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Marketing for Concrete Contractors

Marketing your stamped concrete, stained concrete, carved concrete.Many contractors believe that their workmanship will sell itself, but too often, they depend on referrals. Decorative concrete contractors are artisans, not necessarily salespeople.

Many contractors believe that their workmanship will sell itself, but too often, they depend on referrals, says Doug Carlton of Carlton Concrete in Visalia, Calif. "If you're just relying on world of mouth, you're really selling your company short," he says.

Carlton is a true believer in marketing decorative concrete. Potential clients need to learn more about the versatility and design potential that concrete can bring to their projects. "The thing that blows me away in this industry is how little emphasis people put into marketing," he says. "If you can't market it, you're very limited in how much you're going to be able to sell. It's a visual product that has to be presented to people."

Decorative concrete contractors are generally far more comfortable working on the job site than they are dealing with Web sites, advertising and promotions. But just a small investment — say 5 percent of a contractor's time — can pay off in a big way, Carlton says. "It's just unbelievable the return they'd get on their time and money."

Concrete Decor talked with four successful contractors about how they market their business: what works and what doesn't; which techniques generate the best return; and how startups can make small investments to raise their profile in their communities.

Here are some suggestions:

Create a sophisticated website — An enticing website, constantly updated with attractive photographs of new projects, is critical to success, says Michael Karmody, co-founder of Stone Soup Concrete (www.stonesoupconcrete.com) in western Massachusetts. Stone Soup is a major fabricator of concrete countertops, sinks, vanities and tubs in New England and New York, and the company attracts customers who are looking for custom colors and unique designs. These discriminating homeowners can't find what they're looking for at kitchen centers, so they turn to the Internet to research the possibilities.

Karmody says the site gets about 130 visits per day, and users click through an average of 13 pages of photographs and text, fully researching what Stone Soup has to offer. By the time they pick up the phone, "they've already decided we can do something to fulfill their dreams," Karmody says.

Carlton warns, however, that a photograph can be misleading. "It's like showing the bride on her wedding day. It's beautiful and dreamy and all that, but it's not realistic," he says. While his site (www.carltonconcrete.com) gives customers their initial look at decorative concrete, Carlton also brings clients on a tour of older projects so they have a chance to see how concrete wears and ages. "When we do that we never — and I mean never — have people call back and say, 'That's not what I expected.' "

Pool your resources — Mark Donaldson, of Skookum Floor Concepts, says his Seattle company is teaming up with other concrete artisans to advertise with ConcreteIdeas.com, a website that bills itself as "the best site for ideas, information and resources for residential and commercial decorative concrete." The site pools the resources of hundreds of industry professionals to create advertising and marketing campaigns that an individual company might not be able to afford on its own. For a monthly fee of $100, Skookum will be listed in its "find a pro" section as a way to steer potential clients to his business. The site should launch sometime in the spring. Skookum's own sophisticated website, www.concrete-design.com, has played a major role in Donaldson's marketing strategy, with nearly 60,000 visitors.

Show off your work — Stone Soup Concrete does not rely upon its website alone. The company requires potential clients to visit its 3,000-square-foot showroom to see projects in progress. Karmody says he wants homeowners to know exactly how concrete feels, looks and performs. Concrete should inspire passion. "If the substance isn't absolutely to your liking, we don't want any part of that."

Build partnerships — Three years ago, Carlton hired a full-time salesperson, a well-known and well-respected member of the community, who introduced architects, contractors and homeowners to the wide range of possibilities offered by decorative concrete. Making those connections with other craftsmen in the community has paid off handsomely. "It's doubled our gross sales. There's no doubt about it."

Donaldson, of Skookum, sends flyers to architects, contractors and designers with attractive photos of his latest flooring projects. The increase in business is noticeable. "If we slow down, and then we do a mailer, you can hear the difference in the amount the phone is ringing."

Donate your time — Contractors just breaking into the decorative concrete field don't have an advertising budget, but they should have the energy to promote their products through some sweat equity. For example, Carlton suggests working out an arrangement with a builder to transform a plain concrete walkway into a stamped design at no cost. Take lots of photographs at different angles and with different lighting and "you're off and running" to building a portfolio, Carlton says.

Ask your clients how you can improve — Chris McMahon, CEO and founder of Architectural Concrete Design in Levittown, Pa., sends surveys to each client after the job is complete. It asks big questions — about the sales process and installation — and more detailed ones — covering the appearance of the trucks and worker uniforms. McMahon says the surveys keep the company in touch with its clients, and they use the information to improve service.

Looking for commercial work? Get listed in the Blue Book — It's not hard to find The Blue Book of Building and Construction on just about any job site, Donaldson says. Similar to the Yellow Pages, the Blue Book (www.thebluebook.com) lists more than a million company display ads, listings and profiles in more than 500 classifications.

Think about radio ads — Contractors have reported mixed results. Carlton says decorative concrete is so visual that it's hard to get across its benefits in a radio ad. His firm hasn't had much luck. Stone Soup, on the other hand, began generating more local business with its radio advertising, whereas they had previously drawn from the more-distant New York and Boston markets.

While contractors should not depend solely upon the strength of word-of-mouth advertising, there's no question that top-quality workmanship generates more business.

McMahon, of Architectural Concrete Design, says 80 percent of his business comes from referrals. "Above all else, stand by your product," he says. "Put it in and warranty it. If you can't warranty it, you're doing it wrong," he says. Taking care of your customers after the job is complete helps maintain a good flow of referrals and repeat business.

McMahon says his company has paid for advertisements on TV, radio and newspapers and put up exhibits at trade shows. "Still, nothing compares to doing the job well and standing behind your product."

Karmody concurs: "The most important thing is to put out a good product. Based on that, everything else will work."

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