By Linda Case. How are you assuring your company's continuing business this year? What funds do you have in your 2004 operational budget for increasing the number and quality of your leads? If these questions make you uneasy, let me help. Here are some key truths about successful marketing.

Your marketing plan

* Create a marketing plan and a marketing budget each year to be sure the funds are available and to avoid impulse buys. Devote 2% to 4% of your volume every year to assuring a consistent stream of high quality leads through creative marketing. If you're a specialty firm, you might spend more like 10% to 12% on marketing.

* The sure path to referral leads is to deliver a great product wrapped in great service. Client satisfaction should be numerically measured on every job, in every quarter, and annually. That guarantees you are improving, not getting worse. It's the key to your future.

* Assign a staff person to oversee all the marketing and make sure it gets done in a timely fashion. This person should be in charge of seeing that all leads are properly tracked and all information properly gathered. How else will we know whether or not a marketing tactic produces leads, and just how many? Some companies enlist an outsourced marketing person. That's great, but there should still be someone on staff with oversight responsibility for marketing.

Referral leads are key

* Focus the plan and at least 40% of your marketing dollars first on increasing referral leads. If you haven't been doing this already, note that the number of your referral leads can be doubled by creating a program that reaches out at least quarterly to your referrers. Give rewards for referrals. That could include simple thank you notes, inexpensive gifts like car washes or movie tickets, or more expensive gifts like dinners, bookstore gift certificates, and the like.

* People who refer you include your suppliers, subs, church members, acquaintances at school, real estate brokers, barbers, bankers, and many more folks in your community. Be sure your marketing plan reaches out to everyone you know who could refer leads to you. Be sure you have a database that easily manages communication with these important people.

Other tactics

* Be sure to include some inexpensive new tactics in every marketing plan. Every company must experiment and learn what marketing works for them. Do this during the good times. An economic downturn is a poor time to experiment.

* Take your marketing plan and budget to a more practical level by creating a marketing calendar. If you're going to be in a home show in May, make sure that goes on the calendar. In addition, indicate there when you have to book the space, when payments are due, when the booth has to be freshened. By creating a calendar, you can watch cash outlay and monitor staff time needs. It also makes it easier to delegate.

* Talk to fellow remodelers at meetings and conventions and find out what marketing tactics work for them. Have someone call your competitors and request a brochure. Scout the Web sites of local remodelers who are in your league and write up an analysis. If you're attracted by the way any product or service is marketed, think about how that might apply to your company.

* At the end of each year, assess how each marketing tactic has produced for you. What was the cost of each lead from each lead source? How did those leads convert to design contracts? To construction contracts? What was the average dollar volume of the jobs that were sold from that lead source? This gives you invaluable information on how to adapt your program for next year.

Lead generation is the lifeblood of your company. It's far too important to leave to chance. --Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage Inc. in Fulton, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. (301) 490-5620;;