Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe NEWSsome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Attracting More Business

Dear Al,

My customers write me great letters telling me how pleased they are with my service and installation work. I know my techs really care about our customers and they take great pride in what they do. We answer the phones live and a whole lot more.

Frankly, I know my competition is no match. But my phone doesn't ring nearly enough and we battle to stay busy.

What can I do?

Make The Phone Ring

Dear Make The Phone Ring,

You have a great story to tell! The problem is you lack the marketing dedication or skill to get your message out to potential customers.

Most of us who grew up as a tech first rather than a businessperson are used to the calls automatically rolling in. But it doesn't work that way in business. You've got to let prospective customers know all the great stuff you do. And this requires that you get proactive about marketing. Here's a quick list of things to do:

1. Get permission to use those great letters from customers in your marketing efforts. They are testimonials to your excellent service and installation work.

2. Go to at least four other homes near the customer you serviced and leave a doorknob hanger letting them know you're serving their neighbor.

3. Create a marketing budget that is minimally 4 percent of your annual sales all the way up to 15 percent of sales if you want to be really aggressive.

4. Create a marketing allocation that allows you to get the calls you need when you slow down. This means you need to do marketing beyond the standard Yellow Pages. Here are just a few ideas:

a. Direct mail postcards.

b. Radio ads.

c. Cable ads.

d. Home shows.

5. Create a marketing calendar that has a trigger for stepping up your marketing when you're heading into your known slow times.

Do these things and your phone will be ringing off the hook.

Al Levi

Struggling To Stay Afloat

Dear Al,

I started as a tech and was out of a job because the company I worked for went out of business. I bought a truck and began to handle calls out of my home. For a while, my wife and I felt we were making money because I'd come home with checks and cash. Then, the bills piled in and we found out we had to keep borrowing money to keep the business going.

I have hired a number of consultants over the years and the advice was good but I'm deeper in debt. This is beginning to affect my marriage and I worry about putting my kids through college and someday being able to retire.

What should I do?

Deep In Debt

Dear Deep In Debt,

I understand how frustrated you must be. And I understand you've been working hard and investing heavily to make things work out. But there comes a time when you have to make some tough decisions.

Is it time to consider bankruptcy? It's certainly time to investigate this possibility with a lawyer who specializes in this. It's not pleasant but sometimes staying afloat or getting things turned around requires we do unpleasant things.

Is it time to sell off assets or the entire business? Maybe it is. This is never easy to tell someone. But if you've given it all you've got and have now placed your life savings at risk, it's time to salvage what you can and move on. Obviously, someone could use a talented person like you. Maybe there's something else you should be doing.

There is no shame!

The only shame is failing to be truthful with yourself and delaying action that's needed, which only puts you and your family deeper in debt.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 12/12/2005