How tradesmen miss the online opportunity

Remember 1964? If you’re a typical Powered Now user you probably weren’t born! However for those of us that are getting on a bit, the phrase “Let your fingers do the walking” should be familiar. That’s because in 1964 it was one of the most used phrases on TV, as it was the slogan for the all conquering Yellow Pages.

It may seem crazy in todays world, but back then if someone was looking for a tradesmen and a friend hadn’t recommended one, they reached for the Yellow Pages.

In Yellow Pages, readers would find page after page of relevant businesses, some with large display panels, although most just had a free one-line entry. Business names often began with a string of AAA’s in an attempt to be listed first. And for years the “walking fingers” remained the logo of Yellow Pages, although in a belated attempt to catch up, the fingers now walk over a keyboard.

In the heady days of the 60’s to late 90’s, Yellow Pages was the publication to be seen in. And it was very relevant, because everyone featured. People always looked there first when they wanted a tradesman.

Times they are a changing

But times have changed. Matthew Stevenson of The Landscape Company puts it this way: “We have a free yellow pages listing but it’s useless in terms of getting new business”.

In fact anyone running a trade business knows that leads from Yellow Pages have dropped sharply over the last few years. And the entire Yellow Pages business is very much on the rocks.

The arrival of the internet has totally changed things. However, it’s vital to realise that one thing has stayed the same. This is word-of-mouth. For trade businesses, and especially smaller ones, it’s still the number one source of leads. Of course, this depends on doing a great job and managing your relationship with customers. But don’t believe any business that tells you that word-of-mouth is declining. It isn’t.

In fact the Powered Now survey of more than 1,000 homeowners found that in the last year 72% had used a tradesmen they already knew or that was recommended by a friend. This far exceeded any other method they had used.

The decline of the traditional

Traditionally, tradesmen advertised in local newspapers, Thomson Local, Yellow Pages and the local newsagent. They also sometimes delivered leaflets directly through letterboxes.

Each of these is in decline. And pretty much every print publication is struggling for existence, with those that are making the transition to the internet doing the best. If you take a load of free newspapers containing your advertisement, pretty quickly many are lining the cat litter tray. Partly as a result of the decline in papers, there are less newsagents around. The truth is, most of the population is now looking on the internet first. Guy Hodgson, who runs a handyman business and was Screwfix regional tradesman of the year, had a typical experience: “I tried small ads in shops. I did get a little bit of business but it wasn’t worth it”.

Junk mail has been declining for years because it’s becoming less effective. And posting marketing materials through letterboxes is definitely on the way out.

Traditional methods like TV, radio advertising and direct mail might still work for targeting businesses, but if you aren’t British Gas you probably can’t afford them. Even TV advertising is becoming harder as channels multiply and the younger generation spend most of their time on Facebook, Youtube and Snapchat. If they look at anything it’s on-demand services with no advertising.

Overall, things have changed a lot and there’s no sign of a slow-down in the pace.

What works now?

As fast as the traditional channels have been dying, a large number of alternative methods for marketing a trade business have sprung up. Our survey of over 1,000 customers found that 32% had found a trades company online in the previous 12 months while Yellow Pages, Thomson and Local Papers combined only scored 11%.

The promise of these new online methods is to be cheaper and more under your control. For instance, you can just advertise for the areas that you service, where in Yellow Pages it had to be for a whole region. You can turn things on or off every day according to how much work you need, while with Yellow Pages you had to pay up front for a year. As a result, online marketing potentially helps you to operate much more efficiently and with fewer slack periods.

Many of these new marketing methods, such as lead generation market places My Builder, Rated People and Checkatrade, are highly controversial. Some businesses are keen advocates and others accuse them of virtually being scams. There was an interesting discussion about Checkatrade on the Builders Talk Group on Facebook. While one comment was in favour there were nine against which included the harshly worded “Just a money grabbing load of shite”.

Having your own web site, sending emails to existing customers and doing your own online advertising are less controversial and potentially more effective. However, they require a much bigger commitment in terms of time, money and learning.

In separate articles about all of these opportunities, we will explore the pros and cons and how you can exploit each one, avoiding the major pitfalls.

Find the right approach for you

The many tradesmen we have spoken to broadly fall into two categories: sole traders who are pretty happy with their lot and just want to be sure that they have enough work coming in and those eager to grow their businesses further, whatever their current size.

If you are happy with your business and good at your job, you will probably find that after a while you get enough work from word of mouth alone. As gas engineer John McLouglin says “You grow old with your customers”. You don’t need any advice on marketing. You might still occasionally want to top up your work, and one of the new market places or contacting local firms looking for subbie work might do the trick.

On the other hand, if you are ambitious to grow your business, you need to find a method that works for you. Different people like to emphasise different ways of winning work. Mark Goodchild of Electric-Call explains “I like faults because a lot of competitors don’t bother putting themselves out and it often leads to more work. We can demonstrate our competence when we fix a mess. So our aim is always to get to a call out within one hour”. Mark has a very successful business and can quote many examples of where he won big contracts using this approach. That is why his marketing tries to catch people who are looking for an emergency electrician.

Matthew Stevenson of The Landscape Company wants to impress his customers with the quality of work and doesn’t believe he can do this by competing on price. “I always tell customers that we won’t be the cheapest, but we will be the best value”. As his business is growing very rapidly this approach seems to work for him.

In fact there is no single prescription for a trade business, although there are many common themes that run through the most successful. Maybe the most important advice is to get clear in your mind what you really want to achieve, and to decide exactly how you want to approach your business. Then follow these principles consistently in all that you do and design your marketing around that.

Most importantly, that should give you the freedom to get on with what most trades businesses do best – doing new jobs professionally and expertly solving peoples’ domestic issues. That is the core of the business and no amount of marketing can replace it.