Terri King, Co-Owner, Blue Canyon Construction
Located in Seattle, Blue Canyon Construction is a remodeling firm and custom home builder. In business since 1992, most projects are in the Seattle and Puget Sound region. King's husband, Rick, who has been in the business since 1976, serves in sales and manages the field. Terri handles marketing and manages the office. There are 10 employees in the field and two in the office. www.bluecanyonconstruction.com
John Habermeier, Co-Owner Synergy Builders Inc.
The company, located in West Chicago, Ill., specializes in finishing basements in the western suburbs of Chicago. Habermeier has a showroom set up like a basement with a theater to show virtual tours of the designs he creates on a tablet computer. Steve Taylor is co-owner of the company. They have about 17 employees. www.synergybasements.com
What's the purpose of your Web site? Is it used to generate leads, educate the customer or showcase your projects? Once you have it, you'll realize that there's a certain amount of care and feeding that goes into maintaining it in this ever-changing technology. This month's discussion should help resolve some of those questions.
Jud: The course of our conversation today is in regard to your Web sites. We'll talk about different parts and pieces of it. John, I'd like to know how long you've had your site and how you got started. Did you have a professional do it, did you do it in-house, and how did that work out?
John: Our site is about 4½ years old. We initially started our Web site not thinking that it would generate new leads. We thought it was something we could put on our vans so when people saw them they could get our phone number off of our Web site. It's evolved quite a bit over the last 4½ years.
Jud: Did you have it professionally set up?
John: Initially, we had it somewhat professionally set up. We've been through two revisions to date. We're going into our third major overhaul in the next few months.
Jud: We'll get into that a little later. Terri, how about you?
Terri: We've been up for about a year and a half. I really didn't want a Web site in the beginning because it was too much to keep up. However, it seems you're not a valid business if you don't have a Web site! We finally took the jump. We had a design firm who did our branding initially, worked with a PR company who did the copy, and a team of photographers who did the pictures, and the tech people who were also part of the design team. It took a lot of hours and time from our in-house staff, myself and our director of development for almost nine months.
Jud: Terri, do you have anything unique on it, such as moving pictures, video or anything like that?
Terri: We don't. We want it to be fast and user-friendly. When you have video or moving pictures it slows it down. We decided not to go with that.
John: The same thing. It's a text driven Web site, for the most part. Right now, I don't have a lot of flash on there. We do want it to be search-engine friendly. We do have a photo gallery and information about us, our portfolio, etc.
Jud: John, what do you see as the function of the Web site: marketing, customer relations, project management — all or none of the above? Could you elaborate on that?
John: Marketing our Web site gets us potential clients that current circles of word of mouth can't reach. It helps our referral customers get an idea of our processes and product lines and introduces them to us as a potential business partner.
Jud: You made the comment that, realistically, you're getting leads from that now.
John: Yes. We generate a lot of leads through our Web site, and it accounts for about 35 percent of our new raw leads that come through the door. We have our qualifying process. Through the qualifying process that number really goes down drastically. We have to qualify a lot of those, and I'd say only about 25 percent of them turn into potential prospects where we would actually schedule an appointment.
Jud: You're saying that the qualifying process, as far as you're concerned in your type of business, has been a big deal as far as the leads that you generate off of the site.
John: Yes, definitely.
Terri: The primary focus for us, definitely, has been marketing. It drives our marketing goal, getting people to our Web site. We do that by e-mails, postcard mailings to architects and our print ads. The Web site really helps; it's a great sales tool. Before we go out to meet our clients, they've all visited our Web site. It is heavily copy driven, and it's amazing how much the people read. They read through everything, so that really cuts down on the educational process out in the field for someone who does sales calls. It's enjoyable; people like to visit it.
Jud: Terri, do you have a way of counting how many people go on there and how long they stay?
Terri: We do. We monitor when we've done a mailing or we've done advertising and how that effects the hits that we have.
Jud: Do you find that when you do a mailing of some kind that the hits raise at some point?
Terri: It does. That was the point, and I'm happy to see that.
Jud: Let's clarify this. You generate leads from the site. Terri, you said that you've done that. Do you have any idea what your closing rate is on your Web site?
Terri: We don't. The intent was never to generate leads on our site. We are such a small company that, as you've said, the qualifying process can take time. We don't really have time to do that. It's not something that we have done.
John: One thing to add to that. The intention for our Web site is to expand our word-of-mouth referrals. It's to get in front of customers in slightly different geographical areas. We're in a very niche business. Just to give a little background about our clients: our client statistics are newer houses, which are three to 10 years old, so our geographical parameters are always moving to follow new construction three to 10 years behind. Once neighborhoods get built out, word-of-mouth referrals typically stay within certain neighborhoods. When new subdivisions pop up, we need to get in front of those customers early. So that's what our site really benefits us for. It gets us into a new ring of referrals and word-of-mouth.
Jud: John, let's go back to what Terri said. If you have a particular neighborhood that you want to focus on, do you do a mailing of some kind in the neighborhood to try to get them to your site?
John: Yes. We actually do door-to-door circulation with our Web site clearly printed on there. We do yard signs with our Web address on there. We'll start saturating a neighborhood by directing them to our Web site, which then gives them our contact info.
Jud: John, you've had your site 4½ years and Terri's had hers 1½ years. Did you find it took a while to "take off?"
John: Yes, it has. I think we're just hitting stride with it now. We're just getting to the point of realizing the potential that it has. I've just initiated a relationship with an Internet marketing firm that will be assisting us in our site renovation.
Jud: Terri, did you find that it took a while to take off? Is it still in the mode to take off? What was your response to that?
Terri: I'm hopeful that, as John says, he feels that he's just hitting stride. It gives me hope that there's no way to go but up and that's great.
Jud: That's probably a good thing for you to hear, Terri. I want this in a ballpark figure, if you will. Terri, do you have any idea what the design and construction of your site costs?
Terri: A helluva lot. I'm sure we have over $30,000 into it.
Jud: Would you say in that $30,000 you've tried to put some kind of a number on your time.
Terri: No, that wouldn't include our time.
Jud: John, do you have a handle on cost?
John: Yes. Sorry, Terri, it's not that much. When you're asking about cost, are you including marketing costs, such as "pay-per-click" type fees?
Jud: I'm going to say no to that.
John: Just the raw cost of set up?
Jud: Just to set it up and get in on there so you could call me up and say, "Hey Jud, check my site, I've got one now!"
John: I originally invested $1,200 for my site. I did the photographs myself and basically did a very simple site. It's very text driven, which helps with the search engines. The new Internet marketing company that I'm going to be working with gave a quote of $5,000. That excludes photography time. I'd still have to pay a professional photographer to photograph all my jobs and then put those on the site.
Jud: So, there may be a couple thousand dollars involved in that. Did you find it difficult, a mistake you made, or something you didn't know at the time to be able to get it onto the Internet into the search engines? Did you have a problem getting to the search engines, or did someone help you; how did you handle that?
John: That's a very time-consuming process. There're two different ways to do that. The paid services that are pay-per-click. And that's by Google, Yahoo! and a lot of different major search engines. If you use Google, there is the main section, which is the left side, and on the right side there are sponsored links. On the sponsored side, you can get higher ratings if you pay more money. You have to go in and type in our keywords. On the main body of search engines, that's a very complicated process. It's through search engine optimization. There are articles written in ink in every major business publication and that's referred to as the "Google den." That's the term used; it's very difficult to get high rankings. One of my local competitors is probably one of the best in the country in getting high ratings on the left-hand side. That is something I do struggle with. I'm going to have to outsource because the level of expertise required to do that is beyond my current capabilities. I am working with a marketing firm to improve my visibility.
Jud: Terri, how did you get visibility on the Internet?
Terri: We're not looking to necessarily just have people search us as remodelers or custom builders. Most of the people going to our site are just going to look at Blue Canyon Construction. What you talked about and John mentioned is over my head. It's interesting to hear you talk about it, John. It's very complicated. We talked about that, too, with marketing in the beginning. We decided that you were always getting "one upped." One thing that helps is that the name of our company is the name of our Web site. That does make it easy.
Jud: Obviously for all of us is to figure out how to get that ranking that John has stated, as far as being able to get your name up there first. If they pull it up the way I've looked at the other ones, you may be on page 27! John what you're referring to, you're trying to get up there so that you'll be higher on the food chain if nothing else.
John: Yes. And, higher on the left-hand side, the unpaid search engine side. That's pretty important, especially because I'm in a very niche business.
Jud: Terri, did you try to learn about how to set this Web site up? Did you attend any classes or anything online? How did you both learn to do this?
Terri: As far as the design of what we wanted?
Jud: Well, just where to start.
Terri: We're pretty intuitive about who and what we are. Web sites are pretty basic. You have your portfolio and education piece and the "about us." In that sense, it's pretty basic stuff. You're narrowing it down to getting it to represent who you are as a company.
Jud: That gave you your outline. Then, how did you learn to put it together, or is that where you hired a company to do it?
Terri: Yes, we did hire a company to do it, but we were very hands on. Basically, they just took our words and made us sound good and look good.
Jud: Are you able to update your own?
Terri: No. We don't do that. It's done outside. More money.
Jud: John, do you update your own?
John: I was going to talk a little about things I'll be doing with my redesign. Since my initial Web site, I've actually put together a hit list of things I want as improvements to my new site. Do you want me to talk about those?
Jud: Go right ahead. Tell us about your redesign.
John: We're going to be entering our third overhaul to our site. Some of the things that I want to do with it is include auto-reply options. For example, almost every site that you go to has a "contact us" page where you fill out a data sheet. One of the things I'm going to be doing on our site is an auto-reply feature. As soon as someone fills out a form on my site, they automatically get notified saying "We're interested in your project and will be contacting you via phone within the next 24 hours or next business day." One of the other things I want to do to the site is add a picture gallery, which will have two different levels. The second level will be a much more significant picture gallery and it will have log-on requirements. With the log-on requirements, if someone's interested in looking at some of our project pictures, and I'll have a very extensive gallery on there, they'll have to give me their name so I can contact them to know whether or not they are a prospect. I'll have really cool teaser pictures on the front. Again, it's very much a niche business. With basements there are a lot of things — bars, entertainment centers, themed basements, and things like that. Digging deeper, they'll be able to download galleries.
Jud: I'd be interested in that, John, to see how that works out and see how many people will give you that information. They know that when they give that to you that it's their key to get there.
John: Yes, it really is. I want to put in a better tracking system on the site so I can identify unique users and the direction they were driven from.
Jud: Can you track them now, at all?
John: Yes and no. I have the ability to track the number of people that come to my site, but not their unique link. I don't know whether they were driven from Yahoo! or Google or any of the other links that I have. HGTV, we have a link there. There are about 20-30 different places where we have links. It's sometimes difficult to identify where they come from and how much time they've spent on our site. There are tools out there that enable you to look at that. Talking about tracking, one thing that we do when we get calls from people, we ask questions such as "where did you hear about us?" If they say the Internet, then we have higher-level questions that we ask. We'll ask if they were in Google or Yahoo!. When you're trying to track the customers they may say the Internet but they may have seen the Web site on one of the trucks. Nothing replaces verbal questioning. They might have found you on the Web site, but initially they saw the Web site from your trucks.
Jud: Terri, let's elaborate on some of the things that John answered for us in regard to how detailed you can get on your tracking system. Let's start with that.
Terri: All of our ad house that hosts our site — that's where all of our details come from. It's pretty detailed — where people are coming in, which pages they're visiting.
Jud: Can you e-mail them back? If I come to your site, do you have a way of knowing I was there and can you e-mail me back?
Jud: Give us your dream site, Terri. John has already said what he wants to do. How about your dream site?
Terri: As much money as I've spent, I hope I have my dream site! I'm really happy with our site. It's got a huge potential for growth, and that's what I would work on. More projects or a portfolio. One of the things to be careful about is how our site is portrayed. Some people have gone there and looked at the projects we've had. We had all of our nicest projects on there. They might think we didn't do small projects or we were too expensive for them. We went back in and put some smaller-sized projects in. On the flip side of that, if we don't put enough high-end projects in, then architects or higher-end clients may not think that we do those kinds of projects. I didn't realize that we'd have to be so careful about the balance of what we put in the portfolio.
Jud: Good point!
John: A real good point.
Terri: Yes. And the level of the education pages. We really want to expand on that. We've tried to with not only things we have written but what people from our industry have written. That gives more validity.
Jud: Third-party advertising, if you will.
Terri: There you go. We have a great "go shopping" page, which is our only kind of project management piece that helps clients after they've come to work with us. That links to all our suppliers' Web sites, so if they want to go shopping for something, they know where the showrooms are, or they can go on and do product research. I think a favorite part, besides the portfolio of our site, is our employee bios. People just love it. However, you always have to work on that as you hire new employees — you have to get the bio and the picture. It's one of people's favorite parts of the site.
John: I have the same thing. I'm looking at your site right now. Real similar concepts in our sites.
The discussion continues:
Jud: That's good. I didn't think about the employee side. I think we still list our employees. In my particular case, we haven't updated the site for several reasons, but it's interesting to put that on there. Terri, do you have any kind of a kid's page?
Terri: No. Was it you who had the kid's page?
Jud: I've got a kid's page.
Terri: I thought that was very cute. I like that.
Jud: When they color the little man and send it to us, we send them a gift certificate for McDonald's.
Terri: That's really good.
John: That's pretty cool, actually — a great concept. There's a couple more things I wanted to get in about the improvements I want to do. The ability to add content easily and revise things. For me, that's key. You were talking about new employees and accomplishments they have. I think it's real important for me, and something I'm going to be working on is the ability to change text content on the site. Actually, the way spider searches work on Google and Yahoo!, they rank your site according to how many updates you've had. The more frequently you update your site, the more visibility you get on it.
Jud: Terri, in regard to that, you made the comment, I think, you can't update yours. Can you put a new picture on if you get a new employee?
Terri: No, it's not something I've chosen to do. It's easier for me to give the pictures to the girls who work on it and they take care of it.
Jud: Do you pay a monthly fee for them to update yours?
Jud: It's just when you wanted it updated that they'd charge you for it.
Jud: Do you have any fees attached to yours, John, at all that you have to pay other than the normal fees for updating?
John: The company that hosts my Web site has a maintenance fee. They take care of making sure that things are working right. It's pretty minimal — $35 a month. It's hardly anything.
Jud: For both of you. John, we'll start with you. How do you keep people at your site?
John: The picture gallery is the key thing. Also, the educational material: talking about the design process, what happens, when it happens, and how things are going to happen. Ultimately, for basements in my niche, the picture gallery is the foundation of what people are really interested in knowing more about. It gets them thinking about what they can do in their space. It gets them excited to talk to me.
Jud: Terri, how do you keep them there?
Terri: Exactly the same things. In our industry, where about 80 percent of our business is remodeling, the before and after pictures are really important. Making sure they're true before and after pictures taken from the same angle. People really like that.
Jud: John, you did make this comment. Terri, you don't have any what I'm going to call customer relations on there — in other words, to keep someone looking at their project because this is their second home they're working on or something. You don't have any kind of relationship going on at your site with that at the present time, is that correct?
Terri: I'm not sure I understand.
Jud: We have some sites that have a key to get into them. I have a gentleman on the east coast who only works on second homes on an island. He takes pictures of the progress each day and puts them on the Internet. We call that customer relationship, if you will, although client relationship may be a better term at that point. Do you have anything like that on your site?
Terri: I did discuss it at the beginning. I know that's very popular with many other builders in our area. It really came down to the time it would take to do that.
Jud: John, are you doing any of that?
John: We did look at that as an option. With remodeling, I think there's a fine line between using a Web site to dodge communications and avoid the interaction. Remodeling uniquely separates itself from construction or new construction in the relationship process. We decided not to do an interactive site. We are working in occupied houses the majority of the time. It forces us to communicate verbally and face to face with our customers by not having that on the site. If I was a new home builder and built houses for people in remote locations, that would definitely be a feature I would have. With remodeling, there's nothing that can replace face to face communication. Communication's vital.
Terri: Well said.
Jud: I want to be with the client; I'm not a big fan of the computer and that's because of my age.
John: Well, I really I don't think it's and age thing. Even my younger, more technically savvy customers need to know who's in their house. We're in an occupied house; they're living there while we're doing the work. That really separates us from new construction.
Jud: That's why when Terri made the comment that she puts her employees on there. I like that.
Terri: It's nice to know who's coming to your house.
John: I have the same thing on my site, too. There're a lot of things I need to expand on in my site, but I do have my employees, their background and a little bit about their families. Most of the people that I know who are doing well in the industry feel that's also very important. In remodeling, we're selling relationships not products.
Jud: I don't sell bathrooms, kitchens or room additions. I sell Jud Construction! That's the relationship, the products will come.
John: And that's the distinct difference between us and new construction.
Terri: The one thing, also, about having the team on there and the bios that we didn't anticipate is that when we're hiring new people, when they come in for an interview, they feel like they already know us and the company. It's been very helpful that way, too.
Jud: A good point that I didn't think of. I think you both hit on this a bit, but let me clarify. What can you do to help you get more hits? Terri, what are you thinking about doing or what have you done to get more hits on your Web site?
Terri: To get people to the site initially: all of our advertising, print ads, mailings through the AIA, and all those things. I think that pretty much drives the marketing program: how can we get people to the Web site?
Jud: Do the sales people ask them to go to the Web site?
Terri: Yes. Most of our initial calls come through our front office. We always ask, "Have you visited our Web site?"
Jud: John, how about you? What are the things have you done and kind of review were you were with how you get them to the Web site.
John: A good marketing program in place. I think that the search engine optimization is critical. Pay-per-click advertising; having plenty of links; supplier links to and from your Web site.
Jud: Do you have a link on the Chamber of Commerce?
John: Yes. Getting as many links out there as you possibly can to different sites and different relevant sites. HGTV is a great place to link to and from. Any of the popular Web sites out there: if you can get a link to and from those sites, you're going to build a tremendous amount of traffic. The majority of remodeling companies are small. They have to piggy-back on the success of major corporations, HGTV, some of your vendors or anyone who will give you or help you build credibility.
Jud: Terri, do you have any special links? Are you hooked up with the Chamber of Commerce up there?
Terri: No. No Chamber. A local building association and remodeling association. We belong to AIA, so we have links through them. Any advertising we've done through regional magazines, there's one called Custom Builder Profile or something, we get a link if we advertise, they actually have a web page and a link to our Web site.
Jud: Let me ask another one here. Terri, how much time, startup time, time you now work on/look at/change your Web site do you spend?
Terri: The initial site, I think I said, was nine months. It was huge; so huge that everyone was banging their heads against the wall, and my husband was about ready to leave! It was a BIG push. Every time we do a major update it is time intensive. The nature of the beast!
Jud: Do you go to that Web site every day, check the information that's come in on it, and check the hits?
Terri: No. I get a little notice from my host company that they update it, unless we've done a mailing or something and I want to see. Maybe I'll look at it monthly. All of our info comes in through our info mailbox.
Jud: John, how about you? How much time do you spend?
John: A lot of time, I'll be honest with you. I spent maybe 100 hours on development of my site and putting it all together.
Jud: Over what period of time?
John: Over the last four years. Developing the text and all of the written commentary on my site is stuff that I just cut and paste from some of my other marketing material.
Terri: That's one thing that's nice. Once the work is done on the print you can use that for a lot of things — advertising, a work submittal.
John: Yes. I really just cut and paste from some of my other marketing. The pictures that I have on my current Web site are from one of my post-construction follow ups that I have as an automated process. I'm the designer; I rarely see the project during construction. I follow up with my customers a month or so after construction to do a walk through with them. At that time, I bring a good camera with me and take pictures while I'm there. I have a pretty good catalogue of pictures that I had, not professionally done, so you see on my site there're a lot of not as high quality photos as there should be, but they're reasonable.
Jud: Let's bring something up that Terri said a few minutes ago regarding having to be very careful on the mix of pictures, so that you don't get it one sided: we do only high-end stuff or low-end stuff. Is that an interesting point to you, to make sure that you don't do that? Have you had a problem with that?
John: Extremely. That was a learning curve for me, too. The unique thing about finishing basements is that my bread and butter are the projects that are $30,000 – $45,000 in price. I don't know if either one of you finish basements but $30,000 – $45,000 is not a very photographic project. It's our highest profitable project. The ones that photograph well unfortunately are not our bread and butter. But, I'll take pictures of unique things that are common elements of every basement. Like sump pump covers, electrical panel, or columns in the basement. I'll make those look very interesting. Those are things that every basement has. I previously talked about some teaser pictures. Those are things like $125,000 basements that have a theme to them, have nice bars and great features. Those are things that get people interested, but not turned off. I mix it up on there for sure.
Jud: Interesting. Everybody has a distribution center down there, hopefully has a sump pump.
John: I think the most important thing to relay on your Web site is that you're in the business of building relationships. You make each project feel unique. You can bring a custom approach to everything you do. Your job as a professional remodeling contractor is to work with them through the process, and not necessarily just work with them on the product itself.
Jud: You're trying to sell your company, not necessarily a product there also.
John: Yes. I do that with the pictures, too. With one person, their biggest concern might be how their wet bar is going to look. Another potential customer's biggest concern might be covering up the electrical panel so it doesn't look like an eyesore. Those unique things that we do every day are something that a potential customer has never done in their lifetime. We have to build a lot of credit toward the little things. They're little to us, but huge to our customer. It's important that we realize that.
Jud: That's a good point.
John: We relay that on our Web site. For example, the way stairs terminate, the bottom of a stair: I've definitely put a lot of thought and energy into making sure that I've done a good job of relaying that. Another thing that I get feedback from my customers on about my Web site is I have frequently asked questions on the Web site. People read that — a quick sampling of that: How long do we take to complete the project? Do we do the work in-house or do we use subcontractors? Are we licensed and insured? Cost versus value? I just take a snippet from the reports. Is it dusty? Things like that. Those questions are targeted more toward relationships than products. So, my frequently asked questions are more geared toward relationships.
Jud: Terri, do you have any customer pictures on your Web site?
Terri: No, I don't. Just employees.
Jud: Let me wind this up, folks. Terri, is there anything else you want to add about your Web site? Any problems you've had with your Web site or advantages you've found out with your Web site?
Terri: The best thing about the Web site for us is that it really does force you to brand yourself and ask the question "Who are we as a company, and who do we want our clients to be?" It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of companies still haven't done that. And the site forces you to do that.
Jud: John? Any final comment?
John: Yes, I do have a final comment. I would say that, even with a really good Web site, don't let it replace who you are in your communication. Don't rely heavily on it as a marketing tool. Be cautious not to put your eggs in one basket. I got a little caught up on that when I was relying heavily on my Web site leads. Google changed the way they were doing searches; it affected my business. I saw a 50 percent drop in my Internet leads, which was pretty huge. At that particular time it accounted for 60 percent of my leads. Make sure we realize that it's not about the product — it is about the relationship!
Jud: That's interesting. By something shifting on the Internet, it realistically dropped your leads that far.
John: That forced me to look: I tracked all my different forms of marketing. It forced me to look at some of the other forms of marketing that I'm doing. It did two things. That little shift actually caused a major paradigm shift in the way I think about my business. It caused my to put a much more effective referral incentive program in place, to rely on my existing and past customers to get me the leads. Since that happened, I actually put an incentive program in place for my customers.
Terri: Like a referral program.
John: A very formalized process. If I get a referral from a customer now, not only do I thank them but I also keep them informed on where I'm at with the customer they referred to us.
Jud: That referral is not going to get changed. The Web site can get changed. Google can do something different and put you at the bottom of the list. What you're saying is that made you think more about the relationship you have with your present client and their referrals.
John: Yes. It also made me think about the information I want to relay on my Web site. I don't want to relay the fact that we're an in-and-out basement company that doesn't really care. I wanted to really leave the massage that we're more about relationships than we are about the product.
Terri: I hadn't realized before that we've only been marketing for about 2 years. Prior to that, all of our business came from referrals. That is a little different. We started out with a client referral base and expanded into doing more direct marketing. We had never done that before. That's kind of a flip.
Jud: My company was in the same boat. We were a referral business. Our client base was starting literally to die off. We had to go into marketing to rebuild that. We have not had the success that you people have had with yours in our particular case. However, we haven't spent the time, money and energy to keep it up, either. We've done some other things in place of it.