I know you hear this a lot, but business has just dried up in my area. I'm barely getting by. Is there anything I can do?
If the horse is truly dead, no amount of flogging will improve things. In most markets, however, the horse just isn't feeling well and can't carry the same load. The question is: Who rides and who gets left behind?
If there are ten contractors in your trade and market and everybody's business is down 60 percent, that means there's plenty of business left, but only for four of you. Your job is to make sure you grab the business and are one of the four survivors, but you won't do it by sitting on a rock and watching the buzzards circle overhead. It may mean swiping a horse in the middle of the night, renting a donkey from the ranch over yonder or climbing a tree and locating a closer town within walking distance, but sitting on your keister isn't an option.
The techniques for finding business in a tight market are the same as those for growing a business:
Identify the current opportunities.
- What's really out there? Answer based on data, not your gut feeling. What does the manager at Home Depot have to say? Your banker? Your accountant? Your lawyer? How about in the next town? Ask them: "If you were me, who would you be talking to/going after?"
- Think beyond the usual limits. Become the green electrician, go after the rural market, look for relationships with big agencies like the government, school districts, military, etc. Who's the most unlikely customer you could have?
Quantify the opportunities (in profit, not revenue). Where will your efforts pay the best rewards -- in big dollar niches with lots of competitors squeezing margins or small dollar niches with few competitors and better margins?
Adapt your company to fit the market. Your business may require some changes to serve the market.
- Assess current strengths.
- See how they line up with the opportunities.
- Identify the gaps.
- Decide which changes to make to adapt to the market and these may not be pretty.
Develop a simple, effective, low-cost marketing process.
- Who actually makes the buying decisions? There's only one person who signs the purchase orders or bids. They're the ones you want to reach.
- Create a message that makes them notice. Spend a few bucks on a marketing professional to help you.
- Make them notice you. Mailings? Radio commercials? Newspaper ads? The key is what your target reads, hears and looks at. You can spend a lot of money and get zero results if you don't know what you're doing. This is another job for the marketing professional (and "marketing professional" does not mean "media buyer." Beware).
- Be creative. If everybody else is sending out cheap flyers, get a hot air balloon to fly over the football stadium and around town twice a week. Or rent a purple cow and give away hot dogs at the street fair, or send every purchasing guy and developer an iPod for his kid.)
- Track results and fine-tune the process. Find out what marketing activity generated how much business at what cost. Then tune your process. Without this feedback loop, the whole process goes sideways.
There's almost always enough business to support one or two contractors in every trade, but you absolutely, positively won't be one of them if the other guys are charging after it and you're not. If you focus on what business is out there, instead of what isn't there anymore, you'll have a much better chance of getting a piece of it.
Jayme Dill Broudy
Construction Business Owner, March 2009