So much of our work is repeat and referral business,” says Michael Spreckelmeier, president of Progressive Builders, in Fort Myers, Fla. The importance of a first impression, then, cannot be understated. That's why the company sends out a start letter to their clients' neighbors, highlighting the changes they can expect to see in their neighborhood and providing contact information should a problem arise.

Of course, Spreckelmeier's intentions aren't completely altruistic. The start letter also serves as a cheap (cost: 40 cents each) marketing piece that Spreckelmeier says drums up as much as 20% of the company's business.

“We might not hear from them right away,” he says, “but they'll call us a year and a half later saying, ‘We saved your letter because we were so impressed with it.'”

  • Spreckelmeier's face doesn't adorn every piece of Progressive letterhead, but his picture is on every start letter that is mailed out. It's all part of his strategy to show his clients the kind of company they're dealing with. “People like it when the guy whose picture is on the letterhead shows up [for the sales call],” Spreckelmeier says.

  • Progressive's office manager, Susan Jackson, probes the Internet for the names and addresses of homeowners in the clients' neighborhood. They keep their mailings small (between 60 and 80 is optimal) and contact only the immediate area. Spreckelmeier says that he doesn't want to bother people living five streets away who aren't affected by the construction.

  • These are the most common issues that come up on a jobsite, though Progressive will tweak the letter if there are unusual circumstances. “We really are concerned with parking and debris,” Spreckelmeier says. “This is a testament that we do care.”

  • Spreckelmeier began sending out start letters seven or eight years ago, but he's been using this one for the past three. “This is a more informative approach,” he says, whereas previous versions were more obviously marketing. “Now, the marketing is the P.S. It's subtle.”