In a perfect world, doing quality work would convince people to beat a path to your door. In the real world, you have to scratch and claw for every advantage.

People have all sorts of horror stories about remodeling jobs, but I want to tell you about one that went right. It happened in July 1996 when my wife and I contracted to have vinyl siding put on our home and detached garage. While we were at it, we decided to replace the old sticky windows throughout the house, and sought a contractor who could handle the entire project. The total job billed out at $22,000 and change.

Afterward, a couple of neighbors told me we paid way too much. They knew this and that person who had similar jobs done for thousands of dollars less. I ignored them. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in life, it’s that you get the quality you are willing to pay for. You can always find someone who “coulda-shoulda-woulda” done the job cheaper, but this contractor did right by us and I’m not going to second guess.

He was not a slick salesman by any stretch. As with most people who come up through the trades, making a presentation was not something that came naturally to him. He struck me as a shy person who had to force himself to make sales calls, and who made himself effective only after years of practice and experience. Nonetheless, what he lacked in suave demeanor he made up for with knowledge and sincerity. He made us believe that he really believed in his products and ability, and I can’t think of a better definition of salesmanship.

In our first get-together, the contractor came armed with a presentation book filled with useful information and product samples. Our confidence got a big boost when we saw him spend the better part of an hour taking careful measurements throughout the house. When his price quote came to us a week or so later, it was higher than we hoped it would be — don’t all home improvement projects turn out that way? Yet, I didn’t bother to seek other estimates.

Everyone chants the mantra that you need to get three bids and take the one in the middle. What a bunch of blarney. If anything, one’s best chance of getting the job done right is to take the high bid. As for me, I don’t even like to go out and get multiple quotes. It’s time consuming and only confuses the issue. Nobody ever bids apples to apples, and the inevitable changes will render the comparisons meaningless anyway. This fellow came recommended to us by a good friend. That, coupled with our gut feeling after our first encounter, was enough to convince us to put our home and our bank’s money in his hands.

He leveled with us about scheduling. We signed the contract in March and put down a token good-faith payment of around $100 as best I can recall. The contractor told us he would try to start the project in May, but it all depended on the weather, along with whatever other jobs he had going at the time. I appreciated the fact that he didn’t make promises he might not be able to keep. May turned out to be exceptionally rainy. Then June rolled around and just about the time my wife and I started to get concerned, the contractor gave us a call to let us know he hadn’t forgotten about us. He just needed to finish up some other jobs before he could give us his undivided attention. That’s the way he put it, and it made us feel good.

Finally, our project was scheduled for mid-July. We were originally told our house would be in shambles for two weeks. The contractor put on a double crew and finished in half that time, telling us it was because he made us wait so long for the job to start. The workers were polite and considerate. At the conclusion of work each day they removed clutter from the driveway and backyard. We had had major remodeling projects done before. We expected hassles. This time, there were none.

The punch list was minimal and the workmanship impeccable. The contractor dropped by about a month after the job was finished just to see if we were happy. Absolutely. Four years later not a single shingle has deteriorated or come loose, and the windows still operate effortlessly. I would recommend this contractor to anybody. Except for one little problem …

I forgot his name and the name of his company.

Inside The Brain

Not only have I forgotten it four years later, I couldn’t remember it two years ago when I was relating to an acquaintance what a great job the contractor did. I was about to recommend him, but couldn’t for the life of me remember the name.

It’s not that my memory is particularly bad. I’m a professional writer with a rich vocabulary and gazillions of facts and figures stored in my head. I can recall various details about that siding job, some of which are recounted here. My ability to remember details probably is better than that of 90 percent of the population.

It’s just that the human brain has a tendency to discard useless information. Once that project was done, I had no more need for this contractor’s services probably for the rest of my life. So his name faded out of memory to make room for stuff of more pressing importance. That’s the way our brains are wired, and this has enormous ramifications for contractors who rely upon testimonials and referrals to generate business.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. Most of you live by that credo. Trust is the number one reason why people do business with a given contractor (excluding those lost souls who worship the lowest price). What better way could there be to promote your business than to have a satisfied customer sing your praises?

The Marketing Imperative

Problem is, word of mouth is a fleeting phenomenon. No matter how good a job you do for a customer today, you can’t assume you’ll get a call or recommendation from that person six months or a year from now when a need arises for your services. People who patted you on the back and sang your praises a year ago wouldn’t necessarily recognize you walking down the street today.

Those of you who regularly attend trade conventions know what I’m talking about. You run into certain colleagues from other parts of the country every year. You may have extended conversations with these people, maybe even go to dinner or out on the town with them. But next year you have to squint at their name tags to remember those vaguely familiar faces.

That’s why marketing is so important — even to contractors who rely on word of mouth for business. Marketing helps spread word of mouth. You need to keep your name in front of people constantly in order to remind them who you are.

Marketing maven Dr. Jeffrey Lant wrote a book called The Rule of Seven, in which he argued that you need to reach your prospects via advertising and/or free publicity seven times in an 18-month period in order to lock yourself in their memory for good. I don’t know how scientific that finding is, but it sounds about right to me. It’s why you need to keep marketing even when business is so good you can’t handle any more work. You have to remind people you are alive and well if you want them to remember you at a time when business may not be so plentiful.

In a perfect world, all you would have to do is produce quality work and customers would beat a path to your door. In the real world, you have to scratch and claw for every advantage. You can’t assume customers will recognize your expertise or appreciate it, and even if they do, you can’t assume they’ll remember your name more than a few weeks after the job is done.