Tom Capizzi, owner of Capizzi Home Improvement, in Cotuit, Mass., was jogging on the beach in San Diego when he had an idea. To generate additional business from past customers, the company would make an offer that would grab homeowners' attention: Clean their gutters, for free.

“I was thinking about the time-share people,” Capizzi says. “They give you a free night in a hotel, and in return you sit through their presentation. If you didn't know anything about that business model, you'd think they'd go broke. But it's one of the most successful programs imaginable.”

CAREFUL LIMITS The offer went out as a postcard to the company's past customers and unsold prospects. Capizzi says he carefully structured it so the company wouldn't be “buried in free gutter-cleaning jobs.” Each time a postcard hit the mail, the particular promotion had a start and finish date, and the first 50 people who responded got the free cleaning, whether they bought a job or not. They were also obligated to sit through a presentation by a company salesperson.

The gutter cleaning jobs are done by Capizzi Home Improvement field staff. A cleaning — scooping out muck and hosing out the gutters — takes about two hours. The company won't do gutter cleaning on houses of more than two stories.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT In the first year, the gutter cleaning promotion generated $300,000 of work at a cost, Capizzi says, of about $4,000 for the postcard and labor involved in cleaning the gutters — a marketing cost of less than 1.5% on the work sold. The promotion was repeated at the end of 2010 and into this year. Jobs generated average $3,500 and range from repair and maintenance work to the occasional job in the $20,000 or $40,000 range. Capizzi Home Improvement does both replacement jobs and design/build remodels.

According to Capizzi, the key to the promotion's success is leveling with prospects, what he calls “Reason Why” copy, explaining “how and why we can do this” and “why it's worth it for us to help you.” The promotion's success also depends on having salespeople who, on visiting a prospect, can recognize and suggest what might be needed to be done around the property. “You've got to have the back end to support what you do, and you have to have the right people running the leads,” Capizzi says.