Selling yourself: Like it or not, marketing matters.
I started my Handyman business in Los Angeles, CA back in 1999 after leaving a 23-year sales career. I made a good living in sales, but it wasn’t satisfying. I’ve always been interested in fixing things, and even more interested in working with wood.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot — there’s a huge difference between the work I do today and the funky 1×10 knotty-pine nailed-together bookcase I built for my bedroom as a kid. Today, the jobs I enjoy most, and the ones I make the most money on, involve fine finish work, including custom cabinets, bookcases, and built-ins of every type.
But I didn’t build a successful business just by doing built-ins!
Many times I get into a customer’s door by doing a small handyman repair. After checking out their house, I always recommend something: a little crown molding in the entry, new baseboard, or new casing to help improve their home.
In Southern California, that approach allowed me to quickly build my business up to four guys and two trucks. What a nightmare that was! I decided to close it down and move all the way across country to North Carolina and start all over again at the age of 50 — no, not a mid-life crisis! See my bio below.
In no time at all, I discovered that the folks in North Carolina needed built-ins and finish carpentry work, too. And my marketing and sales skills put me a step above the competition. A lot of the homes here have niches on one or both sides of the fireplace. That’s turned into a profit center for me. I specialize in designing and building bookcases and cabinets for big screen televisions, along with built-ins for closets, laundry rooms, and bathrooms.
|I use a Festool saw and guide rail to break down sheet goods, because my shop is too small to move around full sheets.|
Here in North Carolina, I decided to concentrate on custom built-in bookcases and entertainment centers at a mid-range price. What I mean by mid-range is that my units are priced for middle-class folks that can’t afford high-end cabinet-shop prices, yet they don’t want to buy something at a furniture store and have to assemble it.
|Once the sheets are broken down, I size them to finished dimensions on my table saw|
Besides, they often need a custom unit made for a specific space. Believe me, there’s a large market for this need. With the recent slowdown, my business has been hurt some — I’m not booked in advance as far as I used to be. But there’s still demand for affordable custom-made built-ins and finish work. I can easily make a nice living and profit at this level.
But in reality, my business is much more dependent on marketing than it is on carpentry. Yes, carpenters have to market themselves! And “sales” is not a four-letter word. In fact, if you want to do the type of work you enjoy, you’d better get comfortable with selling yourself. Otherwise nobody knows who or what you do.
Since I had prior experience in sales, I decided the best method was to put an ad under handyman services in the main Yellow Pages directory. I went with a dollar bill size ad that stood out and attracted attention. In the ad, I listed some of the custom work I enjoyed doing — bookcases and entertainment centers, but most importantly, I said I did small jobs. I said it twice! In huge letters. It’s very important to have large-size print in your ad; after all, the purpose of an ad is to attract attention.
What’s a small job for me? Anything. Anything that gets me in the door. Usually something from $75.00 to $500. I used the same technique to get started in my new home state that I used in Southern California. On the average, I get 4-6 calls a week.
The first thing a prospective client says is: “I see you do small jobs.”
“You bet,” I always reply with a big smile. “And no job is too small.”
People like to hear enthusiasm; they like to hear that you’re willing to work hard at anything — they take that to mean you’re willing to work hard to help them. That attitude gets me in their house almost every time; whether it’s for some small woodwork repair, to hang a picture, fix a drywall patch, or whatever.
Like I said, this system really works. Just don’t try it near where I live!
Once I’m in a customer’s home, I start looking around to see what else I can do, what kinds of work I can recommend: maybe a French door, maybe wainscoting, or crown molding; maybe a deck, a bookcase or cabinet unit. I try to learn what the people like about their home, how they live, what they might not like, too. As soon as I see an opening, I make a recommendation and get out my picture book — my portfolio. My book is nothing special, trust me — it’s just a collection of photographs from jobs I’ve done, and some clippings from magazines of stuff I’ve always thought looked cool. I show that picture book to the wife and husband and point out some ideas they might like. Remember, most women — in fact, most people — don’t have the experience we have with carpentry, and they aren’t visual, they cannot imagine something in their home unless they see it in a picture or drawing. So it’s not necessary to make a hard sell. I just offer suggestions, in a friendly kind of way.
I might point at their living room and say: “Oh, how funny! I did a pair of built-in cabinets just a month ago for a home that had those same niches beside the fireplace. The people wanted a large television and didn’t know where to put it.”
Or I might say: “Wow, what a nice view you have out these windows! Some day you should put in a French door right here, with a deck outside! That would really open up your home!”
Forty percent of the time I make a sale — I’ve tracked it. Twenty-five percent of the time, it’s finish work and cabinets—my favorite. The customers often respond the same way: “Honey, this would look nice in this room” or “Gosh, we’ve been looking for someone to do some built-ins for us,” or “We were thinking of putting a deck out there, too!”
My picture book is in a notebook with non-glare sleeves and glossy pictures — it’s no fancy portfolio. In fact, I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons I succeed is because I don’t put on any airs. I’m just a carpenter my customers can trust.
I take photographs of all my work with a good digital camera — and that’s as important a tool as my table saw. I print the photos out — including some of the process shots showing how I build things, so my customers can see the whole story. People are drawn to good stories, just like they’re drawn to good craftsman. In fact, I tell a story about each picture in my book — I talk about the clients, their kids, or their dog. And I show the customers different details with every photograph. I print the photographs in different sizes, so the book is more like a storybook, with some of my best jobs in full-page prints, along with close-ups in 4×6 prints that show details about the construction or the installation.
In fact, I include a full story-board of a typical job from the rough sketch to the finish product, including each step of cutting, assembly, and installation, from the carcass to the doors, so my customers can see that I build everything myself, that my shop isn’t a huge fancy factory, that they’ll be working with only one person — me.
I also have photographs of different cabinet details, from doors to crown molding, from fluting options on pilaster to arched openings on bookcases, and glass shelves with lights. I want my customers to pick something that they like right then and there. After all, why have to come back for a second sales call, or a design session, if you can accomplish everything on the same trip — and get paid for fixing the loose hinges on their front door at the same time!
If you’re not getting enough action from an advertisement in the Yellow Pages, another idea I use is buying a list of new homeowners from a lead source, which you can find online, then do a mailing. I have an oversize postcard made up that promotes my handyman service and custom built-ins. From this source I usually get a 10% response rate, which is not bad. As you get going, remember your best referrals will be from prior customers — so make sure you leave behind happy customers! You’ll need to have quite a few lead sources coming in to keep you busy.
|I join all my cabinets with dominos, which work better for me than biscuits (Anyone need a slightly used biscuit joiner?).|
|Dominos register the pieces flush in both directions, so fastening is much faster.|
Selling Yourself: ABT
ABT means Always Be Thinking! When you go to an appointment for an estimate, or to do a job, Always Be Thinking! What else you can do for these people? What else can you offer them that you can do well? Remember, most of these people first see me as a handyman, not a custom carpenter, till I show them pictures of my work. Let me tell you what I mean.
I went to an appointment several months ago, in the late afternoon. I usually have just finished working for the day, so I am wearing my work clothes — sort of messed up, you know what I mean. And I’m wearing my American flag bandana (you can see it in the photos), which has been one of my trademarks since 2000. So I show up looking pretty down to earth, maybe a little strange, too!
Well these people look at me and say, “Come on in!” It’s great to see their faces at first. We sit down at their dining room table and I can tell by the look on their faces that they’re not really sure who or what I am. It was just great!
I opened my picture book and after looking at 6-8 photographs, their whole attitude changed. The wife saw a picture of bead board on a kitchen cabinet wall with open shelves and said, “That would look great on our kitchen island.” BAM got um! The husband said, “Come with me down to the basement and let me show you what I want.” After viewing his den and talking over a few ideas, I priced a small custom oak bar, two bookcases, and bead board around a window seat in their kitchen. After all was said and done, we were talking about $5,000 worth of work. Of course they hadn’t planned on spending that much. I went there to price a single bookcase. But I kept my mouth shut and let them do the talking. In the end, they decided to do it all. And even if they hadn’t, I would have sewn seeds for future work on their home.
|I make the raised panels, too, on the same router table, so planning is really important in my little shop.|
Here’s another example: I received a referral from a store to install four appliances, which, if my arm is twisted, I will do. I did the job, but after showing them my book, I ended up building a room divider between the living room and family room made from two-knee wall cabinets topped with custom columns. Then they hired me to paint their entryway. Then they referred me to a friend who wanted some custom cabinets and a rustic fireplace mantel. All together, from a small handyman appliance job of $500.00, I drew in $9,000 of additional work. All due to ABT — Always Be Thinking.
I have been told by my peers that “I am the real deal:” I come across as genuine; I have enthusiasm and a positive attitude at my appointments. People see that. It’s infectious. And I close 85% of my jobs. I usually plan on a two-appointment close: the first meeting is to gather information; the second meeting is to go back with a price and ideas of what their unit will look like, how it might improve their house (And this is all without SketchUp! I have GOT to learn how to use that program!).
Advertising, cards, and signs
Advertising works, but you have to work it. I also run a small ad in the local paper under the home service directory, which runs only $20.00 per week. I put my email address in this ad and 1-2 times a week I get an email for an estimate. I try to handle those estimates on the phone, with a quick call, just to make sure I’ll be doing the job when I go there.
|Making the doors slows me down some, which is a good thing. You can’t enjoy what you’re doing if you’re always hurrying.|
Trust me, business cards get you business, but, once again, you have to work them. I always carry fresh looking, full color business cards. You can order them online from places like Vistaprint. They’re very inexpensive. Give out your cards daily. Set a goal to hand out ten cards per day to anybody. If you’re standing in line at the local home center, turn to the person behind you and say: “Hey, here’s my card. I do custom built-ins and handyman service. If I can help you out sometime, let me know.” Believe me, the people won’t bite you, and they can’t run away either! Ten cards a day, times 365 days, is 3,650 cards a year. If only 1% call you, that’s 36 jobs you did not have before. It works.
|Yes, I’ve invested in a lot of good tools that make my job easier, more enjoyable, and more precise, but they all pay for themselves, even my Euro-hinge jig. Take a look at the Blum Ecodrill.
Vehicle signs also work very well and say clearly what you do. They should include your phone number in very large and clear print. I have signs on the sides and rear of my truck. Make sure that a sign is on the back, so when people are stopped at a light they can call you up. It works! I’ve seen people actually grab their cell phone and call me on the spot. It happens 3-4 times a month.
There’s a lot of work out there. You just have to be willing to work to get it.
Kreg McMahon was born in 1954, when real woodshop was still taught in high school. And that’s where he got his first taste of woodworking, that and playing in the new post-war housing tracts in the San Fernando Valley. His father’s side of the family was in sales, and his mother’s side was in construction, so it’s not surprising that’s Kreg spent the first half of his life in sales. From the age of 12, Kreg has knocked on people’s doors to ask if they had any small jobs to do: weeding, cleaning, trash removal. Kreg has sold Amway, insurance, and advertisements in the Yellow Pages. But he’s now in the second half of his life — working as a carpenter and running a one-man business: “Honey-Do Handyman and Carpentry Service.” For inspiration and new tips, Kreg turns to the HGTV Network and the New Yankee Workshop. He likes to say: “There’s always something to learn.”
You should know that Kreg moved to North Carolina for several reasons — not because of a mid-life crisis! He wanted to find that simple place in time, someplace that reminded him of Springfield, MO, where, as a boy, he used to visit relatives, and really enjoyed the old brick houses, the large front porches, and the landscape. He heard that Charlotte, NC was similar, so off he went, in search of yesterday today.
Kreg’s other reason for moving was economic: he wanted to get out of the rat race of Southern California, but still needed to work. He did his homework and knew there would be enough demand in Charlotte to support the type of work he enjoys most. Unfortunately, it’s been a tough move. His wife had to stay behind so their daughter could finish out high school. Kreg’s been flying back and forth 6-7 times a year to visit them. But now his daughter has finished high school and his wife might soon be moving back — unless she’s changed her mind, and if Kreg gets his table saw out of the living room!
Kreg’s real passion is ROCK AND ROLL! He’s a drummer and played in rock bands during high school. His one regret is never making the BIG TIME. But from an early age, female groupies have always been a distraction. These days, after work and on weekends, you’ll find Kreg on the front porch, listening to music and maybe sitting around with a few friends, telling old stories about the past, and making creative munchies! He’s a holdover from the sixties; still follows the rock crowds; still attends eight or nine concerts every year; and always wears an American Flag Bandana.
Though it started out as a way to keep the sweat off his brow (his ears are too small to hold a pencil!), that bandana has become a trademark, especially since 9-11. Few friends would recognize Kreg if he wasn’t wearing that bandana. But they’d recognize his voice, and his smile: Kreg’s greatest satisfaction is helping and entertaining people — solving a problem in someone’s home, building a beautiful entertainment center a customer can enjoy, making people laugh.