When you (the owner/ contractor) consider marketing options for your company, the first thing that generally springs to mind are the more conventional advertising and promotional vehicles like direct mail, company brochures, and trade shows. But though any of these can be effective options when implemented properly, they are almost always costly and time-consuming to create and deliver. "Well, yes," you might say, "but what are you going to do?"

Well, I'd suggest that you may indeed be overlooking the most effective marketing tool that any contractor (or any business) possesses and it isn't any of those above: it's yourself and your employees.

It's true. In our harried rush to purchase the latest, greatest brochure-publishing software or build the biggest and best trade-show display, we often run around (over?) the very prize we're attempting to win: our client. With noses buried deep in our work, we miss out on the social interaction - the critical human networking - that has proven time and again superior to any newspaper ad when attempting to acquire work.

Construction contracting is and always has been a service industry. Our customer is our product. Though we spend our day creating physical, touchable structures out of sticks, stones, steel, and mortar, our client remains the focus of - and the reason for - our endeavors. The client is who we please and who we will someday go back to for yet more work. This is key, for there may very well be no industry that relies more heavily on repeat customers than construction contracting.

I have single clients with whom I've performed dozens of separate construction projects (many of them major) over the years. This repeat business forms the heart and soul of our success, and there are many more like me. I'm sure you've heard of or may even know of fellow contractors who have molded their entire careers from only a handful of patrons. Often, these firms get involved with giants like GM, AT&T, or IBM early on in their business lives and never leave. Once in, they can go for years in the same plant or facility. Instead of focusing wasted administrative energy on soliciting new customers, they discovered that what they needed they already had.

Seeing the forest

Many times, your next sale is standing right in front of you. It's your existing client. All you need to do is treat them attentively and honestly (again). That's all they want. That's all anyone wants. But though this attention will almost certainly increase the odds for more work, it isn't the sole reason for it. There's also the matter of profit. It goes like this: there's a direct link between familiarity with your client and company profit. There is a fiscal efficiency in knowing your client. Enter the repeat customer.

By eliminating new and unexplored working environments, you avoid the almost certain possibility of beginning learning curves anew (and experiencing the loss in productivity that always seems to tag along). It's simple: you already know the client - their needs, patterns, moods, and idiosyncrasies. There are fewer surprises (and in case you didn't know, surprises are a bad thing in construction) and less time establishing ground rules that often accompany new business relationships.

Familiarity with both the customer and the work will better your chances for controlling and sustaining costs, maintaining schedules, and operating more efficiently¿ enhancing the prospect of improved profit.

Such is the case with a hospital client of mine. We've been with this customer almost continuously for about four years now. Most of the work involves the renovation of areas such as patient rooms (which are very similar in size and scope), doctor's staff/offices, and more specialized areas such as pharmacies or chapels. Yes, much of this is smaller work but it keeps us in almost constant proximity with the owner. It also gives us a chance to show what we can do; to build a strong relationship. Every now and then, they'll throw an entire wing as us; projects that may climb up to hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.

For most contractors, this is the fabled brass ring - and we don't waste the opportunity. We also never stop trying to build stronger relations. In our negotiated projects, we maintain an open-book accounting policy with the hospital representatives (we often work on a set fee above actual cost) and never stop trying to learn more about (and adapt to) the varied and specialized methods and concerns of the hospital environment and its staff.

With this growing level of familiarity, we seldom (actually never) have taken a major hit on our profit line item. Granted, there are no major windfalls either. But it's steady, predictable income for our company. The job that began as a single, simple handicap ramp four years ago has now generated a million dollars per year in sales volume¿ and continues to grow.

That's marketing.

(Steve Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator/project manager, author/lecturer for the construction industry, and teaches Building Construction Technology at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. He can be contacted via e-mail at: gilbsteve@aol.com.)