By Margie Zable Fisher
“In today’s times, with inventory and raw materials costing more, we need to make sure that we hold on to our margins,” says Susan Frew, president of Sunshine Home Services in Commerce City, Colorado.
Her advice? “It’s more important now than ever to have a way to compete on awesome and not on price. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a zero profit margin.”
Frew knows something about growing a business. In 2012, she grew her home services business from zero to $3 million in less than 24 months, and it has continued to grow.
In addition to founding and running a successful home services business, Frew is a TEDx speaker and author of the book “Compete on Awesome, Not Price.”
We asked Frew to share her story and business success tips with Thryv customers on a recent webinar (watch it here).
From Business Coach to Home Services Company Owner
After working in other organizations, Frew launched a business coaching company in Breckenridge, Colo., in 2007. She worked with hundreds of people in 18 different trades.
While she was coaching, she met her future husband, a master plumber and HVAC technician. In 2012 they married and decided to merge their collective talents. They created Sunshine Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning (now known as Sunshine Home Services), and eventually relocated to Denver.
With 950 competitors, the Denver market was stiff. “There were plumbers and HVAC companies just falling off trees,” she says. Yet they knew the business was recession-proof. Furnaces don’t stop breaking when recessions hit.
But trying to out-price 950 competitors was a sure-fire way to make zero profit. So the Frews decided to differentiate themselves with service.
How to Compete on Awesome, Not on Price
“Rule number one for competing on awesome is to do great work,” Frew explains. “Because it doesn’t matter what your marketing and everything else looks like if your work isn’t spot-on.”
Once your work is meeting high-quality standards, then you can look for ways to make that work stand out.
“I tell my team all the time that they need to treat a person’s home just like it’s your grandmother’s,” Frew says. To do that, the Frews put vacuums on every truck. Their technicians clean up after themselves, with the goal of leaving the home better than they found it.
Delight Your Customers
As a home services provider, if you’re providing great work, then it’s likely your customers will provide repeat business. So it’s important to build a coherent, organized database you can keep marketing to.
Frew did that early on in an interesting way.
“Years ago Angie’s List used to have these things called ‘toilet tune-ups.’ Customers would pay $25 for a toilet tune-up, and contractors would receive $12.50,” she says.
Frew sent her team out to do many of those tune-ups, and after every service call she would send a thank you card and brownies. They cost $8 to mail. Along with gas, insurance and overhead, the company made little or no profit.
But it paid off. The brownie strategy helped Frew build a database of delighted customers. Today, the company has 35,000 customers in its database.
“That is gold,” Frew says. “Someday, when it’s time to sell our company, that is going to be one of the things that will be super important to a new buyer.”
Gain Recognition by Applying for Awards
Early on, Frew began applying for business awards to get publicity for her company.
“This is a great way for your company to get free marketing and recognition,” she says. “Plus, it helps your website get outstanding search engine optimization (SEO).”
To date, the company has won many awards, including Contractor of the Year in PHC Magazine, Denver Business Journal’s Small Business of the Year and a place on the Inc. 5000 list. In addition to recognition, each award brought additional benefits, such as website traffic and credibility.
“The Better Business Bureau has been around for a long time and has some serious pull on the internet when it comes to ranking (on search),” Frew says.
“Winning the BBB Torch Award for Business Ethics award tells customers that you are an honorable and amazing company based on customer service standards and a huge vetting process,” she says.
Winning local “best places to work” awards helped Frew recruit additional technicians and office staff. That’s an especially useful approach considering today’s labor shortages.
Frew also recognized that being a woman-owned home services company was a strength, and could form the basis for a different kind of business approach. She sought out women in her area to ask what they wanted in a service provider, considering they spend more money than anyone else on home services.
Armed with that input, she was able to build marketing and customer service strategies specifically for women. That led to state and national woman-owned business awards, which continue to attract female customers.
Keep Tabs on Competitors
Ongoing competitor research is an important part of running a successful business. To that end, Frew has “secret shopped” some of her competitors, having them come to her house and offer quotes.
“You really need to understand what your competition is doing so that you can go out and compete on awesome,” she says.
She encourages all company owners to do that, and says, “if you feel uncomfortable doing it yourself, then ask a friend or a customer of yours to do it for you.”
Knock Employees’ Socks Off
With a tight labor market, keeping employees happy is more important than ever. Frew’s company offers some amazing perks in order to retain their staff, including:
- Free lunch. “If our technicians are on a job and we know it’s running over and it’s a really jam-packed schedule, we will send lunch to them at the job.”
- Paid community work. “If our team members want to go out and do charity work or take a day off to do a community project, they get paid for that.”
- New boots. Twice a year the Frews invite a Red Wing Shoes truck to their office, and every team member gets new boots as a thank you. “It makes our techs feel really good, it’s something they need and they are expensive.” Customers also love hearing about this.
- Unlimited personal time off. It’s unpaid, but it offers the flexibility for staff to pursue certain life goals, secure in knowing they’ll still be employed. “One technician took off a month to go hunting with his son. Another went to Thailand for six months. Their jobs were waiting for them when they got back.”
Make Pricing Transparent
“The trades are notorious for not wanting to give you a price over the phone,” Frew says. “They want to send a person out there to review everything. Customers have to wait for a person to come out and try and sell them things.”
Frew says that times have changed, and business needs to change with it.
“In today’s day and age, people want to get stuff quickly. They want to get online,” Frew says. “They want to book their appointments through texting. And if they want to look at HVAC systems at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night in their pajamas, they want to be able to do it.”
The Frews recently introduced online pricing, as well as providing links to videos that customers can watch. They provide the information customers need “to make an educated decision before we have to send out a technician,” she says.
Add Personal Touches
When customers make large purchases, such as a boiler or HVAC system, Frew sends a gift basket as a thank you. And she asks recipients to post it on social media — if they do, they receive a $50 coupon toward their next service call.
As an everyday personal touch, all the company’s technicians have dog biscuits in their trucks for clients’ dogs. (Frew and her husband foster dogs and keep dogs in the office, which their team loves.)
If Frew’s team makes a mistake in scheduling or visits, the company will send flowers as an apology.
Last but not least, if Frew can’t get a technician out on a weekend or after hours to customers who’ve lost heat, hot water or air conditioning, she’ll put those customers up in a hotel. Then a technician will go out the following business day and fix the problem.
Customers are amazed by this, and often post about it on social media. But Frew notes the cost isn’t considerable and goes a long way to making their clients brand advocates.
Put Frew’s Tips to Work in Your Business
To help you get started on defining your own “awesome,” Frew suggests you write down everything great about your business.
“If you don’t have a lot of funds and resources, market your business by going on TikTok and other social media, creating videos and reaching out to your database of existing customers,” she says. “Network and build a community of people who know, like and trust you.
“Keep evolving. Never be the person who said ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’”