My furnace is just so insensitive. It doesn’t care at all about my economic needs. Here we are on the eve of the vast holiday season, where fun, frivolity, and the collective shooing of over-served relatives will soon be heard throughout the land. This extra in-home traffic, increased system usage, and changing of the seasons will equate to more in-home service calls for the 873rd year in a row. Those are givens that can be loosely translated as get ready or get left behind.

Another given for this time of year is increased competition for what I call share of wallet. In essence, mail, email, and other media will begin pounding us to cough up money to buy things - shiny, expensive, decorative, redundant things. (Author’s Marital Tip of the Month: If you’re shopping for a female, make sure your gifts are not terribly useful, lest you want this to be your winter of discontent.)

With this, the market need for in-home service will increase. Good. The market competition is high, yet attraction for service need is fairly low. Not so good. Now if your subconscious is saying, “What about the recession,” tell your subconscious to shut up and re-read the headline.

Three minor recessionary points in your favor: People are more prone to pay for needs than wants. (Strange marketing and sales tip: Your job is to make them want the needs.) Second, since they’re being urged to spend more in this season than others, that message can only help your cause. Third, your direct competition has probably pulled back on marketing, even though the market demand is about to increase.

The marketing answer to all this holiday commotion is to cleverly penetrate competitive forces with sanely-budgeted differentiation.

This is a departure from the marketing myopia that causes many to mimic retailers’ holiday sales pitches. If you advertise a giant holiday sale, please ask yourself how many customers really want to give blower motors to their loved ones.

In fact, it is pointless for a contractor to send sales messages between Dec. 10 and Jan. 12. Not only will your efforts most likely wind up discarded, but you will also earn a spot on the list of insensitive hawkers.

What marketing messages work best during the holidays?

• Rebates, cash, tax incentives. These are especially effective in the current economy. Use them extensively from November through January. Focus heavily on either “Cash Back for the Holidays” rebates and/or the tax incentive for replacements, urging compliance for this year’s tax credit. (Want an audio CD on how to market tax credits? See end.)

• Seasonally-effective guarantees. Many people put off having contractors come into their decorated homes and adding to the general seasonal discord. Thus, offer “We’ll leave your home as clean or cleaner than we found it or we’ll pay you $100 cash.” This strategy stands out and is very effective. Leads will greatly outpace your unwarranted concern that homeowners will take advantage. (We have seven other guarantees we recommend that stand out, space here restricts. Call if you get stuck.)

• Creative discounts. Before the season hits hard, offer discounts that support savings towards holiday cash needs. Tie the savings you’re offering into helping pay for other gifts, such as “How to Turn This Postcard into an iPod.” That one is new for us this year, but clients have successfully used variations on it for years. We’ve also done well with “Have A Repair Free Holiday,” which introduces the maintenance agreement program.

• Publicity and charitable giving. Call your local Habitat for Humanity (our newest charitable donation partner) and inquire about upcoming participatory projects. Alternatively, call your television news for the same purpose; telling either that you’d like to get involved. If you’re granted airtime, make sure of three things: Thank the other volunteers; encourage other service businesses and individuals to help; and wear company attire with a company truck nearby. Good-heart marketing is real; people are naturally attracted to support those who support others.

• Send thanks. If you can only do one of these, do this one. Every year I urge contractors to do this. To be a guaranteed standout, send a unique holiday card - not the same cartoony junk everybody’s sick of - with a nice, thankful message or a little humor. Studies show that stability and humor have risen in response ranks this year. It is a good idea to follow this trend.

When working on implementing your holiday message strategy, try some of these:

• Forget the envelope. Save money and use a self-mailer card. Use the money you would’ve thrown away on sending more cards.

• Send first class. Holiday stamp preferred. This way you scrub your list, which should be done twice a year. This is among the cheapest methods.

• A clever twist. Last year, Yelverton’s Electric used our cards but asked about including a coupon, which almost made me violent. However, he’s so smart it gave me an idea. We termed the coupon as a gift certificate and he sold $17,460 of service in January from card keepers. Who said I couldn’t learn?

• Choose the right image. I beg you, please do not show Santa or a snowman trying to get warm. Kids, animals, happy scenes, and unique scenes - supported by uniquely warm messages - deliver a better, higher-image message.

• Video cards. In addition to your holiday card, you can make a short video from your company to post on YouTube. Sing a holiday song no matter how poorly, or just thank customers for being your customers. If it’s especially heartwarming or funny, you can bet that the link will get forwarded well beyond your customer base. Put the link to this video in your email signature and in your holiday cards for more exposure.

• Share and share alike. Look, for many contractors - and well, everyone else - this has been a tough year. Why not share the expense of holiday marketing by using a cross-promotion with a non-competitor, like a plumber, a restaurant, or movie theater? In exchange for discounted services, tickets, or free appetizers, include these with your holiday mailing.

Likewise, the restaurant can give out your holiday cards (with a clever sales twist as mentioned above) with each meal ticket. It’s a win-win at almost no cost to either of you. Plus it’s an awesome way to gain access to a valuable list, adding to your own.

Bottom Line: The holidays are full of opportunities to get out front and stay there. Don’t waste this built-in opportunity to generate leads, goodwill, and future sales. I promise you, if you retreat during the holidays, you’ll have more “Silent Nights” than you ever wanted. Get bold, get creative, have fun, and join the furnaces who have thankfully forgotten there’s a recession. Maybe we should learn from them.