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Ask Dan Heath: How Do I Turn 'Too Picky' Into 'Pick Me'?

home inspector

I'm a home inspector, and I'm looking for ideas on how to generate more business and outflank my competitor who has copied me (flattered?) in so many ways. Two of my competitors (partners) promote themselves like this: "Why hire one home inspector when you can have two for the price of one?" Meanwhile, the real estate agents think I am too picky. How can I get to the buyer before the agent does?

- Inspector General

Dear Inspector, when you say you're an inspector who's "too picky," I hear beautiful music. It's like having a stockbroker who's "too lucky," or a teacher who's "too inspiring," or a dentist who uses "too much laughing gas." Speaking on behalf of the home buyers of the world, we treasure your pickiness.

It struck me, actually, that "Real estate agents won't recommend me because I'm too picky" would be a FANTASTIC tagline for your business. And certainly it's far more convincing than "two inspectors for the price of one." It is doubtful to me that many home buyers buy an inspection based on the quantity of inspectors. (When's the last time you asked the hostess at a restaurant, "How many chefs do you have on duty tonight?")

So my advice, in terms of marketing and differentiation, is to be the Picky Inspector, the obsessive guy that people whisper about. You should be like Monk with a tape measure.

One time, I got my car washed and detailed by people who said they used Q-tips to clean out the tiny grooves in the door panel. I loved that detail—to me, it was somehow symbolic of their overall level of quality. Do you do something comparably obsessive? (Check the lubrication level on the oven door-hinge? Measure the decibel level of a wood floor's creakiness?) If so, use it as evidence for your indispensable pickiness.

Now, I want to end with a cautionary note related to your last question (about getting to the buyers directly). For the sake of this Q&A, I like the inspirational marketing story where your Pickiness becomes a lasting and fruitful competitive advantage. But often reality has a way of mucking with inspirational marketing stories. For instance, if real estate agents are the gateway to inspectors—i.e., if 90% of your business comes from real-estate agent referrals—then that could be a real problem. Because if they don't like what you're doing, you could Picky your way right into bankruptcy.

My intuition/blind hope is that it might be worth experimenting with search-engine marketing. I could easily imagine home buyers going to Google and typing in "home inspection," "Kansas City," or whatever. Why not set a goal for yourself? See if you can double the number of customers who approach you directly in the next 3 months. If you can, then I'd double-down on the Pickiness strategy. If you can't, then figure out a way that being picky for the home buyer doesn't freak out the agent. (For instance, even if you found 108 defects with my dream home, I might not freak out if I knew the total repair cost would be $3,300. Or if I knew exactly who to call to fix each one.)

If all else fails, hire 2 more inspectors and beat your competitors 3-to-2.

Question for Dan?