In one of the talks I give regularly to groups of remodelers, I set the stage with a series of questions designed to get audience members thinking about how their company is perceived by potential customers. I start by saying, “Raise your hand if you think your company does top-quality work.” As you can imagine, everybody in the room raises a hand. Then I say, “Raise your hand if you have a top-quality team.” Again, everybody's hand goes up. Finally, I ask, “If everyone in the room does top-quality work and has top-quality employees, what's the difference?”

I don't really expect an answer, because I've made my point. It's understandable that we all believe our company is the best, but that's not the same as having potential customers believe it. If you look at the Web sites of remodeling companies in your area, you'll find that everybody makes claims about quality, reliability, professionalism, you name it. Not everyone can be the best at everything, but most companies making these claims can back them up. Imagine the confusion homeowners feel when they visit those same sites or when they read a job sign or postcard advertisement. If everyone makes the same claims, what's the basis for choosing one company over another?

When business is booming, it hardly seems to matter because there's enough work to go around. In good times, remodelers become “order takers” who spend lots of time and energy picking and choosing — we call it “qualifying” — those customers they want to work with. Differentiating yourself from the pack is not a pressing issue. This is a mistake, of course, because when business slows, the work goes to companies who can distinguish themselves in the eyes of homeowners. Remodelers who haven't differentiated themselves in good times don't have the resources to do it when times are tough.

Public Perception One place to start is with the three primary drivers that influence homeowner buying decisions: time, quality, and cost. Differentiate your company in one or more of these drivers, and you will make it easier for customers to choose your company.

If you run a lean operation and can offer very good pricing, then communicate that to the public in your advertising. If product quality is your strength, make your company stand out by highlighting awards you've won or by showcasing the complexity of the designs or construction techniques you use. If you are most effective in managing time, find creative ways to express that. For example, you could guarantee a same-day return call, play up a short design cycle, or emphasize on-time start and completion. What is critical is to determine how your company is different and to focus on that difference to set yourself apart from everyone else.

Distinguish Yourself Differentiation is also important when recruiting employees. Wages are important, but if pay rate is the biggest benefit you offer, then you are only $1 per hour away from losing your greatest assets — your people.

Instead, determine ways your company is different to work for. Do you offer a career opportunity or just a job? Do you provide a strong benefits package, flexible work hours, travel allowances? Pointing out the differences makes it easier for the right people to find your company.

Differentiation helps with trade contractors, too. Maybe you have a unique payment process or a convenient communication network. When work is plentiful, subcontractors are very busy. Emphasizing ways your company is different from others gives trade contractors a reason to put your jobs at the top of their list.

Differentiation isn't something you should try to accomplish in a vacuum. Invest some time discussing the subject with key team members. Not only will you discover some interesting ideas, you'll also make your people feel like they're part of the solution. —Mark Richardson is president of Case Design/Remodeling and Case Handyman Services, Bethesda, Md., and author of 30-Day Remodeling Fitness Program . 301.229.4600;