Bring on the food for your construction marketing

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Yesterday, I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with Joel Helfer in Chicago.  His constructionmarketingmachine.com site caught my eye.  His site appears to observe all the “best practices” for a marketing web site with various free goodies, response mechanisms and the like and his story is compelling.  He and his brother sold their unionized family glazing sub-contracting business about three years ago after 40 years in the construction industry, just in time to avoid the recession.

Then he set out to learn all he could about Internet marketing.  Perhaps with a little more cash than experience, Helfer signed up and paid for (expensive) Internet marketing courses and programs and has sought to implement these strategies in his new career as a marketing consultant.

His discoveries:  The Internet is a tool, not a magical solution, and that virtually all contractors just don’t get it when it comes to marketing.  But one thing he knows works, from decades of personal experience.

Food.

Helfer said he learned why the food gifts his glazing business shared worked effectively after he left the industry (and took the expensive courses).

“We teach contractors or subcontractors, when they go in to visit a client, to bring a dozen donuts or a little fruit basket or a little candy, and do it on a regular basis,” he said.  “We became known as the glaziers who bring in the donuts — people expected it every time they saw us.”

“What it does, by bringing in the donuts, or candy, or small food items, you differentiate yourself, and it gives people a reason to remember you.  When the next project comes up, you get first crack at it.”

With this approach, Helfer says, relationships build and “you don’t have to keep hunting for blueprints . . . they come in by FedEx and UPS.”

As our interview proceeded, Helfer said the food generosity approach is not the only successful marketing approach he has used but, when I pressed, he acknowledged that it is the 80 in the 80/20 of marketing activities for his glazing business.

So I dug a little deeper.

Helfer three additional points:

Helfer with Lary Benett at a $5,000 Internet Product Launch Event in Los Angeles

You need to do this regularly.  One-time efforts won’t achieve much success. But on an ongoing basis, the strategy can be extremely cost effective.

“We would invest four or five dollars per week per customer,” he said.  “When we invested $250  per year per customer, we were getting projects of $100,000 or $250,000.”

You must proceed with sincere generosity.

“It falls flat if you don’t just give things openly with no intention of getting anything in return,” he said.  “If you give someone something, particularly in business, with no thought of getting anything in return . . . that’s when you get all the rewards.

Finally, you need to be willing to adjust and adapt the process to respond to the individual client feedback.

On the negative side, one client sent the food gift back with a note saying the company had a policy of not accepting any gifts.  And Helfer acknowledged that sugary candies and other fattening items might not be the best choices if the client has just been diagnosed with diabetes.  (The solution:  Substitute the unhealthy food with something that is good, or think beyond food and share gifts or personal items that would relate to the client’s interests.)

On the positive side, at one point, Helfer arranged for sheet cakes to be made with the client company’s logo.  His staff delivered this cake first thing in the morning to the receptionist at one large local general contractor.

“We received a call about 9 a.m. that morning.  ‘Hey, Joel, are you the one that dropped off the cake?,’” the company representative asked him.  “People have been taking pictures of it (the cake) for the past hour and a half.  We want you to come over and help us cut the cake.”

Helfer said:  “We dropped everything, and we went over to their office, and helped them cut the cake.  They used the picture in a national newsletter for the major general contractor, which reported that the cake proved to be a unique way for a subcontractor to say ‘thank you’.”

Helfer noted that most unionized subcontractors have a relatively small list of current and potential clients and the food generosity strategy is effective especially in maintaining and enhancing relationships.  The goal is to receive the calls where you are invited to bid (without much if any) competition on negotiated price projects where you can win the work even if you aren’t the lowest bid.

He says he always made an effort when connecting with a new client to find who works in the accounts payable department and cuts the checks.  This often-forgotten individual always received recognition and gifts so when it comes time to settle the bills, Helfer’s paperwork moved through quickly and his company received the money owed it.

All of this is of course fascinating stuff and is part of the marketing puzzle.

But I still had a few more questions for Helfer.  Why did he decide to sell his business three years ago, just in time to avoid the huge recession?   He said his family needed to pay the unionized glaziers $125,000 a year in pay and benefits and it seemed even in the good times he was working more for his workers, than for himself.  He also noticed that increasing volumes of his business were from corporations downsizing and retrofitting to work within smaller spaces.  He sensed things were about to turn bad, and so the family decided to sell the business and property it owned before things turned south.

Friends in the community, he said, were surprised, because his business had a good reputation and appeared to be thriving.  However, they are not questioning his decision now.

Meanwhile, all of those Internet marketing courses and programs probably have produced far less in return for Hefler than the good old-fashioned approach which worked for years as a subcontractor — getting out in the community, meeting people face-to-face and connecting and sharing.  He will soon attend his first Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) chapter meeting in Chicago.  (I told him we will be able to meet in August when SMPS holds its national convention in Chicago.)  First-hand connections and relationships certainly are helping him — and he is keeping his marketing advice simple and easy to implement.

As for the Internet marketing, Google has pushed Helfer’s site near the top of the page for “Construction Marketing”, at least for viewers in the Chicago area.  But the donuts probably work better than all the high-priced Internet marketing programs he has completed.

Just don’t bring donuts to my office.  I have prediabetes and don’t want to become ill!

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