[Editor's note: At the 2004 Air Conditioning Contractors of America Conference, Chris Colditz, co-owner of Laco Mechanical Services, Palatine, Ill., presented a session titled "Under 15 Employees: Growing and Improving Effectiveness and Image." Due to time constraints, she was unable to provide all of the information she had on her agenda. She agreed to provideThe Newswith her full report. This is her third of four installments.]

It is amazing how few times contractors say thanks to their customers. It means so much to the customer and takes very little of the contractor's time. The rewards are endless, especially for a small firm.

Saying thanks for a new customer referral is the least expensive way of getting new customers. In every newsletter you send, for instance, you are saying, "Hey, if you liked our work, refer us to your friends, neighbors, and family."

At our firm, we give this very plain message: Refer us and we will give you "LacoBucks." This means they get a wild green-colored certificate worth $10. It looks like any game board money, but sized bigger.

In this example, each $10 credit is to be used only with a Laco purchase. This is deliberate. It generates more business for Laco, and only for Laco. Each has an expiration date of one year, because it creates a sense of urgency for them to use the credit sooner than later. When we want to expand either our residential market or commercial market, we offer double bucks.

Another thanks in the newsletter also increases the tech's efficiency. If five or more customers in a three-block radius or in a condo complex agree to get their system checked on a specific day, all participating are given a discount. With gasoline prices expected to rise this summer, this is a moneymaker (as well as a gas saver). In the end, you get one or two new customers in a given area, and you get the bonus of traveling less.

Send Gifts

We also give subtle thanks for our customers. When a part needs replacing, we will check for any warranties, check the age of the unit, and make sure the customer has all the information necessary to make a "best buy" decision.

Many times, I get a reply of, "I really appreciated that information." So, we have thanked our customer by giving the gift of time and information.

After any installation over $1,000, a small gift is sent saying thanks. At our firm, the current gift is canned cashews in a special tin ($16) from a store specializing in nuts.

We get calls and written notes thanking us for sending the thank-you gift. What more could you ask for?

Small companies should never be ashamed of sending small gifts. If you send a bigger gift, it sometimes promotes the wrong image of being wasteful.

For the holidays, our firm often sends a Thanksgiving card or a very early winter holiday card. Never is it a Christmas card and never does it contain any advertising.

A refrigerator magnet is included, in a new color or format. The cards are from the Wildlife Foundation, which are more expensive than some others. However, these cards make the statement that Laco believes in conserving the environment. Second, customers will again call and thank us for the lovely card, which they add to their holiday decorations.

We find out that some customers add the new magnet to their Laco magnet collection, proudly displayed on their refrigerator. Believe it or not, some customers proudly have shown their collection to new Laco techs. (In truth, I was completely surprised to hear customers were saving our magnets, but they do.)

Just look at the bonus of sending holiday cards. We are wishing our customers a very happy holiday season. Potential new customers get a sense of what type of company Laco is, because the cards are sent to the new residents at an existing Laco address. And, our techs are getting a strong message of how we care about our customer family.

Thank Interior Customers, Too

Thanking techs is also important. In our case, we gain a great deal by thanking our techs' significant others. We give out restaurant gift certificates for a special evening. This is very welcome when the overtime hours have been long. A good idea is to make sure the tech isn't called during that special evening.

Another way we thank our techs for overtime work on Saturdays is to buy breakfast that morning. First, they are impressed the owners are getting up on a Saturday to join them.

Second, we get to eat with them and have great conversations. We will also often buy lunch, especially if Saturday's work is all day in a commercial area and restaurants are at a distance. We are saying, "Hey, we value you giving up a Saturday." We get a wealth of good-will in return.

At Christmas and the holidays, we give all the staff restaurant gift certificates. We have given up on a holiday dinner party. It is too expensive for a small company. Plus, it can be embarrassing for the tech whose date stood him up or the couple who are having the fight of the century.

Instead, we have a company holiday lunch at a local steak place. Everyone is in work clothes and dining is casual. No stress on table manners and no strain on dress requirements. Most spouses are grateful not to have to meet the boss.

Each tech gets a tool certificate calculated at $10 per month of employment at Laco.

Since some meters are very expensive, the techs start creating a wish list early. Again, this benefits the tech and the company. We buy the tools at our discounted price and the tech has great tools to do a great job.

We are always looking for new ways to say thanks to both the internal and external customers. It makes us feel better and the customers love us. What more can you ask for?

In the next installment: Some steps to include when seeking payment.

Chris Colditz is co-owner of Laco Mechanical Services, Palatine, Ill. She can be reached at 847-358-3300; 847-358-8710 (fax); ccolditz@lacomech.com.

Publication date: 07/05/2004