Brian M. Fraley is the owner and chief strategist for Fraley Construction Marketing, a marketing communications consultancy with a unique focus and deep understanding of the construction industry. He has served this niche market for nearly 25 years. Fraley is active on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and regularly contributes to the Construction Marketing InSITE Newsletter, Construction Marketing Straight Talker Blog and various trade publications.
Do construction contractors that win 100 percent of their business through the low-bid process need marketing? If you are this type of contractor, you will likely insist wholeheartedly that you don’t. After all, as a low-bid construction business owner, your fate lies strictly in the ability of a hard-nosed, creative estimator to bring in new work on bid day. Low-bid contractors often fly below the radar. It’s good to be on the bidder’s list for the agencies you serve, but what are you missing out on?
Today’s construction industry is changing rapidly. You can’t simply rely on word of mouth in your local market, which includes a 100-mile radius around your office. At the end of the day, marketing is about staying in the forefront of minds so that you are considered when opportunities arise.
Let’s challenge some historical assumptions and dig deeper on this issue. This is not a pitch to get you, as a low-bid contractor, to invest in marketing, but rather a look at some things you may not have considered and opportunities that may be slipping through the cracks.
Selling & Renting Products to Outside Parties
It’s no secret that owning a plant or a quarry provides a competitive advantage to some low-bid contractors. If you own such a facility, do you sell materials to outside parties or rent out equipment? If so, marketing can help to raise awareness and generate new business for your company. Word of mouth between local contractors only goes so far.
Most low-bid contractors still rely on email, phone calls and even fax machines to get prices. While the method is not the crux of your business’s success or failure, you still need to make sure everyone knows what you sell, to whom you sell and where you sell it. Marketing plays a role any time a product is being sold or rented, and these antiquated methods aren’t the most effective means of marketing your services.
There aren’t too many monopolies in the construction industry. At the very least, you need to promote what materials you sell and your coverage area. Even if you have a stronghold on your territory, you have at least one or two competitors anxious to steal your market share.
Harnessing Qualifications-Based Selection
There are times when a low bid isn't the only deciding factor in procuring a project. Consider design-build, best-value selection; emergency projects; or finding a home on a public-private partnership (P3) consortium. Even if you’ve been in the same building for 50 years, and everyone that seems to matter knows where to find you, ask yourself about the concessionaire from France that’s preparing to assemble a consortium for a P3 project or the architect seeking a design-build partner for an expansion at a local college. How will he/she ever see you as a viable option with no way of knowing that you exist?
For example, Fraley Construction Marketing had a highway contractor customer that worked exclusively on low-bid public transportation work. Because of its strong reputation with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and track record of quality, it was recruited for a county-level P3 project and had to assemble the proposal. They had no idea where to start since they hadn't practiced marketing in the past.
The way private and public owners procure projects is evolving, and it appears the pendulum is swinging from low-bid to qualifications. Assuming that’s correct, you need to step out from behind the curtain of obscurity and start building your brand now.
Being Found by Outsiders
Anyone that’s been paying attention to the construction market over the past century can see the change: Local contractors are being acquired by national and international conglomerates, and there has been an increase in foreign real estate investors. We’re seeing the geographic shackles of working within a roughly 100-mile radius being removed as contractors venture farther and wider than even before. The construction industry has become global and increased in sophistication.
Are you on the radar with outside firms? Are you discoverable on the internet? If you try to ride solely on your legacy as a decades-old, local, family business, you will surely become obsolete. You need at least the basic marketing tools (e.g., a website, social media presence, brochure, etc.).
Building a Brand Intentionally
Low-bid contractors have always built their brands behind the curtain. Many are traditional, multigenerational firms; they didn’t understand the concept of brand building, but they were doing it unintentionally. The tools they used included logos, a certain color scheme for their equipment and fleet, and doing quality work over time.
However, the increasing sophistication of the construction market means that low-bid contractors need to take a more intentional approach to brand building. Foreign firms and large conglomerates are usually more sophisticated (and better funded) than the local clients you once served. You can no longer afford to present an unpolished image, or even worse, no image at all. Ignore this advice, and you may never even get an invitation to bid.
Reducing the Public Relations Impact of Fiascos
Being a low-bid contractor means that you have the potential to unintentionally create environmental or safety hazards for the public. Examples include dropping a live load or toppling a crane, leaking a hazardous substance into a nearby stream, or a making a mistake in a highway work zone setup.
Accidents will happen, and when they do, you need to be prepared. Low-bid contractors that neglect marketing and public relations often appear strictly as a name, and perhaps an old story or two, for local residents. If you have not intentionally built a local reputation, you will feel the full brunt of the fiasco as the media dredges up any questionable activity from your past.
Practicing Marketing at a Basic Level
Let’s be clear: As a low-bid contractor, you will never need to practice marketing and public relations at the level of general industry firms like Procter & Gamble. Agencies and consultants that don’t understand the construction industry or are looking to increase workload may steer you in that direction.
Hitting the low number on bid day is where the hammer hits the concrete. The argument here is that low-bid contractors should use some basic tools that help build a brand and bring in traffic when opportunities arise. The construction industry is changing. Those hoping to remain relevant, and continue to make a living within it, must as change as well.