So you’re a contractor. Maybe you work with paint or plants, or maybe you’re a jack-of-all-trades handyman. You do good work, and charge fair rates. And at the end of each week, you tally up your income and expenses, and ask yourself, “How do I take this to the next level?”

Chances are, one of your problems is that even if you’ve got a good set of clients, you’re also still competing with anyone who’s got a pickup, toolbelt, and stepladder. If you want to grow your business or raise your rates, you’ve got to show that you provide some service that goes far beyond the average “Chuck and a Truck” operation. Some contractors do this by building up a reputation over time, until they have a large enough customer base that will pay them a premium. Another option is to develop a specialization, some skill set that will allow you to stand out from the crowd.

Becoming a Documented Specialist

There are two types of specialist: documented and perceived. By “documented specialist” I mean the licensed or certified trades. In most states licensed trades include plumbers, electricians, and HVAC techs.

Licensing is an extreme form of documentation, and while the exact requirements vary by trade and state, they often involve a separate set of expenses (insurance and license fees) and may require testing and a demonstration of experience as an apprentice or journeyman. But these are often balanced out by the increased base rate of hourly pay, and the increased demand for your newly-acquired skills.

A certification, rather than a license, is usually more easily obtained. There’s often still a time investment as far as training and testing, but not to the same extreme as the licensed trades. Certifications are often for more focused areas within larger trades, and may or may not be required to perform certain work. Many painters and general contractors, for example, have taken the time to become RRP (Renovation, Repair, and Painting) Certified so that they can legally work on older homes that may have lead paint. And some carpet cleaners or general contractors have become IICRC (Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification) Certified so that they have proof of their expertise working with smoke- or water-damaged materials.

Note that unlike RRP, there’s no obligation to be IICRC certified to perform smoke or water removal work, but having the certification acts as a short-hand, allowing contractors to let clients know that they have the skills needed to get the job done.

Becoming a Perceived Specialist

But not every form of specialization requires third-party documentation. There are some specializations that you obtain simply by letting people know that you’re very good at a given task. A contractor I know was hired by a customer to install an indoor shark tank. That led to a referral for another, and the next thing he knew, he became the go-to guy for shark tanks in his city.

So short of something elaborate as building shark tanks, how can you pick up a specialization?

Well, if you’re a handyman, maybe you occasionally clean out gutters. If so, you get paid your normal $35/hr wage to spend an hour and a half cleaning out the gutters on a home, you’ll be able to bill out a little more than $50. But if you’re “Gary the Gutter Guy,” then you can charge a set rate, maybe $150 for the same basic clean-out that takes an hour and a half. All of a sudden you’ve tripled the gross income for that job.

What separates the handyman cleaning gutters from Gary the Gutter Guy? Perceived value. Homeowners are often willing to pay more to know that they’re dealing with a pro. Build up a list of references, and market yourself as a specialist. It may sound crazy, but for many customers, a higher price tag buys a little peace of mind. They’re not only willing to pay more, they actually prefer it.

Specialists often take those additional funds and reinvest them into the business. Specialized tools and experience can make a job go faster and easier, which makes those easy, fixed-rate jobs even more profitable. Or perhaps you’d like a bit of documentation to help your branding, such as being a member of an association or specialist group. Simply pay your dues and you can use that association’s logo on your advertising.

It’s Not Either/Or

Here’s the secret about specializations: it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your primary source of work. Get a second phone line, a second free email address–you know the drill. With some minimum start-up costs, you can present your specialist work, while still bringing in the handyman money. If the specialist work takes off, then you simply drop the lower-paying gigs one at a time, until you’re at a level you feel comfortable with. If you don’t want even the cost of another phone line, then consider just adding a line to your branding. Instead of “Acme Painting, Interior and Exteriors” try out “Acme Painting, Specializing in Historic Palettes” or “Specializing in Apartment Turnovers.”

Some contractors even end up bringing on an assistant in one role or another, so that they can keep both sides of the business going. This provides a bit of insurance against the rises and falls of the economy. Many specialist jobs depend on customers with disposable funds–after all, does anyone really need a shark tank? Keep the primary source of work, even if it’s less profitable, and you’ll help insulate yourself against the whims of the buying public.

Have you tried out a specialization? Thinking about picking up a certification or rebranding yourself? If so, drop a note in the comments section and let us know!

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