As a really old guy, I must admit to a knowledge deficit in the area of modern marketing, some types of communications and some newer trends in technology. In an effort to understand the whys and wherefores of the trades today, and where they’re going (I already knew where they came from), I make it my business to read periodicals and other trade related publications regularly in an attempt to make my column informative and timely.

I’ve noted that most magazines and periodicals contain articles by contractors, lawyers, suppliers and other people who have an abiding interest in things trade related. There are also usually several articles by business consultants. These range from successful contractors, who have decided to market their success stories to other like minded contractors, to MBAs that can help take your business to the next level, but who have no trade knowledge or experience. Yet they do have a lot of business savvy and education in the area of business management.

If there is one thing contractors need, it is business skills. Whether obtained by trial and error, education or pure dumb luck, the skills necessary to stay in business while navigating the often treacherous waters of today’s contracting marketplace require a good grasp of not only the craft, but of business. Not everyone has what it takes to move vertically through the industry. There are some who will always eke out a living as a one man shop, others who don’t want to get bigger than a few guys for fear of the headaches getting larger engenders, and still others who have graduated from the aforementioned and are ready to swim with the big guys.

Each individual contractor knows his (or her) business inside and out. At least they should. But not every contractor knows the marketplace the same way. That’s where the consultant comes in.  Some focus on improving your business and how to make it more efficient, some are experts in the marketplace and communications. Marketing has become such a large part of the trades with the advent of global media and the computer revolution that anyone with the right angle can put themselves in a position to capture a large market share whether it be a local neighborhood shop or a national franchise.

 Is it right for you?

In almost every size company there are blind spots. If you are an owner and are focused on your business, it is easy to get tunnel vision at one time or another. When the time comes to make a decision about generating new business or expanding the size of your shop, or just wanting to smooth out the bumps and improve your operation, you really need to consider a lot of things that you don’t normally deal with. 

As a company grows and expands, the type and frequency of the challenges it faces in the marketplace changes dramatically and often. With ever greater pressure from competitors for available jobs to ever-increasing and onerous government regulations, a company on the path of growth has to be nimble and ready to change and adapt quickly.  Hiring someone who can keep you on the growth path with good, solid advice and knowledge might just be the ticket.

To be sure, business consultants don’t work for free and that expense needs to be considered when engaging one. Generally though, most consultants have a sliding scale of fees for services and can usually tailor their services to fit your budget. You can also prequalify the type of consulting that you are looking for. As above, if you are interested in streamlining your day-to-day operations, a consultant with a track record and trade experience might be your choice. On the other hand, if you are looking to improve your market share or become more media savvy, then engaging the services of a media consultant might be the avenue you chose.

If you’re a small operator, perhaps the idea of hiring an outside consultant might seem a bit extravagant, and maybe it is, but these folks are in business for a reason. That reason is that not every good craftsman is a good businessman. To use a sports analogy; in baseball if someone is a good base runner and fielder, but has a less than stellar batting average, they can call in a pinch hitter. That way the club can utilize its assets more efficiently and get a better result. Having someone with the knowledge and a fresh perspective advising you can be very helpful. In a lot of cases, just one suggestion or insight from a consultant can recoup the fees. The bottom line though is whether you feel that hiring a consultant will be worth your while. Sometimes, you just have to take that first step and find out.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached atallen@proquilldriver.com.