What are you communicating to customers through the appearance of your building?

If that question makes you wince or react defensively, keep reading. You may be thinking that appearances at your contracting company’s place of business are irrelevant. After all, only two types of people visit you, right?

Your only nonemployee visitors are salespeople peddling their goods and services, and customers.

I recommend you develop an image to deal with both types of people in the most positive fashion, one that helps you develop future income-generating opportunities.

Dealing With Upset Customers

When unhappy customers visit your business, do you want the image of your facility to reinforce their negative thoughts or begin to change their opinion? Does your building project the image of an incompetent, slipshod operation — or one of a successful, professional, well-managed business?

I’m not suggesting that as contractors we need to have the posh look of a Fortune 500 company. But can anyone explain why so many businesses seem to go for the opposite effect?

Think about your customer arriving at your business to confront junked condensing units, furnaces, and water heaters in the side and back lots. Perhaps s/he has to maneuver through old vans and trucks up on blocks on the way to your door.

Once inside, what does the customer then when s/he finds dirty, stained carpets, stacks of paper piled on the front counter and overflowing onto the floor, coffee cups that look like they’ve been sitting there for days, and possibly a few crude cartoons and lewd calendars on the walls?

Is this customer ready to give you the benefit of the doubt? In such an atmosphere, can you credibly present yourself as an honest, quality-conscious service provider (who nevertheless is human and capable of an occasional mistake)?

It may be true that your building’s appearance has nothing to do with your ability to deliver quality service to your customers. But in the customer’s mind, your reputation might already be lost.

Can you imagine lying on a hospital bed needing major surgery, and in walks the doctor eating a hot dog? How about if he’s wearing blue jeans, a stained smock, and flip-flops? He may be the best surgeon in the world, but many of us would find a way to crawl out of that bed and get to a new doctor.

Why? Because we evaluate the quality of a person’s services by the image we see.

Lonnie Robnett, owner of Nevada Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing, Reno, NV, says that since joining PSI and AirTime 500, he has changed his storefront’s image substantially.

“I never considered the office facility to be crucial in establishing a positive image,” he said. “But after studying the concepts of ‘Immediate Impact Imaging’ and hearing the experiences of other contractors, I started to look at my entire company from trucks to uniforms, office to warehouse, making sure that every part of it communicates the message and image I want delivered.

“In the months since we took these steps, I’d say it’s made a noticeable improvement in the attitudes of both our customers and our employees.”

That second point is important, too. Improving the appearance of your workplace will also have a positive impact on the attitude of your employees. More dignity in their surroundings will produce more dignity and care in the way they handle themselves —with one another and with your customers.

The Inside Pitch

When a person enters your offices, you have a great opportunity to market your company. Remember, unless your visitor is a salesperson, s/he is either upset or shopping. There are things you can do to impress your customers almost immediately:

  • Greet them as soon as they walk in the door.

  • Offer them a cup of coffee, soft drink, or other refreshments.

  • Make sure there are inviting chairs available, something you’d be willing to sit in while wearing your good clothes.

Once an unhappy customer has arrived, s/he has little to do while waiting for the right person to assist them, except to grow angrier for being kept waiting. It’s unlikely that your tattered copies of industry magazines from 1987 will soothe them.

It may surprise you to learn that you can turn your customer’s waiting period to your advantage. Robnett says he always makes sure that visitors spend a little time in the waiting area he has designed to positively shape their opinion of the company, and perhaps even lower their temperature.

When you enter Robnett’s lobby, you see a spotless floor and well-painted walls. You also see, on the wall, certificates of civic associations the company belongs to, such as the Better Business Bureau, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and so on.

You see, prominently displayed, framed letters from satisfied customers, emblems of professional organizations employees belong to and awards from these organizations, certificates of completion from educational programs, state licenses, etc.

On a coffee table, there are no magazines; there is a picture album with profiles of the employees, some sample remodeling jobs, and a history of the company. People like to look at pictures.

Another binder keeps a listing of any special promotions or current advertisements that the company may be offering.

Robnett displays no other materials to distract visitors from these positive images of the company. Customers may have come to unload a lifetime of grief on what they suspect is a sloppy and uncaring operation. Instead, they find themselves warmly greeted in a business proud to share information about itself and its employees, and to display its many credentials and professional associations.

After making sure his customers have time to absorb these important messages, Robnett walks in with a broad smile and an extended hand, saying, “Thanks for coming to see us, Mr. Jones. I’m Lonnie Robnett, president of the company. How can we help you today?”

If Robnett is unavailable, his receptionist knows to summon his general manager or another high-ranking assistant.

Selling Salespeople

Treat salespeople well. They may become your customers or word-of-mouth advertisers.

Keep in mind that salespeople generally are hard-working and highly paid professionals. They normally are homeowners. Homeowners are going to need your services.

In addition, their friends and relatives probably respect their knowledge of your industry and seek their recommendation.

Salespeople also are more attuned to service than just prices. The easiest person to sell to is a salesperson. If you offer outstanding service, salespeople will do business with you and become very loyal to you. And they generally can afford to pay, and pay willingly, for excellent service.

But, obviously, if we responded and spoke with every salesperson who called on our company daily, we wouldn’t have much time to serve our customers. So we must limit the time we invest with salespeople. How, though, do we present ourselves as being salesperson-friendly without hurting our business?

Put up a sign at the front door that reads, “We welcome salespeople by appointment.” Teach your receptionist to greet salespeople warmly. If they have no appointment, the receptionist should ask them to sign a guest register and leave a card or other materials, and to call later for an appointment.

You might also set aside certain times during the week when you are available for sales appointments and have your receptionist communicate that information, too.

It’s a good idea to set up a separate business line with a voice mail system for these calls, so that you don’t tie up a customer service rep with salespersons’ calls for appointments.

One of my pet peeves is the sign on the front door that says “No Soliciting.” I was once hired to do on-site consulting and sales training for a company that was struggling with sales and profits. The owner described how his people were just not selling, and he didn’t know what to do. I showed up at the owner’s front door, and he had one of these signs.

The first thing I told him was, “No wonder you aren’t selling anything.” I explained that his salespeople and selling technicians had to walk through the front door and every time they saw “No Soliciting.” It instilled a message that selling is bad.

How can you in good faith send your own people into the marketplace while communicating to everyone who walks in your door that you don’t want salespeople calling on you?

Don’t let your building send an anti-sales message. In fact, treat salespeople as you’d treat your most valued customers; they may become just that.

Make a Better Impression

So, what can you do to communicate a more positive message through you building?

First of all, make it look successful. Sometimes, becoming successful starts by portraying the image of success before you attain success.

Here are some relatively cheap-and-easy ways to spruce up your business’s exterior:

  • Clean it up. Throw the trash away and haul off the old water heaters and condensing units. Hide these unsightly images by building a screened and gated holding area for storing these items between pickups.

  • Paint your building, if necessary.

  • Install a colorful canvas awning over your entrance.

  • Do some landscaping. Plant some flowers and keep the grass mowed regularly.

  • And shovel the sidewalks and parking area if you are in a market where it snows.