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For the past couple of years, we’ve started a blog for each of our large projects. The premise  is simple: once a week, a designated person from the field office sends digital images and brief descriptions to our home office. We manage that information, and on Tuesdays post to each project’s page.

So, why do we go to the trouble? I’ll give you three good reasons.

Our Customers. The folks we have the privilege to work with aren’t always near their construction sites. The blogs give a visual check-in for them. They’re also great bragging tools. We’ve found our customer relationships often like to share their blog site with their team or with their own prospects.

Our Communities. A construction site is a living, growing thing. As projects move along, the community has a right to see progress–at a safe distance. I’d like to give everyone in the community a hardhat tour of the places we are building, but being more realistic, project blogs give them a front row seat complete with commentary.

Our People. Listed last, but certainly not counted least, is our Stewart Perry team. Since our business spreads across the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, it’s virtually impossible for each team member to visit each site. Project blogs let them participate and give them a sense of pride in all our work.

Would a blog be a good way to chronicle work on your next site? We’ve found project blogs an invaluable tool for building, maintaining and improving relationships.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

In this economy, do you feel like you have to be in 1000 different places at once? If a customer or prospective customer has an opportunity, you want to be there, always staying close. But never too close.  I know the feeling.

Image: Business Management

The good news is, being out of sight no longer means you have to be out of mind.

With today’s networking tools and social media options, it is easier than ever to stay connected to customer relationships.

That’s important, because a well-maintained positive relationship can decide whether a current customer stays or goes elsewhere.

Relationships can also be the reason a potential prospect selects a new partner.

I feel like we are passionate about helping our customers (and others) and I want to stay closely connected to them, but I want to do it in ways that are most effective. Here is what has worked for me:

● I try to figure out how many times a customer wishes to receive contact from me. Once a week, once a month, once a quarter?

● I determine what time of the day and week they prefer to receive contact. I’ve found some people like to receive non-urgent communication over the weekend, so they can look at it first thing Monday morning before diving into the work week.

● I use different forms of communication, mixing up emails with phone calls and personal letters.

● I send articles that pertain to the interests of a particular customer.

Most important, I try to help the customer become more successful by connecting them with opportunities and projects.

I do all this because I genuinely like our customers. We try to work with customers who are, first of all, decent individuals who stand for the same character issues in life that we stand for and who represent quality organizations.

To me, if you help others first, all other things being equal,  then something good will come back to you.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

As important as office presence may be, I’m a firm believer in pockets of downtime. A break from email and task-oriented duties, however small, always brings me back to a top priority: family and friends.

When a customer (who I also count as a good friend) invited me to join him and his wife at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, I accepted without hesitation. The plan was for an evening enjoying A Prairie Home Companion. I brought my daughter, a senior in college, as company.

Sitting three rows back from the stage was unbelievable.

I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor and his show on National Public Radio. A Prairie Home Companion is a variety show of down-home humor and thoughtful monologues on life, with spirited musical performances sprinkled throughout. The shows are loosely set in the author’s fictional boyhood home, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet Keillor during a trip to his real home of Minnesota, but I had never seen him on stage. It was a pleasure to attend the 1,280th show of his career.

Emmylou Harris, a Birmingham native, sang eloquently about a friend who had passed away from cancer recently. There was not a dry eye in the house. Sam Bush showed off his mastery of the mandolin, and Pat Donohue demonstrated why he is considered to be one of the world’s greatest fingerpickers. We had a wonderful time. (Images from evening on our Weekend Collection at FlickR)

Back at home, whenever I listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio it reminds me of that delightful evening in the company of friends and my daughter. It’s an experience that was well worth the time away from corporate duties. Definitely “above average.”

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Three years ago we decided to plant a few tomato plants beside our office. That small patch of land has become much more.

Our plot has grown into a full garden featuring silver queen corn, rosemary, strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, turnip greens, cucumbers, peppers and of course—tomatoes.

Beyond the beautiful produce, the beds have become a way for our company to share with the community. In the height of the growing season we harvest vegetables and put them on our kitchen table.

We share among our employees, friends that drop by and our neighbors. One year we had an over-abundance of tomatoes, so it became a team effort to see what all you could make out of a tomato. You’d be amazed at the creative recipes.

It is a joy for all of our employees to share what we grow with our customers. When we build a building we give them a home for their team, but being able to share from our garden extends into their homes as well.

Those personal relationships are the foundation of our company.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email


Thanks to several social media tools, I have been able to stay connected with increased frequency than before web 2.0.  A couple of years ago we started using several  of these  and the effectiveness of helping with relationships has been very encouraging.  I can count on a brief exchange with someone due to my blog posts, as you see here, on Facebook or on Twitter.  On the other hand, I will say that social media can be a detriment to your time management efforts.

The internet is a large and highly populated space and it is easy to get lost or chasing rabbit trails. I compare it to someone looking into a refrigerator when one is hungry, but not really sure what they want, yet they open the door to see if anything has changed. Some would compare it to insanity; doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.

But through the use of Social Media, companies can now focus their attention on specific audiences much easier and start topics of conversation with just a sentence.  In addition, you can make people feel more important by personalizing the messages sent.  I enjoy reaching out to old friends to check on their well-being as well as business acquaintances, as I believe that this is a lost aspect of business today.

I believe that the economy is getting better and to me, it more important than ever before to be sure that you’re strengthening and maintaining relationships with your clients and associates in the most efficient ways across multiple platforms.

Listed below are some other blog posts to help you on your way:

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

It’s easy to get bogged down with the day-to-day activities and then add in family and just life in general. We lose contact with those that are an import part of our lives, whether professional or personal. We are then reminded of them by something that we see or hear.

Through the years, I have made many friends and associates. I am as guilty as anyone whenever I forget to return a phone call or an email due to my own duties throughout the day. It is not intentional. But it takes just a few moments to use what I believe to be the simplest contact tools already sitting on my desk.

These tools are a phone and a pen.

It is a very quick process to pick up a pen and write out a quick note on a company post card. But it can be the make or break for your business nowadays. We live in a highly competitive world and a gesture such as remembering someone’s love of the outdoors and sending them an article out of a magazine that you believe they may find interesting touches their mind and heart.

Returning a phone call is something that I find people are not always willing to do. I make every attempt to either answer the phone as I receive calls or to call back as soon as I am able. It may sound old-fashioned and to some it may be, especially in this hectic, fast-paced world today.

Yet, I strongly believe that a very simple phone call or a quick note can do wonders with business relationships as it breaks the monotony of the interactive barrage. This is not to say that I do not use email or one of the other communication tools such as Twitter or Facebook, as well, but the phone call and the pen offer something many of us may have left somewhere along the trail.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Call an old friend or business associate and catch up.
  • Write a 1-3 sentence email to a business associate and recommend a book.
  • Send a brief note a new business contact and include an article from the newspaper or a magazine related to their business.

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Making mistakes is common for everyone. We all make them. Admitting to mistakes is not always an immediate reaction. Instead, many try to redirect the blame to others or maybe provide incomplete answers back. I tell our folks at Stewart Perry that they will always make mistakes along the trail and it is a sign of real maturity to admit what may have happened and to provide solutions.

When I visit with our clients, I tell them that we may make some mistakes along the way on their projects and if we do, we will work toward solutions. I have been in the construction business long enough to know that customers, designers and others involved in the property development process also make mistakes. We will try to help them work through these situations as well, just as we wish for them to help us in return.

We make decisions based on the information that we are given and this information may or may not always be accurate. To me, if you accept the error instead of avoiding it, it will start the correction process sooner. The way in which you handle the mistakes can say a lot about the way you do business. Granted we do live in a society where lawyers are involved at every turn and I would think it would be safe to say that has some impact on the methods in which things are handled.

Good leaders in business admit mistakes and move on.

A couple of ideas we try to live by:

• Let’s all admit when we make a mistake and seek solutions and let’s try to have the team support each other.

• Leaders show strength by showing vulnerability. Part of this vulnerability is admitting the mistake.

Nothing is ever perfect and mistakes are sure to be made. Admitting the mistake will be appreciated, strengthen the relationship and in the end, is a win-win situation.

Is this not what we are all striving to do?

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Right-sizing, why did I not have this in my vocabulary before ’07?  Makes sense. We are constructors of buildings and handle the civil management of projects, but the bottom line is that we are service providers. Just like architects, engineers, lawyers, bankers or accountants, all service providers of different sorts.

We need to be adjusting( or at least thinking about) our overhead and other needs such as office space and selling space, if you are retailer, routinely. Constantly thinking about expanding or contracting to “right-size”.

The last three years everybody has been downsizing in the “right size” process but going the other way is equally profitable. In the last 2 months, we have hired two more office team members. Getting ready slowly as the economy heals.

Seems our retail customers are working smarter and as are our office building customers. Getting more out of less.  Some of the retailers are combining the Internet and their stores more effectively. Someone orders on the Internet and it is shipped from a store. Someone does not like their order from the Internet, they returned to the store. The stores provides a retail environment and a distribution center. Be more efficient and right sizing, a double win for the company  and a win for the customer.

Maybe I can be more disciplined in the future:

  • I promise to watch our G&A more closely which is profit spent on something else
  • I am going to try to be quicker with the decision, than I have in the past, to upsize or downsize (a common problem among contractors)

We see many good opportunities in what we have learned. What are your thoughts?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Last week we finished our United Way campaign in the city but it was not without a real push by its leadership and the United Way. Someone said that while the economy is cyclical, community needs are constant.

I have been thinking of some ways that small businesses can give back to the community that provide value to the recipient organization and at the same time provide some value to the company. A few suggestions came to mind:

  • Give time and services instead of money. Most of us can afford to part with a few hours of our time, and the personal experience usually is much more rewarding than simply writing a check. Like many, we have participated in community service for a number of years, which is fun for our folks and helps worthy organizations. The Pig Iron BBQ competition is one that fits this category we usually do annually.
  • Develop a charitable project for the entire company. Finding something the company can do together is a way to build a stronger bond among your team and help build morale.
  • Donate to non-profits instead of charging them a reduced rate for your services. If you charge the full rate and then donate some of it back to the non-profit, the donation is tax-deductible.
  • Join forces with other companies. If you cannot afford to give as much this year, reduce the amount of your donation but try to find some other companies to match it. A way to turn less into more.
  • We allow non-profits the use of our facilities. A much-needed conference facility can be of much use to a lot of non-profits nowadays.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you and your company help others. What’s the ROI on helping others?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

When the first Tour de France bicycle race was held in 1903; Maurice Garin, the winner, clocked in nearly three hours ahead of the second-place finisher, Hippolyte Auconturier. This year, the margin of victory was a mere 39 seconds. The three-week-long race covered 2,263 miles. That means winner Alberto Contador traveled each mile 0.0172 of a second faster than second-place finisher Andy Schleck; a miniscule margin to victory.

Things are looking brighter, for sure, yet the margin for error to get a project and to be successful is definitely smaller than it used to be. To me, it is important that we watch out for every opportunity and be ready for the right ones that are a fit.

Our attempt at finding and securing new business is similar to a fisherman stretching a net across a river. The web in our net has to be pretty tight these days to catch opportunities that come by and not let them slip away. There are project opportunities out there for all of us; the key is to ensure that we land our fair share.

Everyone does business different ways, but here’s what works for us:

• Remain true to our core competencies and make the most out of the opportunities.

• Building brand awareness utilizing social communications and other marketing efforts.

• Strategic Relationships with others in the industry. We keep the radar up for each other.

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email