How Your Home-Based Business Can Stand Out Against Competition
Some years ago, I started a tiny home services business after being laid off from a corporate gig. I had to find a way to make some extra bucks, and fast. Since I owned a pickup truck at the time, I placed some ads in a local weekly newspaper in my town, and started hauling the large detritus out of people's homes for a fee - the stuff that the weekly rubbish collection services won't take. My little junk hauling venture actually provided me with an (albeit tiny) income. If there's one thing that's in abundance in the U.S. - its junk. Unfortunately, junk hauling and moving are two of the most competitive small businesses that an individual can start. If you own a pickup truck or small van, you're pretty much in business. Check out any town's Craigslist "services" section, and you'll notice that most of the ads feature guys (and probably a few gals) looking to make money by hauling away junk or by moving furniture. There is no shortage of new arrivals into the junk hauling / moving game, and now major companies (like 1-800-GOT-JUNK or "Starving Students") have entered the arena. However, I learned a few things from my microscopic hauling business that can be applied to any contracting or service business that caters to homeowners...
- Drive clean, shiny trucks. The big companies, like the aforementioned "800-GOT-JUNK" folks, drive pretty trucks with appealing color schemes. They are very clean, quite new, and always shiny. This immediately sets larger companies apart from the old local junk hauling businesses that every town has (in abundance!) You've seen the local junk hauler: his truck is very beat-up and barely runs. The local guy's vehicle features a primer/rust/dented fender color scheme, impossibly high (and possibly illegal) wooden pallet-sided "walls" extending up from the truck bed, a difficult-to-read phone number that has been spray painted onto the pallet "walls", and three guys in the cab that don't look like folks you'd want in your home. So, why call the shabby, local guys if there are better alternatives? While the vehicle you use for your home services business doesn't have to be new, it should look professional and be somewhat cleaned up. Your truck is the first impression a customer receives from your business when you pull into the driveway. So make it count.
- Use clean, shiny employees. Larger home services businesses provide their employees with crisp uniforms and matching jackets, in most cases. Even the nationally franchised junk haulers look like they'd be working as parking valets or golf caddies - if they weren't moving around castoff items. Meanwhile, most of your competitors are wearing ratty t-shirts which might show a minimum of five oil stains on a good day. So clean up your act. Get polo shirts with your business logo and/or name on the front left pocket; and maybe your cell phone number on the back. They won't be terribly expensive, and once you match the polos up with khaki pants, your crew will look presentable - and will generate some referral business. The average homeowner doesn't call for contractor help very often - so make them comfortable when they call you. Show up and look professional.
- Guerrilla marketing. The larger (and many smaller) home services businesses know that their trucks are rolling billboards. In fact, some companies tell their employees and franshisors to park their company vehicles near freeways or busy interchanges when they aren't in use (and can do so legally, of course). Free advertising, especially if the company phone number is prominently displayed! Borrow a tip from real estate brokers: get little signs made up, and plant them on telephone poles, near freeway offramps, and amidst political campaign signs in vacant lots. Put up flyers in laundromats, on bulletin boards in coffee shops and hardware stores, or place inexpensive ads in church bulletins.
- Get an easy-to-remember phone number. Back in the days before the internet, when just about every customer first contacted a small business by phone instead of by e-mail or Facebook, a catchy phone number was vitally important. Actually, it still is. You're never going to forget the toll-free number that "800-GOT-JUNK" uses, of course. So order up a new cell phone number, and try to spell out a word or two with the digits. At the very least, you might get a customer or two who finds your creative use of phone numbers somewhat amusing! And they'll also be able to pass on your number with greater ease to their friends and neighbors.
- Show up, when you say you'll show up. Woody Allen is credited with saying: "80% of success in life is simply showing up". While we can argue the percentage, the point is: sometimes elaborate effort isn't really necessary to get a customer's attention. Simply being present at the customer's home, when you say you'll be there, is worth gold. In fact, in my own experience running a home services business, the number one complaint I heard from customers had to do with other contractors either not showing up on time, or not showing up at all. If you run a business and put a great deal of effort into getting customers to call you - only to abandon them when they expect you to keep an appointment - your business deserves to fail. This is basic stuff, but it's surprising how many contractors don't take the "showing up" part seriously. So impress your customers, and be prompt (or at least, just be there).
- Use technology. It almost goes without saying that in today's world, technology is the small business owner's friend, not adversary. Cell phones, the web, and fuel-efficient commercial vehicles can all give a small business an edge. In fact, you should be using social media tools, Craigslist and other free online classified sites, and e-mail to drive your business. If your business gains a little traction, then you may wish to consider putting up a website showing before/after pictures of the jobs you successfully complete. Then you can employ pay-per-click advertising targeted to your local area to get potential customers to visit your site, and see how effective your business is.
Many folks patrol their local weekly classified rag or online classified sites in search of contractors to haul junk, move heavy items, fix brick chimneys, etc. So, if you have the truck, tools, and a willingness to get your hands dirty - then supplying services for homeowners is a somewhat inexpensive and quick way to start working for yourself. Odds are that your competition might be a little lazy or sloppy in their approach to customers. Take advantage of your competitor's complacency, and give them a run for their money! Good luck with your venture!