Surviving the Swings

4 business tactics for enduring economic ebbs and flows.

Like most trades, the painting industry is greatly impacted by fluctuations in national and regional economies. You obviously can’t control the factors that influence the economic ups ands downs of the country or your region. But you can implement processes and practices to help you better weather the changes in business activity that result from the swings.

We checked in with three leading medium-size painting contractors to see how they’re overcoming challenges and helping their businesses succeed. Here are four of their tactics.

Strategic Hiring

No matter what’s happening with the economy, it’s important to remember your people are the most critical components to your operation. They’re on the front lines, directly impacting your company’s brand, quality of work and customer service. So who you hire and what you look for in employees is a key component for successful growth.

That may be trickier than it seems. Hiring and retaining quality employees continues to be one of the most significant challenges in today’s industry because experienced, reliable employees are often in short supply, especially if you’re located in a smaller labor market.

To offset that, some contractors have turned to screening potential employees based on character, attitude and behavior, rather than searching exclusively for candidates with painting experience.

“If someone has a terrible attitude—if they are either too cocky, too negative or just plain unhelpful—I am not in the business to address that,” says Parker Smith, president and owner of Smith & Company Painting in McMinnville, OR. “I can’t change 30 years of someone’s life. But what I can change is their skillset.”

Smith says he looks for qualities like honesty and trustworthiness because that translates to care of a customer’s home and property—and often times more business.

“You can’t have repeat business without the right team,” says Smith. “When the work is excellent, and when our team is kind and caring and they complete a job quickly and efficiently, then you create repeat clients.”

Online Marketing

While a good reputation is one of the best ways to create repeat clients, you can’t rely on reputation alone to earn new ones. Your company also needs exposure to earn business.

Today’s consumer climate is such that many potential customers first engage with products and services online. So it’s important to dedicate some of your resources, even if it’s just a small amount to online and social media marketing.

“Google AdWords campaigns and other online tactics have been very successful for us,” Smith notes. On average, he says Smith & Company Painting gets roughly 40-50 leads per month through various online outlets. And “We have a high conversion rate, with roughly 35-40 out of 100 inquiries turning into jobs,” he adds.

You can (and should) also use social media—Facebook and Instagram, in particular—to get your business and its services in front of more potential customers. Both Facebook and Instagram allow you to pay to boost specific posts; you can choose your budget, geographic area and audience interests, and for even just $20, you can increase the likelihood of your post getting in front of someone who most likely needs your services.

Technology Efficiency

You already know one of the most direct ways to control your bottom line is by becoming more efficient. But you also can’t cut corners and sacrifice the quality of work or valuable customer service you’ve built your reputation on.

In Walla Walla, WA, where Annie Newton and her brother Matt Hardin operate 4 Seasons Color, a company of 35 painters, the local economy experienced a major blow—the closure of a large hospital. That translated to population drain, higher unemployment and less money being spent on home improvement projects.

Newton and Hardin had already been implementing new ideas and tactics to reduce costs and operate more efficiently, and this helped them endure the hit to potential business the hospital closing created.

Most significantly, they’ve integrated customer relationship management technology into parts of 4 Seasons’ processes. The company is now completely paperless, all customer interactions are tracked through software, and every single new job is automatically converted into job documents and sent to accounting software for payment.

The company has been able to remove a significant number of overhead processes and cut back on administrative staff, saving money and other expenses.

“Ten years ago, I would have had a field manager running this part of the business and an administrator assembling job jackets and folders,” says Newton.

Today, 4 Seasons’ human capital demands come mostly on the service side, not operations, so becoming administratively leaner allows the company to focus more heavily on customer service and training.

“The reality is that we’ve had to carve off overhead, but that’s because of the risk of doing business now and in the future,” Newton says. “Gaining efficiencies is still our best way of moving forward.”

Knowing Your Market

Unlike major metropolitan areas, smaller markets—like Albuquerque, NM, where Mike Freeman runs his 42-painter team at Mike’s Quality Painting—often don’t have the luxury of large-scale construction booms.

Over the past seven to eight years, Freeman has been able to steadily grow his business into the area’s largest painting contractor, mainly because he knows his market and what type of projects to focus on: smaller jobs, old construction and repainting. Mike’s Quality Painting doesn’t pursue new housing or new commercial construction, but rather occupied homes and businesses.

It may seem counterintuitive, but in Freeman’s smaller market, it works. He has leveraged this approach to build a successful brand on customer service, repeat client work and word of mouth recommendations.

“Our bread and butter has always been facility maintenance, residential and commercial repaint work and other currently occupied structures,” he says. Smaller, faster jobs also means more of them. And the residual effects of more frequent jobs helps with Freeman’s marketing efforts: “This helps spread our name and introduce us to more and more business.

Finding Success

No matter the challenges of the economy, placing an increased focus on hiring, lean management, openness to technological change, digital marketing and knowing your specific market are business practices contributing to painters’ success.

No two cities or markets are the same, and while color, finish and other trends will continue to develop in the residential and commercial painting industry, surviving the highs and lows depends on your ability to adapt.