I don’t know if you watch a lot of Kevin Costner movies, but I’ve seen most of them — the great ones (“Dances with Wolves,” “The Un-touchables”), the good ones (“Bull Durham,” “The Bodyguard”), and the mangy, bad-breathed dogs (“Waterworld,” “The Postman”). But what does this have to do with whether or not hvacr contractors should count on the Internet to market your products or services?

At my company, a so-called “dot-com” that sells hard-to-find trade products over the Internet to many of the same audiences contractors sell to (facilities managers, plant maintenance pros, builders), Costner movie themes are on our minds these days. Each one serves up a valuable lesson through experience for any contractor, big or small, assessing the Internet as a marketing tool.

The movie: “Field of Dreams”

The moral: Build it and they will come — but slowly.

There can be little doubt that, one day, the majority of business-to-business (B2B) transactions and communications will pass over a private network, the Internet, or highly evolved versions of both. The cost efficiencies, speed, convenience, and accuracy improvements via such networks are just too strong to stop.

In the meantime, hvacr contractors would do well to realistically view today’s still overly optimistic analytical projections about B2B Internet adoption. While projections of $327 billion in online B2B transactions in the year 2001 (Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA) may be reflective of higher-tech sectors of the B2B economy — computers, software, and business services — adoption of e-business by the trades will invariably lag behind.

Thus, any investment that hvacr contractors are now making to stake a claim or seize an early competitive edge on the Internet — be it a launching a website, placing a banner ad on a regional online construction directory, or participating in one of the emerging online request-for-quote (RFQ) exchanges — should be made knowing that old habits, even the inefficient ones, will die hard.

In the immediate future, more residential customers will find residential contractors in the phone book than online. More relationships between commercial contractors and developers will be forged on the golf course than in an industry chat room. More industrial customers with broken-down air handlers and chillers will phone industrial contractors on Sunday mornings than will prevent such breakdowns by downloading preventive routines from a manufacturer’s or contractor’s website.

Still, the tide is turning. And as it does, proactive marketers can make solid strides online. In concert with other efficiencies underway at today’s e-savvy contracting firms, businesses can conduct everything from online buys in the purchasing department, to enhanced service offerings made possible by remote ddc-based equipment monitoring and networking, to speedier specifications in the engineering department.

The movie: “Tin Cup”

The moral: You can’t really play nine holes with just a 7 iron.

In this first-rate, washed-up-jock flick, Costner plays a stubborn golf pro named Roy MacAvoy who, among other feats, plays half a golf course — drives, short games, and putts alike — with a 7 iron.

While this makes for good Hollywood, it makes for lousy marketing. If your contracting firm is constructing a website for information, communication, and/or transactions, you’ll first have to play all the other clubs in your marketing bag to drive consumers to that website.

Conversely, if you’re intrigued with the possibility of building sales at your company based on the big promises of websites selling banners or listings, don’t play the Internet club to the exclusion of others in your cart. Your phone, fax, print advertising, direct mail, PR, promotions, telemarketing, and good, old-fashioned in-your-face sales calls are just as critical to your marketing program as ever.

The movie: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”

The moral: To stand out from a crowd of Englishmen, speak like an American.

On the Internet — especially in exchanges where today’s contractors are supposed to answer RFQs, in some cases, for unseen buyers — a contracting company’s hard-won reputation can be reduced to a nameless price-and-materials list among countless other price-and-materials lists.

To ensure that you do not become commoditized online, take your cue from Costner’s inability, or outright refusal, to deliver his lines with an English accent in this 1991 rendition of Robin Hood. Sure, he stood out like a sore thumb, but then again, he stood out like a sore thumb.

When advertising online, drive home key points of differentiation, be they specialized services, manufacturers’ brands represented, application-specific experience, or technological prowess. When building a website, saturate it with features, services, offers, and “personality traits” unique to your company. Do whatever it takes to counteract the digital arena’s natural tendency to reduce your company to 0s and 1s.

It’s a Wrap

Should contractors invest in online marketing, or wait and see?

There’s business, market share, and sales to be had there today, with more to come. Just be sure to enter with your wits about you.

Building business online, not unlike carving a baseball diamond out of a cornfield, requires equal measures of faith, diligence, and patience.

Hoeschele is with bestroute.com, a subsidiary of Hughes Supply, Inc. He can be reached at jhoeschele@Bestroute.com.

Publication date: 11/27/2000