Here's an experiment: Write down everything that makes your company different. Do you have an outstanding product? Is every phone call personally answered? Does your company guarantee its workmanship for 10 years? Twenty? Do you have a service department that promptly responds to calls?

Write it all down.

Now make a list of the things your competitors offer. Be fair, honest, and thorough.

When you're done, scratch off each item on your list that's also on the competitor list. What's left is what makes your company different.

What if there's nothing left?

It means you have to find or create something. That might sound difficult, but it's not, really. The key to being successful in any business is to think like a customer. What does your customer actually expect from a home improvement company?

Probably not much. Most people who hire a contractor have low expectations. Many are afraid they'll pay far more than they need to for a job that's less than what was promised. Understanding that gives you an advantage. It means you have the opportunity to analyze every aspect of your business that touches the customer, find whatever shortfalls there are, and make your company exemplary.

Say, for instance, that between the time the contract is signed and the morning the crew shows up, six weeks go by and nobody calls that customer. Here's a big one: Set up a system to keep each customer fully informed about what's happening. Assign one person in your office to take charge of that. If the customer prefers not to be called, get their e-mail address and let them know that the product has been ordered, the product has been received, that a start date has been set, and what time they can expect the crew leader to knock on their door.

Or, try this. Personally hand every customer your business card with your cell phone number on it and invite them to call you if there's any problem with the job. Chances are good that they never will, but think how impressed they'll be when you invite them to do that. Think that's worth a referral? Take a look at the competitor list. Is that on there?

If you spent an hour thinking about it you could probably find 10 ways to outflank your competition. Most of them will have to do with customer service. So make a third list. And write them down.

Jim Cory, Editor