My favorite form of advertising after referrals, clean trucks and business cards is direct mail. Why? Unlike television or radio, you know exactly to whom you are sending your message. There is no wasted money advertising to apartment dwellers or residents of geographic areas you don't cover.

But, you say, most of it gets thrown out. That's true. However, it's not for the reasons that you might think. Many times, poorly conceived direct-mail pieces that don't grab the reader's attention get tossed.

That's why I suggest using a brightly colored postcard. You might choose a bright orange. Don't use red. The post office will charge more because many of their printing machines use red ink, making it harder for the machines to read the routing codes.

Postcards are better than letters in this case. Why? Most people will flip over a postcard and read it before they will open a letter.

Once they flip it over, you've got three seconds to get their attention. Use a headline that offers them a benefit. Answer the question, "Why should I get a fall maintenance check?" Save money and added safety are the obvious answers. Use them in your headline.

Specials

From my experience, the best things to put on postcards are maintenance specials. This gets you into the home and your technicians can diagnosis potential problems. From there, service agreements, additional work or system-replacement orders are possible.

Personally, I haven't had much success trying to sell maintenance agreements with postcards. It's too hard to explain their benefits in such a small space.

I've also found that offers for free equipment inspections don't work well on postcards probably because people are becoming very suspicious of the word "free."

Send more than one postcard. A series of three will give you a good gauge of the effectiveness of your direct mail. If you are sending to customers who haven't done business with you in at least 18 months, you should get a greater than 5 percent response rate.

If you send the postcard to a different target market that doesn't know your company, expect a response rate less than 1 percent. Is that enough to justify a mailing?

If you mail 5,000 postcards and you get 25 responses, then some of those 25 should need additional service or a replacement unit. Sell one replacement and the mailing has paid for itself in most cases.

Make sure you put a telephone number on the postcard and a person to talk to: "Call Mary at 555-1234. Mary doesn't even have to be a real person. That just lets you know that someone is calling after receiving the postcard.

Finally, track your results. Knowing how many telephone calls turned into service agreements and replacement work will let you measure your success.

Another opportunity

Speaking of success, the hurricanes of 2005 mean the cost of natural gas is skyrocketing. It is more than double what the costs were last year. This is a marketing gift to contractors who operate in areas where furnaces use natural gas. Don't let this gift slip through your fingers.

With natural gas prices higher, you have another reason for customers and potential customers to replace their old "gas guzzling" furnaces.

There have been numerous articles in the mainstream press about the increasing costs. However, many times it will take the shock of getting that first gas bill for a customer to do something. Make sure that you're there when those first gas bills hit.

It doesn't have to be expensive marketing. Again, a postcard will do. You can make it fancy or you can make it very inexpensive. However, get the word out. Send the postcard to all of your customers who have heating systems that are at least 10 years old.

Write on it something like this:

We are sending you this because our records show that your heating system is over 10 years old. You've probably gotten your first few gas bills and have noticed significantly higher bills than last year. Here is a way to write smaller checks to your utility company this winter. Call me for a free energy evaluation.

One caveat: Your salespeople have to "sell" - this is not an "order taker" exercise. Determine needs, create the system that fits them, provide value, ask for the order and generate income.