ALBUQUERQUE, NM - What can the owner-operator of a national chain of sporting goods stores have to say to hundreds of hvac contractors attending ACCA's Annual Conference 2000 here? Simply this: "Why should someone do business with you rather than someone else?"

Sam Geist, owner and operator of The Outdoor Stores, a 15-store, $40 million business, and president of his own marketing and consulting firm, was the keynote speaker that drew a lot of interest from conference attendees.

Geist touts his seminar as one that presents "strategies to prepare for tomorrow¿today." He posed the following questions to contractors, vendors, and manufacturers:

  • Would you do business with yourself?
  • Is your business a destination in your customers' mind?
  • Where do you see your business in two years?
  • What is your customer retention rate?
  • If your company disappeared from the face of the earth, would your customers miss you?
  • What is the lifetime value of a customer?
  • What is your point of difference?

Geist then outlined six steps to taking action.

1. Understand the rules

Geist said that today's customers want contractors who are faster, better, cheaper, and smarter. In order to have those qualities, contractors must see themselves as leaders and innovators.

He used a new word to accentuate his point:

"Disintermediation is the bypassing of traditional distribution channels." He said he feels it is important for businesses to take action and be leaders, rather than waiting for something to happen.

"The biggest problem with businesses is their failure to execute," he added.

Geist stated that knowledge and information are important, but having both doesn't necessarily spell success. "Knowledge is knowing what to do with information."

2. Accept the challenge of change

Geist said that businesses that recognize the need to change have climbed the first and most important step. He noted a prominent example of a company that did not see the need to change.

"General Motors has lost 50% of its market share, and they'll never get that back."

Geist then threw out another word to his audience: parochialism, which is doing nothing and letting others catch up.

He encouraged contractors to "chart their own changing future" and understand the demographics of their customer base. "Understand family ties and realize that women are the market," he added.

3. Develop a customer perspective

Geist asked if anyone knew the lifetime value of an hvac customer. The answer: $35,000.

He said the customer is "the judge, jury, and executioner," and that businesses must start thinking through their eyes, adding another word to emphasis his point: customerizing.

Special attention should be given to "best" customers because they outspend regular customers by a margin of 16:1. One of the reasons is because they get what they want in a timely manner. "Time is the currency of the decade."

Contractors should ask themselves, "When was the last time you surprised your customer?" A surprise could be in the form of a follow-up phone call or a token gift. By doing this, a customer can be locked in for life.

"Customer contact equals customer contract," he concluded.

4. Maximize your marketing

Geist asked the audience to think of what marketing means to them. He offered some suggestions:

"The more you sell yourself, the more you'll sell." And, "Marketing is more than anything else a management thought process."

He pointed out that successful marketers have, for one thing, set themselves apart from others, by "finding and exploiting a point of difference.

"Battle sameness," he added. "Develop differentiation."

He likened marketing to theater. "It catches the imagination. It moves the audience to laugh, to participate, to remember¿to buy. It transports customers to new heights by providing solutions."

Geist challenged contractors to think beyond the products and services. "If you took away what you sell, what do you have left?"

5. Fulfill your service promise

"Customer service secret number one is to treat customers like your life depends on it, and give them that kind of service everyday."

Geist said that many businesses overpromise and underdeliver. Contractors need to execute service promises all of the time because people need constant reminders.

He cited the fact that 25% of what people learn, they forget within 24 hrs; 98% of what they learn, they forget within 16 days.

So what does service signify to you, the contractor? Geist's answer: "Become solution-driven."

6. Be the catalyst

In the rise and fall of businesses, there is a startup stage, growth stage, maturity stage, and a decline. If a business plans for change, they may avoid the declining stage.

"You can fix a bad decision, but you can't fix indecision. Ask, answer, plan, change!"

He added that "Instigating action puts you in the driver's seat; ensures that you are in control."

He left his contractor audience with one final thought to ponder: "Would you work for you?"