Most remodelers are not skilled in every aspect of the business world — and they don't need to be. Part of learning how to thrive and grow in a competitive market means seeking outside help, and there are consultants who can help you become more effective in just about every business area. Many times, these consultants can help identify solutions to problems you didn't even know you had.

“In the past, this was an industry of tradesmen, not businesspeople,” says Lee Odess, vice president and general manager of CB Services in Washington, D.C., a business management company that provides consulting on issues that include insurance, scheduling, and project management. “But today, home building and remodeling are big businesses, so you have to be smarter to survive, and many homeowners expect a certain level of professionalism from their builder or remodeler.”

The trick for most remodelers is to know when they need help dealing with a challenge so their business stays healthy or is able to transition to the next level. “A lot of contractors don't know they have a problem until it's a crisis,” Odess says. But the early warning signs of trouble are often fairly obvious: Business may be down for you but not for your competitors; customers may not be as happy as they used to be; costs may have increased; or there may be trouble getting trades and vendors to provide for you. Paying attention to these challenges can alert you to problems before going to work turns into a trial by fire.

Consultants say that their relationship with every remodeling company is different. What follows are five case studies in which remodelers used consultants in various ways.

Wake-Up Call Business challenges are often bigger than they seem. Melanie Hodgdon is a Bristol, Maine–based QuickBooks adviser, but she says that her business is “not all about QuickBooks.” Remodelers usually call on her to help them learn the software, but once she's on the job, Hodgdon often finds more profound problems and ends up sticking around to provide help with general business and organizational issues.

A case in point is Goode Enterprises in Damariscott, Maine. When owners Paula and Stuart Goode hired Hodgdon to set up QuickBooks this February, they had already been in business 10 years and had picked up a few bad habits during that time. After an initial four-hour consultation, the Goodes understood that they needed to rethink many of their business practices. For instance, they had worried that raising prices would drive customers away, but Hodgdon showed them that they would have to bring in more revenue if they wanted to be profitable. This came as a shock at first. “It was like I doused them with cold water,” Hodgdon says.

But they didn't drown. To help justify the cost increase to customers, Hodgdon recommended using more detailed contracts for all jobs, regardless of size. It worked. “This has put customers at ease about how we do things,” says Paula Goode. “We were struggling, and Melanie truly helped turn our business around. She showed us that if you present yourself in a professional manner and show your work confidently, you can get what you deserve.”

More Is Better When Jim Pitcher, president of Castle Rock Construction in Suisun City, Calif., decided that he needed a more professional image and atmosphere for his growing business, he turned to Stephen Wilson of Biz-comm, a marketing consulting company in Fairview, N.C. Although business was growing, Pitcher decided that he wanted to go after bigger, more expensive jobs but didn't know how to make the transition.

One problem was that Pitcher was still spending some time in the field, so Wilson immediately told him to refocus his attention on business and to leave the hands-on work to his employees. That's typical. The first question Wilson asks any potential client is, “Have you hung up your toolbelt yet?” He says that any remodeler who wants to implement an effective marketing plan has to be totally focused on the big picture. When Wilson goes to work with a new client, he starts with an initial interview and follows up with a 50-question survey that touches on all areas of the business, including questions about the remodeling company owner, the competition, and the market area. The questionnaire not only helps Wilson understand where problems might lie, but also helps him weed out consulting relationships that won't work. “Consulting relationships go sour when the owners don't know what they're looking for,” he says. “Until you can articulate where you want to be, we can't work with you.”

Pitcher knew that he wanted to create a presence and a brand for his business, and Biz-comm ended up writing a 50-page report telling him how to get there. Some of the marketing initiatives that the consultant outlined included a newsletter, a redesign of Castle Rock's Web site, and a series of postcard mailings to everyone within a half-mile radius of ongoing jobs.