As I always do, I simply invited Ethan to talk to me about his work. Whatever he wanted to talk about would be fine. He immediately told me that becoming an architect was his goal from his early years. He was attracted to architecture for the creativity to invent buildings for people to live and work in, and to drawing the plans. He had been inventing new space for families for the past decade or more, mostly as large additions and remodels to existing homes. He was very happy with his work but he felt some pressure to add one or two more projects annually. The additional revenue would go to their retirement funds.
I asked Ethan what made his plans different from other high-end addition/remodel professionals. He practically glowed telling me how he spends a lot of time with his clients, seeing how they use their current home and listening to their conversation to divine any wishes or areas of dissatisfaction. He does not feel that an interview consisting of 50 questions was sufficient to fully understand what would make the family feel fulfilled.
He then drew, by hand, a sketch of his ideas. It was detailed enough that the clients could get a good feel for the final outcome, but not yet a plan to build from. After the initial view and discussion, he would incorporate their ideas, comments, changes and anything else that came up into a more detailed plan. One more time they would pour over the drawings. He would give them time to imagine themselves living in their new space. Then he would draw—again, by hand—the final drawings. He told me that “I draw each line at least three times.”
When I asked why he preferred hand drawings instead of the faster and easier CAD (computer aided design) he simply said that is not why he’s an architect. The creative visions and the drawing go hand in hand for him. His clients love his drawings. The main drawback is they take longer than CAD, making it hard for him to increase the number of projects he does in a year.
I felt that his passion for the drawings could be a powerful discriminator that adds value to his work. We agreed to work together to investigate, analyze and plan ways to increase revenue while keeping the hand-drawn drawings.
He also is unwilling to spend time and effort on digital marketing, a common technique used by many other architects. During our work together we would take a closer look at digital marketing, while emphasizing non-digital methods.
Some details that caught my attention included: locations proximate to each other; already large homes with large lots; well-known individuals or people with high profiles in their industries; similar hobbies, such as golf, sailing, and travel; leaders of philanthropic causes; construction costs of $825,000 and up.
These clients meet my definition of Best Buyers, except that what they bought from Ethan is most likely a one-time purchase. Large scale additions and remodels only happen once in a long while, and Ethan doesn’t have other products or services to offer.
The value of Best Buyers to most businesses is that they are repeat buyers over a long period of time; and they are always happy to buy new offerings created to meet their needs. So my challenge was to help Ethan adapt the techniques for cultivating and nurturing Best Buyers to his clientele. His Best Buyers would not buy again, but we would invite them to introduce other prospective clients to him.
Cultivate and Nurture Best Buyers to become powerful
We would adapt this plan to Ethan’s recent clients with the goal of earning introductions to their circle of friends and colleagues.
We scheduled the 4 face-to-face events first. The first one was a reception for friends and all his former clients at the home of one of his most recent clients. They were thrilled to open their home to show off their gorgeous new spaces. Ethan arranged all the event vendors and staff. At a key moment, he brought forth a large piece of art, draped in cloth. When he unveiled it, everyone could see that it was Ethan’s hand-drawn drawing of the home, beautifully colored and framed. The clients were overwhelmed and the guests were eager to get a closer look. By the end of the evening, Ethan had been approached by a half-dozen guests about meeting to discuss possible plans for their own remodels.
Among the 8 other contacts were article reprints about the aesthetics of remodels and additions; how to reflect the home’s new value in estate planning; and a glossy card showcasing a few snippets of other work Ethan had done.
I wanted to address the phenomenon of digital presence for the shelter and decorating industries. It has exploded and most people, even those with terrific supporters like Ethan had, need to have an online presence. He did not know that there are virtual assistants and online marketing companies that create and manage online media. We interviewed a couple, found one great person, and then all he had to do was send photos from time to time.
This cultivate and nurture effort increased demand for Ethan’s work. People believed it to be of higher value than CAD-based architects. By the end of first year, he had completed one additional project and had increased his revenue by about 27%. Several more were in the planning stages for the next year.
I worked with him to design a second C&N plan for the following year to continues to generate more referrals and introductions. Ethan maintains his hand-drawn process and gives the final drawing as a gift to his clients.
Every one of them hangs the beautiful piece of art in a prominent place in their home.
Differentiating a Commodity Service to Avoid Competing on Price
During our first conversation he described the seasonal fluctuations of revenue, and how he had to lay people off in the fall, rehire them in the spring, and repeat year after year. That took so much time, distracted him from growth opportunities, and caused low morale for the remaining workers.
At the same time, they had a large roster of home-owning customers, about 9000 at the time. Their number one seller was an annual inspection plan which provided a technician to inspect the HVAC unit in the spring and the fall. If any work needed to be done, they would be able to do it. The company sold several other services, such as duct cleaning, air cleaners, attic insulation and plumbing services. Every one of these was sold on an as-needed basis.
The company’s customer services reps (CSRs) were on the phone constantly. But they had an outdated system that captured very little information about the history of a customer. They could not thank customers for their longevity, or refer to recently purchased equipment or service. They had rules about hurrying off the calls so they could get the next one. Most customers rated them average or less for service.
I asked Matt what his definition of success is. He said he wanted more steady revenue, close to the higher amounts typical of the summer. He wanted to improve customer service because he knew they lost customers every year.
These were two really solid goals and we agreed to work together to make them happen.
Matt was not prepared to invest substantially in a modern, top of the line CRM system. He did have a person on staff who was quite experienced with making more sophisticated applications out of common software. So he was tasked with creating a CRM that would help the CSRs have more customer information at their fingertips when they called. It took a few weeks to get this up and running.
We did some training with the CSRs, mostly to help them understand the new vision we had: conveying the company’s appreciation for their business. It was not enough to take orders or solve problems. We wanted each one of the CSRs to deliver “why stay?” messages to keep the customers they had. Matt stopped encouraging them to get of the phone quickly. It was more important to make sure the caller was satisfied. Many of the CSRs were a bit suspicious of this but over time they got much better at engaging the callers and not rushing them.
While the CRM system was under development and the CSRs were being trained, Matt and a couple of his top technicians gathered to discuss what else could they offer that would be of real value to the homeowners? The technicians were with homeowners every day, and heard their comments and complaints. It was the first time they’d been asked to give their input and they had a lot to say.
One of the biggest complaints they heard from homeowners was about having to allot a half day for an inspection appointment. The company had two windows, morning and afternoon, and every homeowner had to wait for their technician to show up anytime during that window. The techs heard daily from people who wanted a fixed time or a much narrower window.
The other complaint the techs frequently heard was that homeowners who had been customers for years never felt that their loyalty counted for anything. It was always as if they were calling for the first time. There were no benefits to being a long time customer.
When Matt heard the techs relay the complaints about the waiting times, he suddenly realized that that could be a way to differentiate. HVAC service is hard to differentiate, but arrival and departure times could be. He decided to figure out how to do it without causing complete havoc with his scheduling system.
I asked for sales reports by service and product lines. It turned out that they had hundreds of sales for non-HVAC services, but they were erratic and never seemed to have the heft or impact of the HVAC services. I suggested that Matt design an offer that incorporated both the HVAC inspection services and two of the other services for one fee, payable in full upon purchase. The company would be responsible for scheduling the non-HVAC services in the shoulder seasons, to increase the work load at those times, thus reducing the number of layoffs. The CSRs would be trained to offer this new 4-service annual plan to all callers and use the new CRM system to keep track. Matt and a couple of techs designed this right away and the CSRs began offering it within weeks. They also used a couple of direct mailings to promote it.
Matt began to notice that the company’s ratings online were creeping up, closer to 4 or 4.2. He also has the mindset now that his company is at the leading edge, not hopelessly behind and trying to catch up with the competition.