ONE LINE OF thinking in the contracting world is that if you do a great job on a service call, that customer will call on you again. I wish it were that simple. "Call us if you need us again," should never be the last words your customer hears from you. If they are, there's trouble ahead.

Yes, by all means, you should give your customers your highest level of service ... thus setting yourself apart from "here today, gone tomorrow" plumbers in town. But that's not enough.

Acquiring the lead through effective marketing is part of the battle to secure a solid customer base. The ability to follow through with your technical expertise and superior sales skills is definitely needed. Yet, your highest level of service also must come into play after the job is done.

Every new customer is an opportunity for new business but not just from that single "emergency" need. Every new customer has the potential to call on you again and again, as well as recommend you to family and friends. Every new customer represents an opportunity for long-term service and profit. So, do you:

A. Openly attempt to drive customers to your competition?

B. Not really do much after the sale?

C. Use a strong retention program? I hope you picked C.

Your job, if you want to run a profitable plumbing business, is to look at the first call as the beginning of a relationship that will be a benefit to both of you in the years to come. The marketing answer to this need involves an effective Customer Retention program that keeps you in touch with your own customers several times a year. It's as essential as any acquisition marketing you can do, and it's not nearly as mysterious as you might think.

Effective Customer Retention begins right after the first job is completed — many times with a follow-up call from either the service tech or the company owner/ president just to make sure the work was done to the customer's satisfaction.

Another inexpensive element of a strong retention program is a "thank you" note. It's not just being "polite," it's a reinforcement of your appreciation for your customer's business. Like the phone call, it should come from the tech or the company owner/president within a week of the job's completion.

Refrigerator magnets with your company's name on them aren't just " freebies" from your company. They serve a purpose. They hold little Johnny's artwork on the refrigerator gallery, while keeping the name of your company 24/7 in the customer's home where visitors can also see your company's name. Get the picture? You can include them with the thank you note or have the service tech leave them behind when the job is done.

I'm also a big advocate of the Customer Retention Newsletter, which is an automatic program two to four times a year. It builds relationships and gives customers rich, interesting information that is useful in helping them run their households safely and cost efficiently. Don't you think they'll appreciate you for that?

This time of year offers an especially good opportunity to bring out one of the most heart-warming tools in your Customer Retention toolbox. If you really want to show customers you care, low-cost holiday cards should be on the top of the list for the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

The trick is to get your card to stand out from all the other cards. If it doesn't, it's a waste. We've been working on this for years. Here are some tips to help you:

First of all, the "regular" sized cards blend into the stack and may not get read. Go oversized so people will see it, usually a 5 1/2 in. by 8 1/2 in. is perfect. It's large enough and inexpensive.

Next, the off-the-shelf cards with a picture of an ornament or some cartoon Santa and over-used holiday phrases may be common, but that's the trouble — they're common. They don't stand out or hold a customer's interest. The message is either worn out or just plain goofy. Your message should be unique, inspiring and thoughtful. Since we were unable to find any good " contractor specific" cards, we created some you can review at www.hudsonink.com. We have eight contractor designs there (two for Thanksgiving, six Christmas) that may give you some ideas.

For postage, we recommend going First Class. Why? Well, these should go to your complete customer list, which means you'll get back the undeliverables, allowing you to "clean" your list. If you go "standard" rate trying to save a few pennies, you'll never know who has moved.

Plus it'll take them far longer to get there, and time is of the essence. So, the Holiday Card approach gives you a great "once a year" list cleaning with a very inexpensive piece. Makes sense.

Retention marketing of this kind is particularly important at the end of the year, because any sales message sent between Dec.10 and Jan. 12 is a waste of money. Yet, you don't want to forget your customers during the holidays and you don't want them to forget you.

Holiday cards offer the best chance to address both issues while making an important Customer Retention contact. They get the right message at the right time to a very valuable group of people — your customer base — and in a way that lifts their spirits and expresses appreciation for their business.

Customers do 100% of the buying. They also do 100% of the repeat buying. And they do about 100% of the referring. But they only know you care in the same exact way anyone would know you care. You've got to tell them, show them, and prove it to them.

A strong Customer Retention program is the tried-and-true method for doing just that. So, make sure you remember your customers, this holiday season and all year long.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a creative marketing firm for contractors. Call 800/489-9099 for more information or visit www.hudsonink.com for many free marketing articles and reports. To receive a free marketing newsletter, fax the request on your letterhead to 334/262-1115.