Blast from the past: Looking at yellow-page advertising for Plumbers


Blast from the past: Looking at yellow-page advertising from the past
Since I used to work for SBC-ATT Yellow Pages for many years, it makes me chuckle posting this

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft said, “…Yellow Page usage among people say, below fifty, will drop to zero—near zero—over the next five years.” That comment may be a bit optimistic but the truth is, the trend is down, down, down. The irony of this fact is: There is an entire industry built around yellow page sales and distribution… the payments on the Lexus must still be made.

Plumbing contractors can spend $30,000 a month for a litany of yellow page services like double page ads (double bubbles) in multiple directories. When you consider that a plumber operating from Palm Beach to Miami, Florida has to be in 9 different directories with one yellow page company, it is overwhelming. I nearly went broke once trying to throw money at the yellow page salesman. I asked my salesman “Should I go with a full page ad?” The salesman looked in his files and saw that he was 2 payments late on his Cessna and said “Son, you are going to have more business than you can handle.”

Plumbers advertising in YP

you just got ripped off
It’s dangerous out there in the jungle! Plumbers have been mauled by meat eating predators and they don’t want to venture off the beaten path. Since my days of chasing a carrot tied to my nose, I have witnessed many other firms that have made the same error. Remember, all Yellow Page salesmen carry a large sheath of statistics to prove that everything they say is true. Let’s look at some facts that I have personally learned and witnessed; namely,

· It costs about $20 to generate a call from the Yellow Pages. If you don’t answer the phones after hours or if your phone skills are marginal, this cost could be $50 or more. Remember that this is $20 per call, not $20 per job booked! Car dealers spend an average of $200 to get you to walk in the door and you might just kick the tires and leave!

· The display ad that generates the most calls for the expense is the size of a dollar bill… in fact, in yellow page jargon; this is called “a dollar bill.” This study was conducted by me from 1991 to 1997, with 9 directories with a separate phone number for every ad. We kept meticulous records. It is my contention that this is true everywhere. When you stack two dollar bill ads on top of each other you have what is generally a quarter-page. This ad might only pull a few more calls and it costs 80% more. A full page ad could cost $50/phone call… been there.

· Many people go to the yellow pages trying to find a plumber when they cannot remember the name… they are searching the book to find this person. That is why it is advisable to have some presence in the yellow pages.

· A few yellow page ads get more first calls than all the others of the same size. In a study of twenty dentist ads of equal size, one ad got 35% of the first calls and most received none. Point is, give some thought to your ad and do not leave it up to the yellow page salesman to “do it for you.” Read on, we will talk about this later.

· A small yellow page ad can generate a small profit if all the stars line up. I personally would not spend more than 1% of sales on yellow pages…some plumbers spend 20% and hence the title of this article “Death by Yellow Pages.”

· Yellow page salesmen seldom caution you about increasing their commissions with more and larger advertising. Sometimes their credit department will kick it back, but seldom.

· Most Yellow page directories will try to get you to renew your ad. But this is like taking the first price the car dealer quotes you. Most of the time when you say: “I am not going to advertise in the book this year”, you will get a better offer. Many times 3 days before the book goes to press you get a phone call offering half price! Been there!

· In 1976 there was a remodeling contractor that received 75% of his work from the Yellow page book in Fremont, California. The cost was less than 1%. Times have changed! Now there are multiple books by many different publishing companies and the internet has siphoned off a goodly amount of that business. Those were the good old days and that advertising scenario is now unattainable.


Many successful plumbers do not advertise in the Yellow Pages. It is becoming increasingly important to have a website with useful information… but it’s all for naught if you don’t answer the phone. Every time you fail to answer the phone or mess up the call, picture a $20 bill going down the toilet!

It is normal to want to get away from business after hours. Phone duty can be spread around to others but plumbing emergencies don’t follow a time schedule. I remember getting phone calls at two in the morning for customers trying to shut off the water to stop a massive leak. We dispatched a plumber and just short of arriving, the customer called to cancel because the neighbor had shut off the water. This happened more than once. We solved this by saying “It is double time and the time starts right now…would you give me your credit card information so I can get someone over there right away?”

Moderation in all things,The easy route is to become complacent and simply throw money at the problem. An entire industry of telemarketing has been built around questionable advertising like place mats, ball caps, pens and a host of other things. A few, like refrigerator magnets, are OK but that has reached the law of diminishing returns. If you now put every magnet you could on your refrigerator it would look like it contracted chicken pox.

A commonly overlooked method of marketing is simply writing letters to past customers or people that received quotes. The letter should be of compelling interest to the customer with a time dated offer. Read the book The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan S. Kennedy, because just like Yellow Page ads, some letters work and some don’t. I have consulted with plumbers on marketing concerns and arrived to find the office person reading a novel because things are slow…you get the point?

Let’s say you are going to advertise in the Yellow Pages…why not get the most bang for your buck? Why not produce the ad that receives the most first calls. Don’t reinvent the wheel, do it like this: Go to your library and go through yellow page books from across the United States and make photocopies of the 20 best ads you can find. Then go to 20 different people and ask which plumber you would call first. Take the ad that wins and modify it to be your own. Have someone other than the yellow pages do the typesetting and graphics. Your local small newspaper is usually your best bet for market oriented ads that are done quickly and attractively. Remember, you may spend $10,000 a year for a small yellow page presence…so don’t save a hundred bucks because yellow pages will create it for free. You want your ad to stand out to be personal. As an example of some yellow page verbiage that was a top vote getter; consider,yellow book


The reason you will call me back is you will enjoy the relationship, good ideas, good work and fair prices.

Now picture a man interacting with his 3 year old daughter and you start to get this warm fuzzy feeling. What’s that got to do with plumbing you say? Remember the customer is looking under the plumbing heading…could it not be assumed that everyone under this heading is some kind of plumber? Run your own test…take twenty ads and see which ones customers will call first, you will be surprised.

Small children interacting with adults are top vote producers. One of the best was a three year old girl in a sandbox, on her hands and knees looking up at the camera. In the sand was written, “Please call my grandpa.” I found in recreating this photo you have to put black powder in the sand created letters to make them stand out.

Advertising must have four characteristics to produce good results,

· Audience…Will your message must be seen or remembered during a time of need.

· Believability…Are they accepting what you say?

· Personable…Do they sense a friendly, human connection?

· Credibility…Do you prove that other people happily depend on you?

Even though they have the evidence to prove otherwise, Yellow page salesmen do not walk on water. Don’t be mesmerized. Remember, as service people all our marketing has but one goal and that is to get your customer to make a phone call to you! With a prepared mind you can control your destiny and win!