FORTUNE Small Business:

The right client for the job

To make a profit, you must attract the right kind of customer, say FSB's experts.

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Get small-business intelligence from the experts. Here's a chance for YOU to ask your pressing small-business questions, and FSB editors will help you get answers from the appropriate experts.
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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: In a marketplace that increasingly views our business as nothing but a commodity, how can a small commercial construction business attract new clients and make a real profit?

- Kelly Markland, Chantilly, Va.

Dear Kelly: About 80,000 companies vie for their morsel of the $450 billion U.S. commercial construction industry, according to Hoovers, a research company. With the dampening economy enervating business, how can you get yours?

"To me it's all about attracting the right kind of client," says Zachary J. Shulman, who teaches entrepreneurship at Cornell University's business school. He suggested putting together professional marketing materials aimed at high-end projects.

To find your target customers, start by creating a marketing positioning statement, says Patricia Atallah, a director in Navigant Consulting's construction practice. In her blog, Atallah recommends asking the six 'W's.

- What business are we in?
- What services do we provide?
- Who are our target market(s)?
- What benefits do we offer to our customers?
- What are our credentials and track record?
- What is the company's core message?

The answers should come from a review of your market, an understanding of competitors, and feedback from those you've worked with on your capabilities, performance, and service. From this information develop a customer target list. Selection criteria should include choosing projects that suit your size and experience and spreading risk by diversifying your client base.

Defining your business goals shouldn't be taken lightly. "Your efforts won't yield positive results unless there's a real commitment to a consistent strategy and a willingness to invest a reasonable amount of effort and money," says Atallah, who authored the book Building a Successful Construction Company.

It is also important to go after clients with the right sensibilities. Customers with ongoing projects and who have an experienced staff are more likely to understand the complexity of the building process and thus the value of a qualified contractor, says Ted Guhr, director of business development at Tarlton Corporation, a construction firm in St. Louis. "You have to identify and target clients who view what you provide as a professional service, not a commodity that is purchased on a low-dollar basis," he adds.

One way to stand out is by provising great customer service. A good reputation will generate word of mouth advertising from customers, subcontractors, architects and engineers with whom you do business. The reward will be more work. "This is a lengthy process and does not happen overnight," says Guhr. "But the long-term value of repeatedly working for clients who recognize that you bring more to the table than lowest initial cost is well worth the investment."  To top of page

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