We all know — or, at least weshouldknow — the cost and value of finding and keeping customers. The cost can be as little as a few cents or as much as a few thousand dollars.

There are also many ways to find customers, including word-of-mouth, direct marketing, and purchasing mailing lists. However, I’m not sure too many people have heard of the method I shall reveal here.

Let me first set the scene. And because this is a true story, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. You’ll understand in a few minutes. Please read on.

In a recent discussion with a contractor (who shall be identified as Contractor A), an interesting topic came up.

A’s hometown is also the home to approximately 20 or so residential hvacr contractors, at least according to the local Yellow Pages.

Until last year, there was one more contractor (who shall be identified as Contractor B), but for whatever reasons, B went out of business. So, one less competitor for A, right?

In cases like this, a smart contractor would seize the opportunity to buy B’s business telephone number (thus assuring that B’s former customers would “accidentally” call the smart contractor for service). Another smart move would be to buy, at auction, B’s customer lists. Still another option would be to immediately start a direct marketing campaign, targeting former B customers that could be identified.

A tried the first two options, but without success. And, A really didn’t have access to customer names in order to try the third option. However, that all changed when the assets of B hit the auction block.


WhileAwas unable to extract the old phone number from the grasp of one of its competitors (who shall be identified as ContractorC),Astill had success gaining access to the old customers, much to the chagrin ofC, who had already purchased the customer list.

I’m not talking about anything illegal or involving espionage here. I’m talking about a simple oversight that wound up benefiting A in its customer acquisition/marketing campaign.

B’s assets were being auctioned off and A went to the site where the goods were on display. A’s interest was in buying some used office equipment. A’s company had recently moved to a new location and A wanted to pick up some inexpensive filing cabinets. Like most bargain hunters, A wanted to “kick the tires,” so A inspected the cabinets inside and out.

While opening the drawers of one file cabinet, A gazed upon a sight that was too good to be true. Tucked inside the drawers were customer invoices, representing all of B’s former customer base.

(Obviously, this was a simple oversight by B’s owners and/or the auctioneer. But, the ramifications were anything but simple.)

Knowing the importance of the find, A went home and mulled his obvious next move, and in the process, kept pinching himself. A returned to bid on the file cabinets and, in the end, A did get the cabinets with the invoices still tucked inside.

As quick as a wink, A had his employees load up the cabinets and they whisked them off to A’s shop. A was confident that he had stumbled onto a gold mine of information.

There was a problem, though. C had actually purchased the customer list, and, upon learning of A’s discovery, asked him to return the files. There was a mention of legal problems if the customer files were not returned.

However, after consulting with an attorney, A decided to keep the files, confident that an innocent oversight would not be the foundation for a legal battle. And, in this true story, A was right. A had legally obtained the file cabinets, by auction purchase, and was entitled to the contents. In this instance, C should have had the foresight to check all of the contents before the auction.

But again, who would have thought that B’s company records would be found in its old office furniture?

So for a few hundred bucks, A had a list of customers and customer histories that may have cost several times more to accumulate — as well as several years of direct marketing.

Will it pay off in the long run? I bet it does.

In this true story, A paid attention to the Xs and Os, while C wished B had minded its Ps and Qs. Bottom line: For A, this whole thing was just too … well … EZ.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); halljr@bnp.com.

Publication date: 05/14/2001