Last August, Joe Zisman, owner of Ambassador Home Improvements, in Harrisburg, Pa., started looking for someone to oversee the company's marketing. The job involves managing a mix of more than 25 lead sources, including telemarketing, print, electronic media, and a new canvassing effort. Today, after interviewing more than 40 people and spending several thousand dollars advertising the position, he's still looking.

“I've tried everything — recruiters, suppliers. I've even tried stealing ... in a nice way.” Until he can fill the position, Zisman is spending 25% to 50% of his time as the company's marketing manager.

Critical Mass Whatever a home improvement company's size, marketing is a key function. So important is it that the average company typically spends anywhere from 8% to 18% — with some spending even more — generating leads for the sales organization. That compares with an average of somewhere between 2% and 4% at all types of companies in the United States, whether manufacturing or service. But the marketing that home improvement companies do hardly resembles the type of big corporate ad campaigns consumers are more familiar with.

“People don't call us,” says Kimberly Hebert, marketing director at Home Comfort Now, a Hartford, Conn., window, sunroom, and gutter protection company. Instead, at the shows and events where Home Comfort Now generates 80% of its leads, demonstrators are trained to discern real interest and book the appointment right there.

Home improvement companies engage in what Fred Finn, owner of Chicago-area window company Euro-Tech, calls “immediate response marketing.” They're not marketing to build a long-term brand so much as to produce leads right away. Whether it's canvassing, telemarketing, or SFI kiosks, home improvement marketers create the leads today, and the salesman's on his way over for the appointment tomorrow.

Therein lies the problem for the owner of a home improvement company faced with replacing a marketing manager. Corporate marketers get an ad budget, develop a marketing plan, commission creation of materials, and buy media. That often leaves them “clueless,” according to Zisman, when asked to manage the marketing of roofing, siding, or windows.

Ambassador's owner found this out last August, when he briefly employed someone whose previous job involved marketing for a company far larger than his own. (Ambassador did $5.5 million in sales last year.) Zisman's hire came from more of a media placement background, he says, where they set up a media plan including television, newspaper, radio, and direct mail. “He never really had any experience with the face-to-face contact that's necessary. Shows and events, canvassing, drop box programs, referral leads.” His hire, Zisman notes, “said all the right things in the interview process. He said he'd learn all phases of what we do. But he never did.”

The Lead Matrix The ideal candidate for the job of marketing manager at a home improvement company brings two fundamental assets to the job. The first is direct (meaning in-home) selling experience. The second is an ability to buy advertising in a way that delivers maximum bang for the media buck.

Without the first, your candidate may be unable to deliver enough quality leads to keep your sales force busy. Without the second, you could end up losing your shirt.

“Obviously, building a brand is important,” says Brad Bishop, owner of Rembrandt Remodeling, a window, siding, and basement finishing company in Atlanta. “On the other hand, I don't think that holds a lot of weight when it comes to hiring somebody. Their experience with in-home selling, with the one-call close, that's going to be the most important thing.” Bishop, whose company has separate managers responsible for telemarketing, SFI, and inbound radio/TV leads, says if he were hiring a marketing manager today his preference would be for someone already working in the home improvement industry. That, he points out, is not the course he takes when hiring salespeople.

Everything at a home improvement company flows from leads and is directed at the specific number of those leads needed to keep the sales force bringing in new business. Rick Edwards, owner of Custom Patio Rooms, a Pittsburgh-based operation that manufactures sunrooms sold through eight franchised dealers, says the marketing budget reflects the amount of business the company seeks, as determined by the number of salespeople to be fielded. That, in turn, is based on the assumption that each salesperson will need 40 leads per month, and that those leads will average out at about $200 each.

Finding those leads is the marketing manager's job — not necessarily his or her only job, but far and away the one that matters most.

Companies looking for marketing managers, says Phoenix marketing and sales recruiter Terri Robinson (, “need someone savvy about getting them the responses they're looking for.” Robinson advises corporations looking for marketing managers to hire on expertise. Does the candidate understand what leads mean for the sales force? Does he or she have experience in telemarketing, canvassing, events marketing, lead tracking? Companies that hire a marketing manager without that expertise, she says, “are going to end up with a lot of money spent and no results.”

Lead From Experience That's why home improvement companies looking for marketing managers generally prefer to hire from within first, to hire someone from another home improvement company second, and, if all else fails, to hire from outside the industry. Only a few will hire outside the industry in an effort to take their marketing in a new, and different, direction (see “Fresh Air,” page 66).

Many of the candidates Zisman has interviewed had marketing experience in abundance. Many, he says, came from a corporate marketing background. Their concept of what was involved in the job at Ambassador was limited to “sitting behind a desk making media buys and marketing a corporate identity.”

That experience does not lend itself to the type of hands-on leadership role a marketing position at a home improvement company demands. Managers usually have to be directly involved in helping telemarketers, canvassers, demonstrators, and other employees solve problems and be more productive.

So what if your choice of applicants doesn't include someone with home improvement experience? Robinson says marketing applicants without such experience should come to the interview with at least some research under their belts.

“It would be a good idea in that initial interview for [applicants] to show the owner that they've taken the time to understand home improvement,” she says. “A lot of marketing people think they can market anything, but without a good understanding of what that market is, or who they're selling to, I don't think they can.” Robinson also points out that at companies with large marketing budgets and a pressing need for sales leads, marketers will have little or no time to learn the industry. “The critical thing is that they hit the ground running.” She advises looking for assertive individuals who can adapt their skills to the job's demands.

Who You Know A take-charge person is exactly the sort Jan Frolich had in mind last December when he resolved to fill the company's marketing slot, already two years vacant. The North Dakota company, in business for 28 years, generates 95% of sales through referrals, repeat customers, or reputation. “Our history,” says Frolich, vice president of Leingang Home Center in Mandan, “makes the marketing relatively simple.” However, Frolich says, he had decided it was time to do more shows. He also wanted to do more marketing to past customers, including staging customer appreciation events.

“We always look for self-starters,” he says. “Someone who doesn't need a ton of guidance.” Frolich ultimately contacted someone he had “seen around” at local marketing events. Six months later, he considers it a successful hire.

Several years ago, Edwards hired as his marketing manager the guy who'd been selling him ad space in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The job at Custom Patio Rooms involves overseeing a call center that produces 50% of leads for all eight branches, as well as making media buys and negotiating with show and event sponsors. Edwards' hire also proved successful, mainly because of the marketing manager's experience in buying print and electronic media and considerable negotiating skills.

For instance, when Custom Patio Rooms entered the Columbus, Ohio, market, the company had budgeted $20,000 per month, mainly for newspapers, but with the long-term goal of marketing through such events as the Ohio State Fair and the Columbus Home and Garden Show. Neither venue was open to the company. But after a year of “tenacious” pursuit, Custom Patio Rooms won a slot at the Ohio State Fair and, a little later, a position at the Home and Garden Show, despite originally having been denied on the basis that a number of sunroom installation companies were waiting to get in.

His marketing manager did that, Edwards says, by convincing show management that Custom Patio Rooms was different from competitors in that it manufactured its own product. He also reminded the Columbus Dispatch, which sponsors the Home and Garden Show, of the considerable sums the company was spending on ad pages.

How to Pay Them Corporate marketing positions typically pay anywhere from $35,000 for assistants to $125,000 for marketing directors, according to a salary survey published in The Wall Street Journal. But compensation at a home improvement company works differently. The marketing manager, says Terri Moore, “needs to have a fair and equitable base salary, but should be given incentives based on what they produce.”

Home improvement company owners generally agree that a marketing manager's compensation should consist of a base salary augmented by bonuses tied to specific productivity targets, such as the quality and quantity of leads produced.

Frank Farmer, owner of American Roofs, in Flushing, Mich., suggests that another performance incentive is a bonus based on holding down costs. “Say the company predetermines its marketing budget at 15%,” Farmer says. “Then the marketing manager can share in a bonus when the net lead costs are coming in at less than 15%. That way he has a vested interest in negotiating those contracts properly.”

Fresh Air When Fred Finn, president of Euro-Tech, set out to hire a new marketing manager, he had a clear set of goals in mind. The owner of the window replacement company in Bensenville, Ill., wanted someone who could work smoothly with the sales force. He wanted more leads, and he wanted to bump the percentage of leads that turned into actual appointments from 59% to 70%. He wanted someone with computer and Web design experience to move the company's marketing in the direction of e-mail communication, database management, and Web-generated leads. In fact, one of the new hire's first responsibilities would be to test, and report back on, the lead tracking software the company plans to invest in.

And Finn wanted someone from outside the home improvement industry to bring “fresh air” — new ideas and perspective — to his $7 million operation.

All this was in addition to looking for someone who is what Finn calls a “plate spinner” — someone with the energy and management skills to keep the company's SFI, phone room, and canvassing operations productive and in motion.

The ads Euro-Tech placed on and in the print and online versions of Chicago's major papers produced 250 responses. Finn estimates he interviewed more than 20 people. The person he hired in February had no home improvement experience, so the company owner sent him to work with Euro-Tech demonstrators in a Sam's Club. He also sent him out to run leads with the salespeople.

Finn says other home improvement company owners he knows strongly advised against hiring from outside the industry. But Finn, who with partner Stan Statkiewicz has owned Euro-Tech for 15 years, says that while he took such suggestions seriously, he ultimately decided to hire not only outside his company but outside the industry.

“I wanted to know how we could improve our lead-gathering systems,” Finn says. “I wanted someone who'd worked outside, who could tell me, ‘This is why I think we can make this better.'”