the least profitable months of the year. On the other hand, it can be one of the most productive times to market your company.

Over the years this cryptic message from the movie “Field of Dreams” found its way into the business lexicon, transformed into “If you build it, they will come.”

Unfortunately, the abandoned tractor-trailers bearing the faded logos of defunct electrical shops that litter the countryside like rusted-out cans along Desolation Row speak a different message: Too many talented electricians thought if they acquired a Master’s License and worked really hard, business success would surely come, either by word of mouth, or all by itself.

In the past decade, most electrical contractors awakened to the fact that it takes more than heart, talent and toil to succeed in this business. It demands strategic planning and effective marketing. Nevertheless, owners still overlook the best marketing opportunity of all, and it occurs but once a year. Yes, it’s “the holidays,” and it can be your chance to reach customers that you have never reached before. With minimal expense and some team effort, you can turn the December doldrums into a winter wonderland. Here are eight simple suggestions to show you how.

1. End of year check-ups—Some plants schedule shutdowns and outages during December. If power is shut down, there are basic maintenance items that can be handled by plant personnel without requiring professional electrical services. Print up a checklist that customers may use to audit some of their equipment at the end of the year. The list might include tasks, such as vacuuming and wiping interiors clean, tightening connections and examining for signs of physical defects like rust or heat erosion. At the bottom of the checklist, print, “Compliments of” and the name of your company. Once they perform the tasks on the list, they may get the idea that they need a preventive maintenance program, and they just might give you a call.

2. Hold an Open House—Personalized marketing is most effective at turning clients into loyal customers, and nothing is quite so personal as inviting people over to “your place” during the holidays. OK, so this one may cost some money, but it’s worth it. It is networking and good will and PR all rolled into one. Besides, it’s a great excuse to clean up the shop and offices. A few strands of lights go a long way to create a festive look. Many people look forward to rolling out traditional family recipes to share with others, so consider asking for volunteers from the staff to help with the food. Make a PowerPoint slide show highlighting completed projects and providing information about company services. Let it play continuously where it’s easily visible. Collect attendees’ names and e-mail addresses in a guestbook. Hand out small refrigerator magnets or calendars for guests to take home. Some will become future customers.

3. Mail holiday cards—With e-mail marketing the new advertising medium, don’t bother with trying to e-mail your seasonal greetings. Everything old is new again, and a sure fire way to stand out is to go back to “snail mail.” Send cards but not just any cards. Don’t scrimp on this, or you’ll send a generic card that delivers a generic message. And you don’t want that associated with your company. Keep in mind that all forms of delivery are slowed down this time of year.

4. Get involved in the community celebrations—You don’t have to be Santa Claus in the town parade, but getting involved in traditional celebrations is great for relationship building. Help sponsor one of the high-profile events, such as the Christmas parade or a charity event. Volunteer. It spreads good will and is a responsible thing to do. Take a turn as a Salvation Army bell-ringer, or serve lunch at one of your community’s shelters. It will bring you into contact with other socially responsible business owners. Networking with other entrepreneurs is the best way to gain new ideas and keep from getting into a rut with your company’s marketing. Meeting tradespersons outside the electrical industry can give you a fresh perspective on your business. If you’re a NECA member or belong to local electrical league or homebuilders association, get together with other members to start an annual gathering. By networking with other contractors, you may get a heads-up for possible future work.

5. Send a holiday newsletter—Even if you don’t provide a newsletter during the year, create one for the holidays. Provide your customers with information that will benefit them first, before letting them know a little bit more about your company. Identify some trends that may be of interest in the coming year. Give a recap of the past year. If you list some completed projects, do it in a way that does not sound boastful. Other content might include electrical FAQ’s, safety tips for the holidays, and some seasonal anecdotes, such as the history of Christmas lights. The more appealing the newsletter, the longer it gets passed around and the more your company’s name gets passed around.

6. Follow the 10:30 rule—It is a myth that once you perform work for a customer, the customer will always remember you. Maybe. It would be better to stay in touch with the customer, so that when electrical work needs to be done, you’ll be at the top of the customer’s mind? The 10:30 rule is about staying within 30 days of your top 10 customers. For example, send a new year card in January. People receive many cards in December, but a card in January will make your name stand out. In February, make a personal visit and leave a company brochure. Here is a list of 12 ways to stay in touch:

January—send a card
February—personal visit
March—e-mail, fax or mail a timely article
April—mail a company brochure
May—send a personal e-mail
June—another personal visit
July—make a phone call
August—send info about a new product/service offering
September—got calendars?
October—send a Thanksgiving or seasonal card
November—a gift card for local restaurant
December—holiday newsletter

These suggestions are intended to stimulate your own ideas for staying in touch with your best customers. And of course, you can focus on more than the top 10, if it’s manageable. Consistency is the key to the success of this yearlong marketing program; keep the process simple and you’re more likely to keep up with it. This is a sure and inexpensive way to build a loyal customer base.

7. Dust off your Web site—The Internet is the new Yellow Pages. Unlike the iconic golden tome that carries the exact same message for 365 days, a Web site can be changed as often as the company changes. But some businesses forget to update it when they relocate, or change phone numbers. Check your Web site for errors, inaccuracies or out-of-date information. If you don’t have a Web site, consider budgeting for it in the upcoming year. It’s statistically proven  that people under 30 let their fingers do the walking on their keyboards before thumbing through the Yellow Pages.

8. Select a theme for next year—Each year when the ball drops in Times Square, it bears a theme for the year ahead. In 2007, the message was Hope for Peace. The point is the end of the year is not just a time to review and reflect, but a time to plan and project, as well. Set aside time with your key employees or associates to identify three or four core values, principles for which you would sacrifice business rather than violate. Reflect on your business accomplishments in the past year. Review the things that didn’t go as planned. Then, decide on a point of focus, or a premise, for the year ahead. You may want to fashion it into a slogan, like "Success through Service" or "Wiring Your Future." Maybe that sounds corny, but slogans help customers to remember the company, and they give your staff something to rally behind.

‘Tis the season
Being good at your trade isn’t good enough. You need to win friends and influence people, as Dale Carnegie said in 1936. The holiday season provides opportunities to do that more than any other time of year. This season, avoid getting wrapped up in holiday stress by taking charge of your marketing. Build your company’s image, seek new prospects, and strengthen relationships with existing customers and you’ll create a momentum that will carry you into a happy, and prosperous, new year.

DANDRIDGE is a professional speaker and writer with more than 20 years of experience in the electrical industry. He can be reached at md@mikedandridge.com or www.highvoltageservice.com.