What can decorative concrete contractors do, with very limited resources, to market their businesses in this tough economic climate? I put the question to Hanley Wood Marketing (HWM)—a marketing consulting and communications firm in Minneapolis and a sister division to Hanley Wood Business Media, which publishes this magazine. They work with building product manufacturers, as well as companies in other industries, to help them build their brands and businesses. The folks at HWM agreed to set up a meeting with their staff to come up with ideas on how to market in challenging economic times that might help your business.

Working with customers

With most decorative concrete customers, at least the residential ones, you may only get the chance to do one major project. But these one-shot deals can lead to more work if you consistently leverage each project and relationship. Always do a great job for your customer, be on time, do what you promise, and be neat. Give them a satisfaction questionnaire to fill out too, that includes giving you a letter grade. For customers that really enjoyed your work, ask for a testimonial letter. Then use the best quotes and your highest grade point average scores in your marketing materials. When you sense a pattern of lower scores, work to correct the problems for future projects.

Ask your satisfied customers for referrals. Consider offering discounts, rebates, or gifts for these recommendations. Place yard signs before, during, and after the job to let people know you are in their area.

Photos are still a major selling tool and the era of digital cameras makes it easy and inexpensive to take great shots. A word of advice—take the highest resolution photos your camera can capture. You need sharp photos that show good detail. Develop photo books to show perspective clients and showcase past work on your Web site. People are interested to see what a project looks like before the job begins and when it's completed. Good photography is important—become a better photographer.

Add-on services

Most people don't know how to maintain their decorative concrete after an installation and many companies have successful business divisions that focus on follow up services. Cleaning and resealing services can add to your bottom line, especially in the present economy. This gives you a chance to further cultivate existing relationships and gather ongoing referrals.

Expand your customer base

If you're only reaching out to residential customers, try marketing your services to schools, day care centers, yoga studios, or other businesses where a decorative application would make an impression. Partner with general contractors, remodelers, landscapers, or realtors to promote your business. Post a business card or flier at local hardware stores, grocery stores, and equipment rental shops. Join the local chamber of commerce, as well as other networking groups. Offer to teach a community education class—you'd be surprised at the people who come looking for tips on fixing cracks and end up hiring you for a new backyard patio.

Using the Web

What happens on the Web is akin to a giant conversation, and sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Wordpress, Webs, and GeoCities offer you free opportunities to post your projects and be an expert resource. You can view more by searching for “free Web site.”

Also, check out Angie's List, Craig's List, Servicemagic.com, and Bestcontractor.com, to name a few sites that people typically use to find contractors. The Yellow Pages are even online these days—are you? If you don't have your own Web site, now's the time to put one together (your teenager may even be able to help you).

Display good project photos, testimonial letters, a description of what your company does, and your contact information. Be sure your Web site is listed on your business card.

It's now or never

If you're wondering whether now is a good time to get more aggressive and consistent about marketing your business, Vince Giorgi, HWM's vice president of business development, says the answer is “yes.” “Marketing isn't something you start today and expect projects to flow in tomorrow. It involves positioning your company to become known and contacted when a consumer or business needs the service you can provide. The companies that get through this downturn best will likely be those who have focused on marketing all along, even when business was strong. Companies that ignore marketing until they need it are treating it as a quick fix. They must commit to it as a core business activity.”