It's a sales strategy as modern as the industrial age and about as energy-efficient, but George Uhlmann swears by it: spot-canvassing.

While driving through neighborhoods on weekends or killing time between appointments, the owner of Uhlmann Home Improvement, Chicago, keeps an eye out for people washing their cars, cutting the grass, or shoveling snow outside their homes. He hops out, introduces himself, compliments the job they're doing, and says, in effect, “If you know anyone who's thinking of replacing their windows or awnings, here's my card.”

Uhlmann closes by getting their name and address and follows up with a handwritten letter — in a hand-addressed envelope — saying “it was a pleasure talking to you.” He encloses a gift certificate (currently $60 in honor of the company's 60th anniversary), as well as a refrigerator magnet or other branded trinket. Do this with 5 or 10 people each day, he says, and you'll be so busy that you won't have time for any other kind of marketing.

Uhlmann says that spot-canvassing works for two simple reasons. “People like to be complimented.” Even in these wary times, he argues, most people welcome a friendly pat on the back when they've been working hard. “About 80% of people talk to me. Every now and then I'll get some nut who tells me to get away from them,” he says, but hostility is rare.

The other reason spot-canvassing succeeds, according to Uhlmann, is because no one does it any more. “There's no competition when you're spot-canvassing,” he says.

Uhlmann rarely gets jobs on the spot, but many homeowners call him weeks or months later. He acknowledges that spot-canvassing works better for replacement products than for complex remodeling jobs and that some communities prohibit solicitation of any kind.

“It's a lot of hard work,” says Uhlmann of spot-canvassing. “But it's very rewarding. A lot of my competitors are complaining that business is slow.” He notes that his company — for which he's the only salesperson — has a healthy backlog of business.