Direct mail can be the most lucrative marketing tool you’ll ever use. The cost, instantaneous response, and sheer controllability of direct mail makes it a superb lead generator. Plus, it’s a great fit for hvac contractors due to the high-margins in a relatively uninformed marketplace.

Yet most contractors use it very poorly. They waste wads of money on ineffective mailings because like most people attempting direct mail, they were never educated in it.

Education comes from skill and experience. Although our arsenal of letters end up in roughly two million mailboxes a year, I’m still learning with every mail-out.

So here are the most common, yet easily fixed, direct mail mistakes.

The wrong list

You can offer me a free nuclear submarine, and even if I could melt small countries before cruising to Borneo undetected, I’m not interested. So when you send your “$79 Tune-up Special” to apartment dwellers, or “Furnace Replacement” offer to new homes, you’re wasting good postage.

And when you send your “$500 Rebate” to customers who just paid you the full book price, you’re asking for an angry phone call.

Use either your in-house customer list or a list from a good broker according to these three things:

1. The primary interest or applicability;

2. The perceived or encourageable need; and

3. The ability to pay for the service.

The wrong message (part one)

Your company’s message and selling proposition should be clear in every mailing.

Spread your mailings for the last year flat on a table. Is there a unifying thread? Sadly, if you’re like 80% of hvac contractors, probably not.

Are you the low-price leader? The blue-blood dealer? The high-service place? Are you only sending out manufacturers’ pieces?

Who are you and what do you stand for? Make this point in at least a minor way with every public message. The public will make the association, I promise.

The wrong envelope

Here’s an obvious yet overlooked statement: If people don’t open your envelope, it’s going to be darned hard for them to respond to the offer.

Most hvac contractors put mailings in company envelopes with stick-on labels that virtually scream, “I’m junk!”

If you insist on letterhead, warn your prospects with a well-worded envelope teaser, such as, “If you’ll take 4 minutes to read this letter, I’ve got a $50 bill and another ‘secret’ gift that will make your time worthwhile.” Then offer $50 off an annual maintenance call (or whatever). The gift can be a service coupon.

On “Direct Response” offers, many choose the well-tested, personal-looking hand- or laser-addressed mail with a simple return address. Then use a “live” postage stamp to complete the effect. This typically outpulls company-looking mail.

The wrong message (part two)

Do you have “friends” who only seem to call to ask a favor? What kind of friend are you when you do this to your customers?

Friends like to do business with real friends.

There are many “non-selling” mail-outs that make money. Ironic as it sounds, the interspersing of non-sales messages improves your sales message responses. Why? Because you’re building trust, and trust rewards with a like-kind response.

Use “Happy Cards” to thank customers, appointment-reminder cards, or maybe an “I’m checking in on you” card following your proposal.

My all-time favorite is a well-written newsletter. There are some truly terrible examples out there, but good newsletters are a gold mine. They inform, entertain, befriend, and softly ask for the sale.

Newsletters reflect relationships more than money. Consider sending one two to four times per year, then watch your repeat sales and referrals soar.

The wrong preparation

Some people think that when an offer underperforms, it’s only a little wasted postage. But that’s only a fraction of your true loss.

Let’s say 5,000 untested letters produce a 0.75% response — not bad. But if you had tested and found that a headline change produced a 1.2% response, your leads would have risen from 37 to 60 and average system sales (based on a 35% closing ratio) would’ve gone from 13 to 21.

This little bit of wasted postage actually cost you $35,000 in sales.

Test at least 1,000 pieces. When you achieve your benchmark (1%±), roll out the rest.

The wrong proofreader

There’s an industry copywriter whose direct mail reads pretty good. Yet you soon notice seven typos, improper grammar, poor punctuation, and enough other ills to bring your high school English teacher to tears.

No matter how good your offer may be, such mistakes reek of unprofessionalism. No big deal, you say? Dan Quayle achieved the Vice Presidency, yet he’s mostly remembered for misspelling “potatoes.”

Get a good proofreader to save you embarrassment and money.

You can also “junk up” by just plain overdoing it. You’ve seem them: logos everywhere, a few reckless offers, a starburst with another feature, clip art of “Wally the Friendly Service Tech,” then something witty like “Get Some Cool Deals During Our Summer Sell-A-Bration!” Just stop it.

Talk to homeowners like human beings who want to improve their lives in some measurable way. That’s all.

The wrong audience

Open your Yellow Pages right now, any section. Look for phrases like, “We’re the biggest, oldest, fastest, best, cheapest, most convenient, won the most awards, hold several degrees and belong to many organizations.”

You see a similar trend in poorly conceived direct mail. It’s not written for the customer; they could care less. It sounds like it’s been written for the ceo.

Just tell your prospects how this benefits them, and you will be light years ahead of your self-impressed, babbling competition.

Grab a direct mail letter. Count the first-person pronoun use (I, me, we, us, our) versus the second-person use (you, your, etc.). When you tally up the results, you’ll see whom the writer was most interested in.

Prospects don’t count this score, but the message comes through loud and clear.

Your prospect’s most important person is him/herself. Remember this or your letter will be in the trash.

Good copywriters can build value and benefits so high that a customer’s main question becomes, “Why wouldn’t I call them?” Offer value, express value, and above all, give value.

The wrong close

This is like a teenage boy walking up to a beautiful girl at a dance and staring at her. Do you want to dance, or drool?

Your customer is dying to dance with someone who is going to treat them fairly, honestly, and respectfully. Isn’t that you?

If you leave out your “call to action,” you leave them hanging.

Be firm but polite: “Call us now for your free Indoor Air Quality survey.” You can even be casually firm: “Call us today (even Saturday) and say, ‘I want the best a/c in town, with no money down!’”

Relatedly, not following up is an unforgivable sin. You pay for the list, the letter, the stuffing and the postage. You get some leads and that’s great. But if you wait a few more days, you’re long forgotten.

Interesting point: 7% to 12% may have considered calling you, but only 1% to 3% actually did. The phone rang, the baby cried, and dinner was burning. The next day came and you weren’t on their mind at all. Nothing personal, just short-term memory doing its job.

A direct mail offer can be improved by 277% on average with one simple twist: the call behind. Have an office worker or a bona fide telemarketer call to set up the appointment, restate the offer, and perhaps close the sale.

You can raise this response even higher if you’ll “pre-market” your telemarketer with a blurb in your letter: “We’ll be calling in the next few days to make sure you received this letter and answer any questions you may have.”

So get a good list, a good letter, and do some good follow up. Soon you’ll love direct mail as much as we do!