Most remodelers are finding fewer and less urgent buyers, and smaller jobs. You can't begin to sell without a lead, and leads, too, are more rare and less qualified.

Many traditional marketing techniques are no longer working, but networking is. I'm hearing over and over that there is work out there, but you have to spend time out of the office to get it. Moreover, that work comes from all different places and often from people who have learned about you in ways unrelated to your business.

OUT THERE AND VISIBLE Consider Ken Kirsch, co-owner of MAK Design + Build, in Davis, Calif.: “I have attended events at the Davis Downtown Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce, NARI [National Association of the Remodeling Industry], and a city-sponsored green-building event,” says the busy remodeler. He enjoys painting as a hobby and has hung some of his paintings in a new building being sold by a Realtor friend; yet another Realtor referred a recent kitchen job.

One prospect found Kirsch's company through the directory of his local NARI chapter. Another client saw Kirsch face-painting at an elementary school fair, wearing a hat printed with the company's logo. “He said he thought that anybody who gave that much attention to the detail in painting a child's face must also be a meticulous builder,” the remodeler says.

Jeff King of Jeff King and Co., in San Francisco, also has had a number of jobs result from his association with fellow parents at his children's school.

In Hanover, Mass., Allison Guido of Almar Building and Remodeling has committed to a planned networking program. In May alone, she had booked time: to participate in a business expo (eight hours and an expected 300 attendees); to be the top corporate sponsor of a fund-raising walk for asthma, with employees wearing logoed T-shirts; to host a workshop on effective networking; and to give aging-in-place presentations at three locations.

SYSTEMS FOR SCHMOOZING You may think you have a knack for networking, but there is actually some science behind doing it well. Tips:

  • Plan. Today's effective networking isn't lackadaisical. It should be a planned and funded part of your marketing outreach. Carefully choose organizations and events that fit your interests and have the right demographics for your client base.
  • Prepare and rehearse your “elevator speech.” How would you explain what your company does in the short ride between the first and 10th floors? That's only enough time for a few sentences that communicate clearly. Have business cards and brochures on hand — but distribute them only when appropriate.
  • Be prepared to refer others. Right now, I'm trying to find a good painter and a good roofer, and I'm asking remodelers I trust for referrals. Huge amounts of business are awarded through referrals, making this a give and take proposition.
  • Involve your staff. Your employees have their groups, too — PTAs, churches, charities, sports leagues, and more. Role-play good networking behaviors with them. Encourage them to carry business cards. Be willing to pay for them to join additional groups that interest them. Consider a reward for every lead they bring into the office, and a bigger reward for leads that result in sales.
  • Thank every referrer. For non-staff referrals, express your appreciation and encourage repeat referrals. Send them handwritten notes, invite them to go golfing, take them to lunch, dinner, or the ball game.
  • Track your time. While your out-of-pocket costs for networking outreach will probably be relatively small, your time commitment may be large — which comes down to money. Keep statistics on how leads come to you, so you know which networking efforts to emphasize and which to drop.

The game is changing, and remodelers have to change, too. Once you master networking, I don't think you'll ever go back.
Linda Case is the founder of Remodelers Advantage in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260;;