Carlo Pinto trudged up and down a lot of streets, going door-to-door to find customers for the home improvement business he was starting. “I did the canvassing myself. I knocked on doors during the day and two evenings a week, then I'd run the appointments at night,” he recalls. That was in 1998.
For many years canvassing provided his company, Pinnacle Energy, in Maryland and Delaware, with up to 97% of its leads, Pinto says. He no longer does his own canvassing. At any given time his two locations may have 20 canvassers each, working nearby neighborhoods. Canvassing leads “are still the bulk of our business,” he says. This year Pinto estimates that canvassing will produce between 80% and 85% of Pinnacle Energy's leads.
JOIN THE CROWD
Lately it's getting crowded on the street as more home improvement contractors join in the quest for canvassing leads, driven there by faltering lead production from traditional print and TV advertising and escalating overall lead costs. Why not? A well-run canvassing program can bring in leads at as little as 7% to 9% of revenue. Canvassing can be the scalable, inexpensive lead source you're looking for.
Or it can be a fiasco. Anyone who's done it for a while will tell you that it isn't easy. Successful canvassing demands clear goals and strong systems. You must manage, recruit, train, and track results every day.
“The three best reasons to canvass are more control over leads, lower lead cost, and faster lead generation,” says Chuck Anton, sales and marketing consultant and REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR columnist. “If I need a lead today, I can walk down the street, spot a house that needs gutter protection, for example, walk up to the door and get a lead. If I tell my story correctly and pick a house that has a need, canvassing is the best form of direct marketing.” In addition, a canvassing lead can be generated for $85 to $125, Anton says.
CANVASSING DO'S AND DON'TS
Here are a few tips from consultants and contractors who have successfully canvassed for years:
- Understand your goal. Determine what you want from your program, advises Chris Thompson, president of Canvassking, a consulting and training company in Ohio. Do you want it to be a lead source or simply one that complements others? You can start small in either case, but those goals ultimately require different infrastructure.
- Decide where and when to set the lead. Do you want your canvassers to get names and numbers that can then be turned into potential leads, or are you looking for leads right there at the door? This is a critical question, says Roy Williams, president of American Eagle Builders in Arlington, Texas, who has managed a canvassing program since 1976. He prefers gathering names and numbers of prospects, who can then be contacted by “someone talented enough to call back and set something up,” rather than relying on a relatively inexperienced canvasser to generate the lead.
The other school of thought suggests training canvassers to immediately set the appointment. “Our canvassers set the appointment when both homeowners will be present and call it in from the door to make sure we have that time available,” says Rob Holtzhauer, lead generation manager for Prince William Home Improvement, in Woodbridge, Va., where he has run the canvassing program for about eight years. Cell phones or BlackBerries are good for this purpose.
- Before you knock on the first door, have systems in place. Thompson advises those considering launching a canvassing program to “ask yourself how you're going to recruit, train, and manage canvassers.” Figure that out well before starting, and have systems in place for each of those functions. You'll also need to work through the administrative side of canvassing, i.e., planning which neighborhoods to canvass, and regularly tracking canvassing results.
- The demo rate is a key metric. How many canvassing leads, at what ratio of leads to sales, will you need to generate your sales goal? Hire a consultant, or network with colleagues to find out. At Prince William Home Improvement, president Scott Holtzhauer says, “We run almost a 40% demo rate. When scheduling appointments, you can pretty much figure that 40% will go by the wayside, 20% will be call-backs and resets that float in limbo for a while, and 40% will demo.”
- Develop canvassing managers from within. The job of canvassing manager is grueling. It's a critical position that's hard to fill. Most contractors hire from inside the company. “We've always found people in our salesforce who weren't great salespeople but who had the personality and the drive to do the marketing end of it, and we made them marketing managers,” says George Dunning, president of Homefix Corp., in South Orange, N.J.
But don't let the lack of a manager delay your canvassing program, Anton says. Get started. Hire three canvassers and tell them that the one who learns the job the best and the quickest will probably be promoted to manager. And be sure to tell the others that they'll have ample opportunities to rise in the organization as you expand the program, he says.
- Recruit selectively. Look for recruits who are outgoing, oral, and who learn quickly. It's important that they are respectful, appropriately dressed, and able to look you in the eye when speaking with you because, as Holtzhauer points out, “they're the first representatives of your company the homeowner talks to.”
- Canvass for canvassers. Your canvassing force may turn over every two to three months. So you'll always be recruiting. Your typical recruits will be mostly high school upperclassmen and college students, with a smattering of retirees and stay-at-home moms.
To find new canvassers, Dunning puts ads in school newspapers, supports school athletic programs, sets up recruiting tables in school cafeterias, and distributes fliers in school parking lots and on college campuses. Movie theaters, malls, and campus dorms are also good places to look for canvassers. In addition, canvassers themselves are a great source of recruits if you give them an incentive to spread the word to their friends and schoolmates. Internet sites such as Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) and “social networking” sites such as MySpace.com are also highly productive, Thompson suggests. In recruiting, many companies avoid the word “canvassing,” preferring “direct marketing.”
- Train and motivate every day. Daily meetings are essential because they allow you to capitalize on success and reinforce good habits. “You have to talk to these kids every day,” says David Sonner, co-owner of Illinois Energy Windows & Siding, in Lombard, Ill. “We pick a topic every day and work with them before they go out.”
Constant contests keep Illinois Energy canvassers motivated: daily cash spiffs for the day's top performer; $50 gift certificates for top canvasser of the month; a bonus hourly wage for pay-period winners; and longer contests for vacation trips.
- Role-play to maximize performance. Your canvassers can memorize a script to recite at the door. That's just the beginning, though. Holtzhauer trains canvassers “how to stand, talk, use arm and hand movements,” he says. He also teaches them to ring the bell rather than knock, then step away from the door and look straight ahead so the homeowner can see who's at the door. “We don't walk on grass, brush against cars, or open storm doors to knock on the entry door because people may perceive that we're trying to get into the house.” Practice different situations with the group. As in a sales meeting, role-playing will equip canvassers to handle objections at the door.
- A clean-cut image is essential. Shirts and jackets with your company's logo, worn with khakis or other appropriate slacks, are a must. Provide canvassers with company-made photo IDs they can wear around their necks. In addition, “you want them to look like the boy next door,” says Dunning, who advises against “earrings, nose rings, tongue rings, purple hair, pony tails, and Mohawks.”
- Do your homework on permits. Williams, of American Eagle Builders, estimates that 90% of the communities where the company canvasses now require permits. Sonner, of Illinois Energy, estimates that 60% of the neighborhoods in his market area require permits. In some cases, getting a permit is little more than a formality. But some towns require fingerprinting and background checks, which make it impractical to get a permit. Know what you're up against, then decide whether it's worth it to canvass in that area. You do have a legal right to canvass. (See “Right to Canvass,” this page.)
- Numbers define performance. Any company with a serious canvassing program tracks its leads, sets, and sales. Sonner knows what each canvasser produces, their average leads per day, the number of leads out, and how many hours they've worked. Pinto monitors leads per hour, as well as the cost per lead, cost per demo, and cost per sale. These numbers are shared with canvassers and define acceptable performance. “They know they need to generate 0.3 leads per hour, minimum,” Pinto says. “Anything less than that, we work with them to bring it up, or we terminate their employment.”
- Rehash those leads. You have to rehash canvassing leads to get their full value. “Probably 80% of our leads have to be telemarketed,” Sonner says. He will follow a lead for three years or more. Illinois Energy gets a lot of sales from long-rehashed leads, Sonner points out. “We have one out today that we canvassed in 2004.”
- Perseverance furthers. This old Chinese proverb holds true for canvassing. Many companies fail at canvassing because “they don't have patience enough to get the program to work,” Williams says. “A canvassing program is like a newborn baby: You have to nurture it and you've got to have patience.”
—Jay Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Jamestown, R.I.
RIGHT TO CANVASS
In a 2002 decision widely interpreted as reaffirming the right to canvass under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Stratton, Ohio, ordinance that required a permit before knocking on the doors of private homes to promote a cause.
In an 8–1 decision of a suit brought by Jehovah's Witnesses, the justices found that although the town could regulate commercial activities, such as selling products, the law was so broadly written as to restrict constitutionally protected speech.
The ordinance required canvassers to carry their permits when going door-to-door and to show their identification when asked by either the police or a resident. The ordinance imposed criminal penalties on those who failed to comply.
In his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens called it “offensive — not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society — that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.”