By Beth Borrego / Published March 2020
We’ve all heard the stories before, negative stories about contractors. When people have negative experiences, they are eager to share them with others in vivid detail both in person and online. These nightmarish stories about contractors leave a bad taste in the mouths of many consumers today. They often contain statements like, “I could never reach him,” “He never returned my calls,” “He didn’t finish the job,” “He relieved himself in the bushes,” “He smoked on my property and threw cigarette stubs in my lawn,” ”He would drink beer on my property,” “He slept in his truck when he was supposed to be working,” and, of course, the all-time classic: “You could see too much of his backside!” It’s easy to see why contractors get a bad rap. It’s not impossible to get past this negative stereotype, but it does take a bit of work.
Creating a negative brand image is so easy that you could even say it’s effortless. If you aren’t up for the challenge of bettering yourself or your company, then you have made a decision to remain stereotyped and are destined to create a negative brand image. That’s a huge problem, especially in today’s social media and internet-driven world. Creating a positive and professional image takes more effort, and once you do, you have to maintain it. If you want to succeed and help your business grow, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and take the following steps to get you there.
This chapter’s focus will cover the development of a brand image, that is to say, shaping the customer’s perception of what your brand represents. QFinance.com defines branding as “a means of distinguishing one firm’s products or services from another’s and of creating and maintaining an image that encourages confidence in the quality and performance of that firm’s products or services.” John Jantsch in Duct Tape Marketing offers an even simpler definition, saying that “branding is the art of becoming knowable, likeable, and trustable.” And that certainly is a part of it, as we shall see in this chapter. Businessdictionary.com elaborates further, stating that brand image is defined as “the impression in the consumers’ mind of a brand’s total personality (real and imaginary qualities and shortcomings). Brand image is developed over time through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme and is authenticated through the consumers’ direct experience.”
It’s surprising how many customers think a brand is just a company logo or name and branding as something used to raise awareness by Fortune 500 companies for major products like cars, beer, and sodas. A brand is everything that creates an impression about your company’s services or products. It’s the whole package neatly wrapped up and embedded in your mind, and that package needs to be communicated repeatedly to consumers in order to make an impression. This impression is what we call the brand image. It can, therefore, be said that a brand image is a customer’s perception of what a brand stands for. This perception is based upon not only how you present yourself, but also how and where they find you and what they read about you before you have even met, or, after they have received a quote and are in the decision-making process.
For small service business owners, their brand image may be specific to a service but will most likely be closely identified with a name, logo, or slogan. When a company advertises its services to the market it serves and is identified with a specific service, even when many other companies are offering that same service, it is the result of branding. The image of a company should be consistent and should include uniforms, stationary, a website, social media profiles, trucks, and brochures, as well as any other ancillary promotional items. Today, more than ever, building a brand image is also tied to the company’s reputation for providing excellent service.
Once you begin to build your client base, you’ll begin to get an experience-based reputation. These days people’s experiences are shared online on social media and review sites. From Facebook to Yelp to Nextdoor and so on, your customers will post about and rate their experiences, good or bad. That being said, you’ll need to learn how to request reviews and how to manage clients so that any issues are resolved before they post online.
Regardless of your company’s current reputation, good image brand-ing and hard work coupled with excellent customer service can improve customer perception and increase not only your revenue but your customer satisfaction as well. Hard work is a part of the equation, and any company that has done well has not done well on image alone. The service that is performed has to meet or exceed the expectations of the customer if you want them to repeat and refer. And really, that’s the goal.
Begin with the end in mind. Where do you see yourself and your company next year and the year after that? It’s important to visualize the brand image you want to create for the company. Next, think about the impression you want to create in the mind of the customer. If you can’t imagine your brand image, it won’t be presented as polished or professional and will most likely look thrown together.
Consistency is extremely important and critical to the image of your company. All company flyers, print ads, business cards, and brochures should have the same look and feel. Keep your logo, slogan, font, colors, and message consistent throughout so that the company is easily identified, looks professional, and becomes familiar to consumers. Make sure that your company name is on your vehicle, regardless of whether it’s a magnetic sign or permanent lettering.
Developing brand name recognition is largely about the consumer being able to spot your company name and being comfortable because they have seen it somewhere else. Having the company name on your vehicle, for example, also presents a sense of permanence and stability in the mind of the consumer. In fact, consumers may see your brand and feel comfortable with it without ever having purchased from you. And, yes, it is possible to get referrals based upon brand recognition simply because someone remembered seeing your brand image on a truck or in the mail on multiple occasions and recommended you to someone else, without ever having previously purchased your services. These days it is also important to remember that social media sites and review sites are frequently used by consumers when they are looking for services as well.
Ok, so you’ve completed these steps. Are you still getting the cold shoulder? Well, what do you wear when you go out to do your estimates? Are you in old, dirty, torn jeans or nice, clean new ones or perhaps some khakis? Does your t-shirt have a stain on it? Or do you have a nice, clean company polo shirt or dress shirt with the logo on it? Do you have clean shoes, neatly combed hair, and brushed teeth? Good. You should. It helps.
Alright, so far we have professional literature and a polished-looking person showing up for the appointment. But what happens after you arrive and have to begin speaking to someone? Always introduce yourself, be polite, and shake her hand. It’s important to know what the standard questions are that may be asked of you, and it’s even more important to know how to answer them. You’ll get a feel for that pretty quickly if you’re new. A word of caution here—don’t make it up as you go. Today’s consumers are more educated than ever and will be able to tell if you pull the answer out of thin air, not to mention they may have spoken to another contractor who knew the answers and took the time to explain them in depth to the customer. If you don’t have the answers to your prospect’s questions, tell her you’ll find out and get back to her. Then, do it. Lastly, remember that many consumers do some amount of research, and right or wrong, they will ask questions to test you. This is another reason to employ thoughtful research and get back with them rather than making up an answer on the spot.
Make sure that you have a polished and professional demeanor when you speak. Practicing some of your answers on family and friends, if you are uncomfortable speaking to individuals or groups, helps with the presentation jitters. Use only proper language, and do not use any vulgar language. Likewise, do not bring up personal or controversial topics. Stick to business.
Maintain good eye contact. Staring at the ground or looking off in another direction is annoying, and it makes people feel like you are being deceptive. Also, you’ll want to gather your thoughts before you speak, and be careful about filling those awkward pauses with “uh” or “um.” Again, practicing with friends and family can help you to overcome this. Never interrupt prospective customers when they are speaking to you; your job then is to listen. Above all, remember to thank them when you leave and ask them when a good time to follow up might be.
The professional image you’re creating should be reflected in your employees as well. Make certain to discuss the level of conduct you expect from them, including courtesy and discussions about the job. Be careful to let them know not to try to answer specific questions about their work if they are not trained or experienced enough to properly answer. The customer is going to remember one thing and one thing only—the employee told me _________. Fill in the blank. You get the point. Misinformation at the hand of a well-meaning, eager employee can create unnecessary problems and can cost you both time and money. Make sure workers know to tell the customers to either call the office, or that they’ll relay the message. Shift the dialogue back to the professional where it belongs unless it is part of their job and within their scope of knowledge.
Employees need to maintain their appearance, too. A good place to start might be to have them wear company t-shirts. Additionally, while many customers may not be on-site when the work is performed, it is always best to check and see if someone is there when workers arrive, and also to let them know when the crew is leaving. It just seems to sit better with the customer if you communicate with them if they are present. It’s their property, after all, and they’ll appreciate your respect for it as well as the professionalism.
Let’s step back and take a look for a minute, shall we? Joe Customer gets two flyers in his front door. One is from your company, and one is from Company X. Yours seems familiar to him since you advertise in other areas like the internet and maybe a coupon mailer, and your trucks are professionally lettered. All of the ads, the website, and the truck lettering are designed to look the same. He likes your flyer. Company X has a flyer that simply says: “Super Services: Painting, Handy Man, Windows, Gutters, Pressure Washing, Lawn Cutting, No Job Too Small Company X Call John Doe 555-1212 Free Estimates”
Joe Customer calls you both, since he wants more than one quote. Company X shows up in dirty jeans and the t-shirt with stains on it. You show up in professional looking company attire, such as khaki slacks and an embroidered, button-down dress shirt. Company X makes up answers as he goes, is not polite, doesn’t shake hands, and doesn’t look at the customer. You make sure to shake the customer’s hand and are polite and informative. See how easy that was? That positive impression could mean you’ll get the job.
It’s important to remember that perception is everything. The perception of your business from the outside looking in, from the perspective of your clients and potential clients, is the most important of all. There is an old saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and that is true here, too. Perception is in the mind of the consumer, and that top-of-mind perception could be the difference between becoming successful or becoming or remaining mediocre.
The economy and the overall mood of today’s consumers have changed during recent years. Remind customers that you are a small business and that you appreciate their support. Let them know you have legal workers and that you purchase as many products as possible that are made in the USA. Make being a small, American business a part of your communicated brand, if indeed you are. Consumers today are sensitive to buying local, being legal, and purchasing American-made goods whenever possible.
Remember that the brand you create has to be multi-dimensional and needs to emphasize the expected consumer experience. In the prospect’s mind, you should be the clear choice above other companies to fulfill their needs. Everything that prospective customers and repeat customers alike come into contact with—from your website to your business cards, brochures, the trucks, advertising, uniforms, and the presentation by your staff to your clientele—plays a part
in molding that impression into a positive or negative experience.