We all work very hard to improve the image and level of professionalism of the remodeling industry. That includes being careful about the language we use with our clients and each other to describe what we do and how we do it. So it's understandable that when we start to hear a term like "handyman," it rubs us the wrong way. It conjures up the image of an uninsured, undercharging dog-and-truck operation that represents the unprofessionalism we're trying to overcome.

The main source of our irritation, however, is not really with the type of work or the type of people performing it. The problem is with the language. "Handyman" is not an industry term that most remodelers would use to describe themselves. It's a consumer term that to most homeowners suggests a diverse laundry list of maintenance items and repairs, "odd jobs" too insignificant to require a licensed contractor -- and too small to pay full-service prices for.

A different approach

But "handyman" is more than a convenient label for a jack-of-all-trades, and it's more than a maintenance and repair service. Handyman is not a small project strategy, either. It's a business strategy that, because the term "handyman" means different things to different people, gets the phone to ring. By doing several projects throughout the year for the same client, you create a business that is predictable and therefore more stable, both economically and production-wise.

In contrast to the small project-based consumer definition, the professional handyman is a client-based approach. It employs systems and processes, not personalities, to build real repeat clients, which in turn creates more predictable growth. Your asset is the client base, not the projects, as with traditional remodeling.

Most remodeling company owners think of growth as a natural progression. But when they look at their sales history, they find an inconsistent pattern. One year sales are up; the next year they're down. The environment -- the economy, consumer confidence, interest rates, and the like -- controls their destiny. A client-based business, however, while not recession proof, is more consistent and less volatile than a project-based one.

The small projects with which handyman has become identified are not the drivers of the business; they are the vehicle by which you can achieve larger business goals. Other vehicles, like lawn care or HVAC service contracts, lead in the same direction, but professional handyman is a good fit with the typical remodeler's skill set -- the knowledge of a generalist, coupled with advice-oriented interpersonal skills and a commitment to quality craftsmanship.

Standards of success

Handyman may be the biggest opportunity of this decade, but it is also one of the most difficult businesses for a remodeler to create. The handyman products (small projects) are simpler than those of a full-service remodeling company, but the business systems, personnel issues, and sales processes are more complex.

Like a fine dining restaurant, full-service remodelers judge success on how we savor the dining experience. A professional handyman operation is more like fast food, where we judge success on how fast we get in and out.

Next time a client calls you to replace some rotted trim or hang a storm door, don't think in terms of work product or craft. Look at the project through a business filter -- you might be surprised at what you see.

--Mark Richardson is president of Case Design/Remodeling, Bethesda, Md., and the author of 30 Day Remodeling Fitness Program. He can be reached at (301) 229-4600 or mrichardson@casedesign.com.