­­­­­­­­­­Creative Prospecting

Contractors use a variety of methods to present their capabilities to industrial clients who are pressed for time and face unique challenges

During a recession, a diverse business base can help contractors avoid getting hurt financially. But for both residential contractors looking to enter the commercial sector and for industrial cleaners seeking a more varied customer base to reduce reliance on one industry, prospecting in new markets is a challenge.

Several factors can help contractors get a foot in the door. They include owning modern and well-maintained equipment, glowing referrals from long-time customers, great customer-service skills, and solid marketing that generates qualified leads. Of course, it never hurts to have the moxie to solve problems other contractors can’t. Here’s what a few cleaners suggest for colleagues who are considering knocking on the doors of their local industrial plants.

“I have a huge network of customers built up, and a lot of my work comes from referrals,” says Paul McQueen of McQueen Plumbing in Scottsdale, Ariz., which started out as a commercial plumbing business and expanded into commercial drain cleaning. “I developed my network base through owner-to-owner referrals and by taking pride in high-quality workmanship and buying the best equipment.

“In industrial work, a lot of plant people know other plant people. If you do quality work, I find one guy may refer us to another plant, or if they move on to another plant, they’ll bring us into that plant. I don’t do any cold-calling or direct-mail advertising; just a Yellow Pages ad under Pipe Cleaners.

“I don’t have a Web site, either, though we’re working on developing one. I also don’t have a company brochure or any other leave-behinds – just a business card and a reputation for good, quality work and triple-A service. That sells itself. I do make formal presentations when I get a referral. But it’s very simple: I’m basically a licensed contractor with zero complaints for going on 18 years.

“It’s important to offer the newest technology available. If you don’t have the right equipment, it makes your job three times harder than it needs to be. Just as important, people take notice when you come out and you have everything you need to do inspecting and rodding and any other kind of work they need done, and they don’t need to go shopping for anything else once they get to know you and know you’re looking out for their best interests.

“There’s no question that good equipment reduces customers’ downtime. The sooner you get in and get the job done, the better. You can do more work in that day’s time, and clients like it, too, because if they’re shut down, it costs them a lot of money.”

“Every salesperson has a different technique, and I don’t mess with it,” says Ralph Pettit, president and chief executive officer of Pettit Environmental in Louisville, Ky. “Some of them are lunch buyers; they know that, say, plant managers in rural areas want a visit periodically. Some are golfers. Some stay on the phone all the time – they’re basically telemarketers.

“I mainly respond to people who’ve e-mailed us through our Web site with a request for our services or a vendor packet. It’s surprising how many hits we get from the Internet from new and repeat customers. I don’t think their first contact with us necessarily comes from the Internet, although we received about a half-dozen inquires from Europe last year, which amazes me.

“I can’t put a finger on what percentage of sales comes from our Web site, but I do know that our salesmen are now trying to reduce the time they spend in front of a customer, telling them about the company, and instead get the customer to go to the Web site and look at our services. This reduces their time spent on site talking and presenting the company. Then they can concentrate on listening to the customer tell them what they want, and give them a specific quote for what they’re looking for.

“Our salesmen are great, and all have different techniques and different ways of going about sales. But at some point, they all have to learn to just be quiet – and wait for the customer to start that conversation and tell them what they want. Don’t talk to them so long that they can’t tell you what they want.

“We have a PowerPoint presentation that’s similar to our Web site. But we don’t use it much. It’s hard to get people to give you enough time. With plant layoffs and the like, people’s workloads are increased. They need your help because they have less help, but they don’t have time for a lot of discussion. I think those are the people who go to the Web site at the end of a day and look at what they want to when they have time to do it.”

For Gary Miksis, president of Miksis Services Inc. in Healdsburg, Calif., breaking into industrial work requires an intangible asset: creativity. “Residential work is pretty repetitious, because the solutions have been developed and you know how to deal with it,” he says. “But with industrial applications, you have to come up with different solutions for each application.

“It’s more of a McGyver solution, and there’s not an abundance of McGyvers out there. So you have to be pretty creative about how you go about approaching industrial work. A lot of it is shooting from the hip. For example, we did a lining project on an old 8-inch cast-iron sewer line. We put a camera in the line and you could pan 180 degrees and see there was no pipe. It was just a bed gravel because there was no bottom to the pipe anymore – just the top dome.

“It was not accessible, but we had to line it. So we used a vacuum unit and pushed in a four-inch suction tube and sucked our own hole all the way through the line. We sucked 200 feet in one direction and 200 feet in the other direction until the two vacuum tubes met.

“Then we blew a string line through it, then pulled a cable through it so we could pull a liner through. Eventually we pulled in the liner, blew it up and grouted it in. A situation like that is not a normal job. You have to draw from experience.”


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