Ron Bickel, owner of Bickel Roofing, in Temple, Texas, doesn't worry much about his next jobs. He has a small ad in the local yellow pages but not much more than that. “We used to do radio, TV, newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets.” He did, that is, until he began asking people how they'd heard about his company and discovered that relatively few of his leads came from advertising. Many came from word of mouth. Bickel began to think about ways he could drive that business.

Talk of the Town He didn't have to think long. Service was the way. “We have a lot of elderly people in this town,” Bickel says. “And I noticed that whenever they got together, they talked about the nice things that happened to them — and the bad things.” Bickel also noticed that when elderly people called with minor roof problems, they often explained that they lived alone and were on a fixed income. The owner says he felt bad about charging such people for 10 minutes of his time, so he began telling them not to worry about paying him for quick-fix jobs. “And that's when they started talking about me.”

Upon the Roof Bickel, a one-time home builder, has offered a five-year warranty on labor since he started his company in 1983. A few years after that, he began including in his contracts a free yearly roof inspection, along with the offer to clean gutters, replace blown-off shingles, fix leaks, and trim back intruding tree limbs. Sometimes these after-care tasks are performed by employees, but more often they are done by Bickel himself. “While my men are out there making the money, my time is spent taking care of repairs,” he says.

And talking. Past customers can “see me, talk to me, make me coffee.” Bickel guesses he spends about 15 minutes on the roof, another half hour talking. He closes by asking clients to “please give us the opportunity to bid should you ever need a new roof.”

One result is that nearly any resident in this city of 58,000 who's elderly and needs a roof calls Bickel Roofing. Recently a large hailstorm blew through, and the company got 75% to 80% of the roofing jobs on the north end of town. “What they do when they go to church or bingo parties is they pass my name,” Bickel says.