Credit: Illustration: Matt Wood

For home improvement companies, the biggest casualty of the economic downturn is the inbound lead. Media and direct mail ad campaigns no longer produce the predictable quantities of customer contacts they once did.

This has caused some companies to consider canvassing. But although canvassing does produce leads, it's also difficult to master and sustain.

Rough Road

Canvassing ? cold calling for leads at the door ? is not only difficult for the canvasser, it's tough to manage and demands a great deal of time and attention on all levels. "You have to reinforce the basics of the job every day," says Carlo Pinto, owner of Pinnacle Energy, a roofing, siding, and window replacement company in Delaware and Maryland. At one time in its 11-year history, virtually all Pinnacle Energy leads came from canvassing, which is how Pinto got his start.

Ray Melani, president and CEO of Melani Bros., in Yorktown, Va., and his brother, Ron, similarly started by knocking on doors, but went on to build a sophisticated marketing machine. Today canvassing is once more Melani Bros.' major lead source. The company runs two, sometimes three vans.

For Seth Cammeyer, co-owner of ImproveIt Home Remodeling, in Columbus, Ohio, canvassing accounted for 21% of the company's leads last year, but is tracking at 36% in 2009. Cammeyer says that the demands of managing a canvass operation are such that "if you don't understand it, it will eat you alive." Not only is recruiting, training, and supervising an ongoing challenge, so is managing the canvassing lead at the sales level when salespeople are used to inbound leads.

Prepare to Play

Still, "more companies are doing it now than five years ago," says Chris Thompson, a consultant specializing in home improvement canvassing (reach him at Canvass­King, He points out that when companies fail at canvassing, it's because they didn't prepare properly, especially in converting inquiries into appointments and schooling reps in how to handle the canvass lead.

Want to start canvassing? Hire a manager who can build the program.

But even if you succeed in getting a canvassing operation up and running, which takes, experts say, about three tries, building an entire marketing effort around canvassing isn't wise. "You should have five or six strong lead sources," Thompson advises.

Several years ago Pinto set a goal that 50% of the company's leads would be generated by repeat and referral. So far, Pinnacle Energy gets about 20% of its leads from those sources. Getting to 50%, Pinto says, will require "a change of culture."