“Contract Customers Only”: What a local HVAC Business Can Teach Your Marketing Program About True Emergencies and Planning

The way Simpatico does business, there’s a lot to be proud of. But as a marketing studio, there’s nothing we’re more proud of than sending new customers knocking on our clients’ doors. Usually, we drum up business for clients just by running damn good marketing campaigns. Other times, though, we trip over opportunities for our clients in casual settings, outside office hours, mid-conversation with colleagues, neighbors, friends, or family.

The latter scenario unfolded most recently in early March. With the first of four nor’easters inbound, there came a late-night SOS, in the form of a Facebook notification, from one of the private community groups I frequent:

“HELP! Furnace won’t turn on. Don’t want my pipes to freeze tonight… Anyone know an emergency heating contractor?”

Well, it just so happened I did. Simpatico has both used, and handled marketing for, a growing regional HVAC business for north of two years. Among the top claims in their playbook? “24/7 Emergency Service.”

I screenshotted the post, and texted it to the VP, who’s also become a friend. “Got a lead for ya!”

Three dots took turns bouncing in iMessage. Then, the reply came: “No can do. Contract customers only.”

Contract customers only? I thought. What’s with that? Here was a perfectly good referral—revenue at the ready—and they were turning it away. Why?

Turns out, earlier that week, our HVAC client had revised their snowstorm policy. Now, in the event of emergencies, they didn’t just dispatch service vehicles to homes with maintenance contracts first—they dispatched to contract customers exclusively.

It was a response to overwhelming demand. Whenever the weather hit, they couldn’t keep up with all the cries for help from unprepared homeowners. So they stopped trying. Instead, they made a priority the people who prioritized them: the hundreds of households who’d already given them a commitment.

“We’re a relationship business,” the owner later told me. “We don’t want to be Broken Furnace 911.”

Beware the No-Obligation Promises

It’s a fact: As marketing programs mature, they experience growing pains. What begins as an itch to update a logo quite quickly becomes a mess of ideas, experiments, goals, initiatives, projects, campaigns and paperwork that, to remain reconciled, integrated and in-harmony, requires full-time attention from dedicated resources.

Which is why I scoff a bit each time I see competitors making zero-obligation promises to any and all prospective clients. We don’t do retainers! they exclaim. Project basis only! No contracts here! Cancel any time! And on and on.

Don’t get me wrong; Simpatico makes many of the same promises—up to a point. For our part, project-basis work is fine when the relationship is new, since it commits neither party beyond the initial scope of work, and makes for a no-hard-feelings ‘out’ if things aren’t working; it’s fine when the parameters and timeline are finite, agreed upon and made clear; it’s fine for established, sophisticated marketeers who have hit their stride and who are well-resourced, except for that one thing they need their agency for.

Where it’s not fine is in marketing programs that have yet to coalesce, or that are deeply layered, or which are otherwise ruled by ambiguity and ad-hoc needs. Third parties who promise they can resource you on a moment’s notice with no commitment from you—without understanding whether said needs will require two experts for a half-day or 200 for a year—are essentially promising they can drop everything to go all-in on a ‘maybe’, move heaven and earth to make whims a priority, and have nothing to lose if leaders suddenly change their mind.

Plainly, that ain’t how business works. And for any discerning entrepreneur or marketing leader, blanket promises such as these ought to send red flags flying up their masts when candidate agencies make them.

Before People Will Commit to You, You Need to Commit to Them

For the past two years, my partner and I have had the privilege of teaching undergraduate marketing classes at our alma mater. Regardless of the course number or its content, day one, lesson one, is always the same: “When you work for an agency, you’re not in the marketing business. You’re not in the website business, or social media business, or direct mail business. You aren’t even in the design, or app, or idea business. You’re in the people business.”

We preach it and teach it because, in marketing, people are the critical variable. The measure of success for any tactic or discipline in our field is how effectively it moves prospective customers—people—to take favorable action to boost the top line. When it comes down to it, nothing else an agency does matters.

The dance of persuasion is well-chronicled in author Daniel H. Pink’s 2013 bestseller To Sell is Human. So says Pink, “The average person spends 40% of their life trying to move others. We’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got.”

Persuasion, then, is a long-term, if not lifelong exercise. The most successful businesses, in my experience, understand that, and aren’t shy about committing the resources necessary to make moving customers their marketing partner’s top priority. The flightiest businesses, on the other hand, do just the opposite: dangling carrots, beating around the bush, and never, in the end, following through—with their own goals, much less with us.

To understand how important commitment is to marketing success, we need only look backwards through the customer journey funnel. Start toward the bottom, at the point of purchase: Why do people buy? Psychological principle tells us people buy from companies who they recognize and consider trustworthy. Customers start using these qualities to describe our business, product, service, or cause not overnight, but over time. That’s the reason Anheuser-Busch sends the clydesdales prancing each holiday season, that LifeAlert still reminds seniors on daytime TV what do when they’ve fallen and can’t get up; it’s why Smokey Bear is still pointing his index finger at you after 75 years.

By balking at a marketing commitment, you’re effectively balking at the chance to make a million good first impressions, to start a million conversations, to earn a good reputation among a million people who might have spent money with you. If you can’t commit to earning the trust of your prospective customers, why in the world would they treat you any differently with their hard-earned money?

Marketing 911: When It’s Bad Planning vs. a True Emergency

You don’t need to run a 75-year campaign to keep your marketing goals from being left in the cold. Those brands which transcend their organizations and businesses, which ultimately take their seat among cultural icons and the zeitgeists of their contemporaries, are just the best examples of how effective persuasion is a multiple of time and effort. The truth is, prospective customers don’t care if your marketing budget is zero dollars or has a billion zeros; they just need to recognize and trust you before they’ll give you their money.

On Simpatico’s front door, beneath our logo, is a line that reads, “Create a Brand. Create a Plan. Create Demand.™” In part, it’s a promise to our clients. It’s the value we bring to the table. But it’s also our principal argument: You can’t expect customer demand unless you’ve first built a plan around proving yourself within your market. And plans, in case I forgot to mention it, take commitment.

With respect to your agency partner, commitment to your marketing goals is a function of first recognizing when you’ve outgrown project-based marketing help, and second, rallying a team not around another last-minute deadline, but around long-term commitment to your own success. Yep: I’m talking about a contract. Hey, if you’re serious about your goals, you’ve already made a contract with yourself, anyway. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t have people who both you can depend on, and who can depend on you.

That’s not to say everything in marketing land can be anticipated; quite the opposite. We build deliberate, adaptable programs understanding that communications crises are a thing, and that business and economic conditions change all the time. But if your marketing modus operandi is best described as last-minute, or ad hoc—if you find yourself withholding critical information from your team, and then uttering, “I need this by end of day”—you are emulating the flightiest businesses, not the most successful ones. And it’s a matter of time before your team stamps ‘return to sender’ on the request and says, “No can do. Contract customers only.”


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