When EnergySwing Windows, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Murraysville, threw its first customer appreciation event, Don Darragh felt like he'd time traveled back to his wedding day. The company's sizzlingly successful barbecue “felt like magic,” says Darragh, vice president and sales manager at EnergySwing. Throughout the event, people approached him to shake his hand and offer congratulations.

The October 2004 barbecue was EnergySwing's first foray into customer appreciation events. It won't be the last. On that sunny autumn afternoon, some 100 people chowed down on chicken and ribs, hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and cake. They then toured the plant where the contractor manufactures its patented swing-in windows, visited the company showroom, talked with EnergySwing salespeople — and strengthened their ties to the company that had, at some point in the past, installed their windows or entry doors.

Darragh says he'd prepared a script for the salespeople to use when approaching customers. They were to strike up a conversation and thank customers for their past business and for stopping by. They were then supposed to inform customers that referral rewards were being increased and that EnergySwing now carries Crane siding.

“We didn't even have to use [the script],” he says. Instead, customers came right up and talked with Darragh and owner Steve Rennekamp, as well as with salespeople and other employees. Attendees praised the showroom and manufacturing plant. They talked about how large and clean the facilities were. “One guy said, ‘I wish you people sold fruits and vegetables, too. We'd buy everything from you,'” Darragh recalls, still amused.

EnergySwing's whole shindig cost roughly $2,000. Four contracts were signed as a direct result. “And who knows how much trickle-down we'll get?” Darragh asks.

Customer appreciation events such as EnergySwing's take planning, preparation, and a budget — but not much more than that. They also put your company in a class of its own, because few home improvement operations will bother to try. Think about it: Reminding past customers of who you are and what you've done for them allows you to tap a rich vein of new jobs, both repeat and referral. Whether you have a 10,000-square-foot showroom to show off or just a modest office, whether you serve catered food or Mom's homemade, whether you do cabinet refacing and tub reliners, install windows, or specialize in siding, roofing, and gutter protection, you too can hold a customer appreciation event and reap the rewards — namely, immediate new business and future good will for your company.

Event Planner Indoors or outdoors? That'll depend on the time of year. Food or no food? Food, definitely. It's a catalyst that draws people together to socialize. You need to give them reasons to come, and food is a great one. So, say some contractors, is entertainment.

Many companies have experienced success with outdoor events such as barbecues or picnics. Picnics conjure up images of blue skies, tasty snacks, and relaxation. Picnics should be low-to-no pressure, simply a way to say thanks.

That's what happens on the first weekend of every August, when ABC Seamless of Northeast Ohio throws its picnic for all past customers. The Fredericksburg, Ohio, company used to hold open houses at the siding jobs it had finished. But when owners Lorin and Ann Peterson Miller sat down a few years ago to think about how to further promote their operation, they decided a picnic was the way to go. They held their first one in 2002 and stopped running open houses.

“At least half of our business is from repeat customers, and 20% to 30% comes from referrals,” Lorin Miller says. “We think the picnic has a lot to do with that.”

Another option is an indoor party, which can be held at any time of the year and can maximize use of your showroom facility. Alure Home Improvement, in Hicksville, N.Y., has turned partying-as-promotion into a fine art. Every quarter, the company holds a Caribbean-themed party on all three levels of its showroom. Each of Alure's 30 salespeople is expected to bring at least two clients. Steel drum music plays, a masseuse provides free back rubs, and a caterer offers delectables such as shrimp and sushi. “It's a great night where we can interact with customers,” explains president Sal Ferro. “We promote new business by showing them we're their friend.” Alure has been holding its quarterly parties for years.