Direct mail can be the most lucrative marketing piece of any hvacr contractor’s year. It can penetrate doors other ads never reach. It can increase phone calls like no amount of image marketing ever could. It can open the minds (and checkbooks) of prospects in a way telemarketing can never hope to emulate.

Yet it can also be a big bust. With the wrong letter, you may as well have donated your postage money to charity and at least felt good about it. Many hvacr contractors have experienced disappointing results with direct mail. But poor results from a direct mail piece may not reflect on the medium, but rather the message. Let’s look at an example to see what I mean.

Take a look at the letter on this page. What’s good about it? Well, um, not much. One problem that you can’t see is that the envelope had — and I’m not kidding — my favorite quote: “For all your heating and cooling needs.” The next person who sends me that worn- out phrase is going to be cited for a boredom violation.

I did not select this letter to ridicule it; I selected it so you can learn from it. I’d much rather you get sales leads than spend good money on wasted postage.

Here’s a blow-by-blow rundown of the copywriting errors in this brief letter:

First off, even though we’ve changed the company name and logo, it was of similar style. Everyone needs to save money, but your logo lasts a long time and says a lot about you. Have a pro do it. This one-time cost will pay dividends for years. Likewise, if poorly done, it hurts you — for years.

Paragraph No. 1

The first paragraph has no headline or strong opening statement of benefit. Always start your letters offvery strong.You have to virtually pull the reader in by the lapels and say, “This is valuable for you. Read me.” Your readers have other things they could be doing, and their time is valuable.

“Our records indicate” sounds like an IRS memorandum. This cold beginning has absolutely no business being in a sales letter.

“We,” “our,” and “us” is mentioned five times in the first paragraph. “You” is mentioned three times, only to be asked a favor! Who is important here — the reader, or the company sending out the mailer?

Also, don’t dare ask for a favor or referral until you’ve earned it. Why put your hand out before you’ve given your customer anything in return for his time? This is “upside-down” psychology, and, I hate to tell you, it is wildly ineffective.

Paragraph No. 2

“So for our special custom-ers…” OK, this is barely enticing me to read the sentence, but then I’m hit with “…who know we take pride in our work.” Once again, the door slams shut with the self-congratulatory comment. “Know” is presumptuous. “Pride” has an air of arrogance. “Our” and “we” just add fuel to the fire.

Paragraph No. 3

Graphically, the use of all capital letters REALLY MAKES IT LOOK LIKE YOU’RE YELLING. As for all those asterisks and exclamation marks, I have three simple words: Don’t do this. It doesn’t read well, and it looks unprofessional in a business setting. You want to convey a feeling of authority and of uniqueness in the offer without having to resort to mind-numbing ploys.

Just use a clean, bolded typestyle (such as Arial, my favorite) for headlines or subheads. Let your words do the work. Let your graphics support the words. You’ll do fine.

The numbered items must contain real, meaningful benefits for the reader. You must tell readers why it’s a good deal and how they come out ahead. You must give them logical reasons to move toward the phone. Numbered items can work, because this draws attention. Sometimes readers skip down to this area quickly (like you perhaps?) to see, “What’s in it for me?”

If they come away unimpressed, the letter goes into the trash.

The summary section is virtually non-existent. I don’t know why “$59” is so darn important or special. Tell me. Did I really get a good offer?

Putting “Thank you…” in quotes is meaningless. Who said it? Sometimes putting material in quotes in a headline can pull a reader down into the copy to see who’s talking. However, in the body of a letter (or as a tag line in an ad) it is not a good idea.

“The Management” is once again too cold and too stiff, even though the goal is to appear professional. Customers want recognition and warmth. Give it to them in simple terms.

Think of your direct mail campaign as sending out thousands of salespeople. Each one should have a clear message of benefit. And — like a salesperson — let your letter speak in friendly, exacting, and beneficial terms that respect the value of a customer’s time. If you do this, you can have a sales letter that pulls leads automatically, and you can use it whenever you need a boost in sales.

Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, whose motto is “Creative Marketing That Works.” He can be reached at 800-489-9099. Fax a sheet of your letterhead and your ads or sales letters to him for a free critique at 334-262-1115 (fax).

Sidebar: Finding a Good Response Rate

Do a break-even analysis with any offer. Take the cost of the promotion and divide by the profit per item offered. That’s how many sales it’ll take to break even. Using your closing ratio, you can see exactly how many leads you’ll need to make your promotion pay off.

A tune-up or maintenance agreement letter sent to an active customer base should pull double-digit response rates. A system offer to non-customers pulls lower response rates, 1% or so, but it can still be very profitable (as seen in example 2, below).

Example 1: A letter much like the example in this article was mailed to 1,400 people. To date, only four responses have come in. That’s a 0.2% response rate — not good. With a powerful headline, more emphasis on customer benefits, and a much higher-value offer, the response rates could have been staggering.

Example 2: A Florida contractor and I reworked an older letter of his that had performed reasonably well. He sent out 2,630 with a similar offer to one he had tried before. Sent largely to non-customers, it had a significantly higher pull rate than any previous attempt. He got 58 responses and sold 21 systems for $88,890 in sales in one month.

Publication date: 10/23/2000