Joy Hawkins, the owner of Sterling Sky and Local U, recently hosted a local webinar with Tommy Mello, the owner of A1 Garage. Tommy shares his journey of building a $200 million garage door company and the strategies he implemented to achieve this success. He emphasizes the importance of networking and learning from more successful businesses, making calculated risks, and surrounding himself with the right people. Tommy also discusses the significance of creating a winning culture within the company that prioritizes the success, dreams and well-being of the employees. This Q&A covers various topics including online reviews, employee incentives, Marketing strategies, and the effectiveness of different digital marketing channels. Read below for valuable insights for individuals looking to build a successful home service business.
Can you tell us about how you got to the position of owning a $200 million home service business?
I realized where I wanted to go. I wanted to be a business owner. I realize there is going to be a lot of sacrifice. And I played the long game. I reinvested in the company a delayed gratification instead of buying really nice cars or something. I made it a point that I wanted to be the best garage door store owner out there and made a lot of mistakes along the way. You know, I’m not afraid. I make calculated risks and I fall, and I get back up, and I surround myself with a lot of the right people. I learn about standard operating procedures and marketing. In the last couple years, I realized that my dream has got to be big enough to fit everybody’s dream inside. So we’ve got an equity incentive program. We do a lot of bonuses, we go on a lot of trips. So we really worked hard to make sure everybody is winning in the company. I put them first and my coworkers need to win. My job is to inspire them, to show them how they could get what they want out of life. So it’s been through trial and error. Let me just say the number one secret is networking and going to visit shops that are bigger and better than me, then learning and implementing.
Tommy just came out with a book called Elevate. One of the things that stood out to me was a quote on your page about how you had employees that didn’t want to work hard years ago and they didn’t really care about their jobs. Then you came to the conclusion that you were attracting the employees that you deserve. Can you give us a few tips from your book, about how you made that transition?
I heard this exercise where a guy sits down and writes 100 things he wants in the perfect woman. Then he looks at this list of what he’s looking for, and he goes, I can never get a woman like this. So he wrote down 100 things he would need to become to be worthy of a woman like that. So when I read that book, I didn’t do the same exercise. Instead, I wrote down 30 things that I would need to become to get the people I want to represent me that would actually give me the care and treatment and create raving fans out in their garage. It was a mindset shift.
What is your unique selling proposition? Like, what makes you better than all the other garage door companies out there?
We don’t have a lot of warranty calls. We show up on time. We’re available 24, seven, nights and weekends. If I’m not at work and all of our reps and directors are not here, you’re still going to get service on a Sunday. I don’t pride myself on giving the cheapest price. I give the same day service with the best quality, with the best warranty, with a drug test, a background check technician with a wrapped vehicle, with the best tools, and you know, we’re going to treat you.
The big thing is we offer you coffee on the way, we’re going to smile, we’re going to fix your problem. We’re going to evaluate the whole system and give you options. We believe if we don’t give you options, we’re giving you ultimatums. It’s important to understand what’s important for you and that’s one of the first things. How long are you staying in the home? Is insulation important for you? I want a lifetime customer. I know you’re going to move probably in the next five years and we want to be your garage door company. We want to be the people that you call, you trust and you enjoy when we come out there.
What is the worst marketing mistake you’ve ever made? What was it that you did? Why did you think it was a good idea?
The worst mistake I’ve ever made was 15 years ago, I got into Valpak, and they gave me a call tracking number that I didn’t know for attribution they wanted to be able to tell me how I was doing. Well, this is just as the Yellow Pages were dying and Google was not really what it is today. I called Money Mailer. I said, What else is out there like a savvy shopper? There is still Clipper and all these different magazines and mailers. So there used to be another one called Super Cubs. So I called Super Cubs and Money Mailer and I said, My ad’s working really well for Valpak, just do something similar. So they created their own artwork. What I didn’t know is they took the same phone number from Valpak. Then the gal that was working at Valpak called me three months later. She said, The entire corporation of ValPak is studying garage doors in your company, We’ve never seen so many calls before. Before you knew it, garage doors were sold out in every Valpak I was in.
So I’ve learned very quickly not to give your phone numbers to anybody. Sterling Sky has attribution for us, and I want to know if they’re doing their job, but I also don’t have the same phone numbers for attribution. I think having call tracking numbers that you own and knowing where the real calls are coming from is important. Just don’t let the companies own your tracking numbers.
Now don’t let them own anything because then they got you. One thing with SEO is a lot of these companies, they’ve got like a link farm. They might write articles and give them to really good websites. Then the day you stop using them, it all goes away. All those links, they just delete them, they get them removed and it’s just they might have a PBN (Private Blog Network) and then all of a sudden they all go away. Or Google catches the PBN and then takes it down. That’s always fun too. I would just say play the long game with your marketing.
We know Google is key, but like there’s always this concern of putting too many eggs in Google’s basket. We’ve seen shifts that have been made on Google’s end and how as a business owner, do you make sure you’re not putting too much of your trust in Google’s hands?
That’s a tough question. I don’t think everything’s going to change at once because PPC is completely separated from LSA. Just completely separated from their GMB, which is clearly different than organic. They’re all on different algorithms and they all work a little differently. So I do think Google is key and I focus on those four are probably the most important.
I also think that relationships going after realtors, handymen, painters, and people that are going to use your service over and over again when you’re smaller, it’s easier to meet the people and network. As you get bigger, you start using fewer sources. There’s Angie’s List, Home Advisor. There are a lot of them I’ve used Now, but I think Google is definitely the most important.
I still think regular SEO is very, very important. A lot of people think it’s dying because you don’t show up first on the page, but this is what people use. They do the research, they look at your website, they look at it and they say, Hey, can I find a sample here? What is this company all about? They got good pictures. It doesn’t need to be over the top but just looks professional.
We do a lot of mailers, but we have really been really big in signing service agreements because it’s a repeat customer. We build a fence around the customer that you might do a garage for next year, you might not need one three years from now, but eventually, you’re going to say it’s time to replace it. So we’re playing the long game.
There are so many fake reviews out there, especially in your industry. Some business owners ask how to compete when you know your competitor might be buying like 500 fake reviews a month and you have to somehow compete with that without sinking to their level.
Well, you should incentivize your employees to get reviews. The one thing I think is good is when guys build a business within the business. So people call and they say, I just read your Yelp or your Google reviews and we want this specific technician to come out, and there’s a picture in the review of the technician in front of his truck. You can’t fake that stuff. I think the quality of the reviews you have tells the whole story. We want to try to have them elaborate in reviews.
When asking clients to review you let them know part of my scorecard is how happy I make customers. I’m here to give you a five out of five service. If I fall less than a five, let me know. Or If you wouldn’t mind, just snap a picture of me working on the door. I think pictures are important.
When you’re smaller, that’s the way to go about it, reviews with pictures in it and you can’t tell a customer about keywords, but if you asked for a review say would you mind mentioning the model we put in for you and what you like about it?
We run so many jobs because we do TV, radio, billboards, and all our vehicles are wrapped. What TV, radio and billboards do is I’m looking for people that are doing branded searches for my company. So they’re searching for A1 garage service, with almost a 100% booking rate.
They’re going to wait a little bit longer because they want us to be the person. They’re not going to question us when we go there because they like us and they just believe in our brand. So I think Google, TV, radio, and billboards will spike your branded searches. Now that I get so many jobs in every market we’re in, I don’t need to go and say every single job needs a review.
On that note regarding incentivizing employees, I’ve heard a lot of different strategies on how to do that, how much to give, and how to do it, What is your process for that?
In certain markets when we know we need reviews, like if we are newer in that market. We’ll actually give up a dollar amount per review. However, making customers happy is a part of the job. I should not pay you extra, just like I should not pay you extra for showing up on time. I see this as part of an employee’s scorecard. We have five major things on our scorecard, customer satisfaction is the most important! I think having reviews/customer satisfaction as part of the scorecard where they know you’re measuring it and they know it’s a way to get promoted. You’re going to get promoted if you don’t have a good score on your reviews.
Regarding LSA (Local Service Ads), there are mixed results on these. Some people love them, some people hate them. What are you guys seeing on the local service ads?
The biggest factor for not losing quality on LSA is answering the phone right away. It’s not letting the phone ring and not getting it, calling back later. It’s actually being active within the platform. So I think our say is great.
Link building can be a hard and expensive strategy. How do you feel currently about link-building efforts and do you care about it as much as you use to?
We do link building. We are a contributor for ink.com, we put out four articles a month there, but here’s a little tip I don’t share a lot. If you have a vendor and you probably have hundreds of vendors, every person you do marketing with, every person that you buy parts from, maybe even some of your clientele. If they have a website that does well, just leave them a testimonial. Talk about why you use them, make a nice video and put your bio there with a link to your website and it doesn’t need to be on the home page. It would help them out a lot and it’s an easy way to get a lot of links. I even do this at my bank!
Another way is if you are going to give say $500 to an employee’s kid’s soccer you can ask them to put a link in on their website for you. You can even say I’ll give you guys 5% of any leads that come through that link. There are a lot of creative ways that I do it. Then there’s also software that goes out and is always asking people through LinkedIn and other places. We got one today like that. Someone said they had a great article for our site. I just gave it over to my assistant to send to the guy that does our SEO. Putting together great articles with outbound links is great but they got to be great, amazing articles. I think it’s more quality over quantity now.
I’ve seen some businesses that are starting to really put a lot of effort into things like Tik Tok and YouTube. Have you guys done any of that? Like are you focusing more on video currently than in the past or is it on your roadmap?
I’m doing a ton on Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube and some on Twitter for my personal brand. It’s something to wear. We have not become great with this. I’m working on a scorecard for my employees that if you do a blank number of video testimonies or whatever it is, I’ll give you an extra salary per week. I don’t need every single person in the company to do it. I just need people that are really outgoing, that interview well, that are excited and smile a lot. So If I get 50 of them and I pay them 250 bucks a week. Sounds like a lot of money. But in the scheme of things, if I make sure they’ve got a checklist and they’re hitting all these things then I’ll only need to have somebody editing in the background and it’ll be amazing. We can put together before and afters where it’s like the motion time-lapse while we put it together. It wasn’t at the top of my list, but I’ll say that it does amazing things.
So I know that one of the tricky things with video is that your audience is so broad. Have you guys actually seen any revenue that you can tie to some of the videos that you’ve been doing?
You know, when I think about my content on videos, it’s more about recruiting. I want A-plus players. I kind of switched it because an A-plus player runs circles around four B players, literally circles. You could add all four of them together. So I’m more interested in getting an A-plus player that’s going to get reviews at each job, they’ll go the extra mile. They want that. It’s interesting because where we were a few years ago compared to when a guy graduates from our program now, every class is getting better, and they get better training. So my marketing is so focused on finding the right people that I get to work with more than the clients. Then I get a great person there to advertise. I’m talking about people that are handing cards out at gas stations and they’re not calling in a lot. I don’t think people understand that marketing is also getting the right people on board.
So obviously very much a buzzword right now. I’m sure you’ve probably seen a million videos talking about it. Are you guys using AI in your business? Do you think it’s going to change anything for you or for people in the home service space?
So for our content, I would say it’s a great starting point to run it through Chat GPT. We run articles through to make sure there’s keyword density. We use all these tools just to see if it’s quality content. We’re working with an AI messenger on the website. There are a lot of things, but I don’t anticipate a huge shift.
If anything, I want more people booking online and I want more chats going live to get them to the right person, but AI takes time to learn and to get it customized. I think it’s going to make a big difference, but I don’t think I’m going to replace any employees. I’ll just have to hire less. We’ll get way more economies to scale with AI.
So many people are like, You could run a whole business off of AI, but at the Warren Buffet Summit recently, they talked about how A.I. is great, it’s going to do a lot of cool things, but it’s not going to change great human beings. It’s not going to change a lot of the stuff we currently do. It’ll make you more efficient. However, a lot of people are looking for that magic pill of AI, and it might be in ten years, but I don’t think it is now. I don’t believe you should be running your whole business off of AI.
We know you’ve been super busy with acquisitions lately, and I’d love to get some thoughts on when you should start acquiring businesses. What advice would you give out to the service businesses that are listening right now?
First of all, acquisitions are very, very difficult. You’re taking two different cultures, they’re used to being paid differently, different tools, different paths, different truck setups. Where we failed at this is that we’re not really good at commercial, and we’re not really good at new construction. So when we buy those they kind of taper off the zero over time. So it’s important to understand who your avatar is.
I think it’s a great opportunity. There are 2000 baby boomers retiring every day, 12% of those home businesses. I think there’s going to be a huge shift of wealth to the people that know how to acquire well. I say own your market. First of all, I like both spots in your same market more than I like going out to a whole different state because you can’t get there very quickly.
So your first acquisition, try to keep it within an hour’s drive of you.
Another thing I love, this is the most important thing for me, when looking at a possible acquisition, I look at it for two things. Employees and Leads. I don’t care what your balance sheet and income statement say, I don’t care about your cash flow statement. I don’t care about that because I’m changing the average ticket, I’m changing the conversion rate, I’m changing the booking rate and I’m changing the cost per lead. I love businesses that have been around 30 years. They’re like, We don’t believe in Google and they get 30, 40 calls a day because they got stickers, they got repeat business, they’re big in the community. Those are perfect for me. They’re ready to retire and I come in and I turn on the Google machine, start going after reviews, start getting some video testimonials, start building. All of a sudden they’re up to 50, 60 leads a day. They were running one guy with ten calls a day where the guy was pulling up to jobs and getting to know the customer. Acquisitions can be great, but you have to grow organically. You have to grow your current markets. You can’t just go and acquire, acquire, acquire because then you have a bit of a Frankenstein. You have to have an integration checklist. You got to make sure you’re getting them on the same chart of accounts with the finance side, you have to make sure that they understand the culture. Just understand that you can’t have a bunch of businesses working on different price books and systems. There are so many things that go on in integration when you buy a company. Are they being paid weekly or biweekly? Are they paying for their gas? Some people are responsible for their own trucks, and some people have to bring them back every night. Some people have installers doing technician work, and some people separate those. It goes on and on and on.
So just because it’s a great opportunity and a great deal doesn’t mean it’s always right. We’ve learned the hard way, but overall every one of our acquisitions has been profitable.
I want to mention your podcast because people may not realize that you have that. So your podcast is the Home Service Experts. How often do you release episodes? Who should listen to that?
It comes out once a week. We just got our millionth download about a week and a half ago. So we talk about everything in the home service niche. We talk about accounting, we talk about hiring the right people, the CFO, and we talk about getting the best brand because a brand does a lot with marketing. I’ve had Michael Gerber on there, The E-Myth. I try to find great businesses or authors or just people that can contribute. Joy’s been on once.
I think if you want to know more about business, there’s something for you. You can search on there for what you’re looking for and it’ll give you all podcasts on the Home Service Expert page. There is also a Facebook group called the Home Service Expert. I think we’re about 7500 people. So if someone’s got a question like do you know anybody really good for the cameras in the vehicles? Someone always pops in and says, We got it. We work with an awesome company.
I want to talk about spam and reporting competitors that are keyword-stuffing their names on Google. What are your thoughts on that? Is it worth doing?
This is my honest feedback. Take it. For what it’s worth. I find a lot of people spend so much time worrying about everybody else and trying to make themselves the best. You can go report people till you’re blue or hire somebody like Joy’s team, and it’s important that you’re doing it. However, I’m only going to work on what I can control and actually control the actions that come out of my company.
In my opinion, winners focus on winning and losers, focus on winners. People have tried to take me down, one guy got kicked out of the franchise because of it. He had an onion router. They were clicking on our PPC. They were leaving bad reviews. I just never wanted to sink to that level. How am I going to compete with Blackhat? I don’t want to. So my mentality has always been just to continue to do it right and do what you can do on your end to make as many good things happen. If you do, you usually end up on top, in my opinion.
How would you deal with a multi-location website? Is it a good strategy to have a home page with brand terms and services that are not optimized for any location, along with location pages?
So since A1 garage has so much domain authority, a lot of times we’ll build a page preemptively on A1 and we’ll hide that from the site map and then we’ll do a 301 redirect for that page to give their company some juice. I think that’s a good strategy. Any time it could be an A1. Now I’ve got an incontestable trademark as of five years ago, but unfortunately, A1 was a pretty popular name because of the phone books in the stone age.
Certain markets where they’ve been there 20, 30 years. I want their website, but it is very hard to do SEO on a million sites so still figuring that piece out. What I’ll try to do is buy a company in that market. Small role ups and do a 301 redirect to their site and use their brand to get that link juice all day long.
Another quick thing you could do. A lot of people look for phone numbers that have been out of business, but see if you could buy domains that are not in business and then use the archives on the way back machine to see if you could try to rebuild what links the pages that were there. Then you can redirect that.
What city in MI did Tommy grow up in?
What are the key digital marketing channels/solutions that are the most successful?
Craigslist used to be great. Facebook Marketplace at one point was great, but these things, come and go. Obviously, Google and a little bit of your time needs to go to Bing. Also Yelp, I think is important, a lot of people get upset with Yelp, but Yelp could be good for you.
I think most of the time it’s going to be Google. Social media is important, but it is better for visuals. If you’re doing Christmas lights, social media would kill it. You should be on Instagram, Facebook, everywhere, every group, and every neighbourhood post. Doing garage stories, yes, there are some things to be said about the before and after, but most of my work comes from things like “I can’t get in or out of my garage” or if something’s not working say the keypad stopped working.
Now I’ll spend a year coming up with a plan before I just deploy. I don’t mind failing, but I want there to be very clear objectives before we start. It is important to create structure. Right now I do not believe in social media near what I believe in Google but if Valpak still works for you, sure, the yellow books still work in Albuquerque. So I think everything works to a certain extent, just don’t spray and pray. Have a plan, test things out and be consistent.
How can I effectively communicate the unique value and benefits of my premium-priced lawn care to customers who ultimately perceive all services as being the same?
I always say don’t market to the wrong people. I don’t think Target is going after Wal-Mart’s customers. They’re just not. I think you’ve got to understand, when you market to the wrong neighbourhoods and people that could get it done for cheaper versus somebody that when I had my landscape company, I said, and you guys might get offended by some of this stuff, but I said, I speak English as the first language. I communicate very, very well. You could text me back then. They didn’t probably have text, but maybe you might have. The point is to find out the pain funnel. What annoys you right now about your landscapers? Well, they come during the week when I’m going to work and I always get stuff all over the cars. So then I say what if we came on a Saturday? What time works for you? What’s important to you?
It’s knowing your avatars, not everybody with a lawn is your customer. You should be taking your list of your best clients, your top 10%, and studying what’s their average income, what’s their credit card score, what’s their zip codes and making sure your top of mind there. What real estate agents do is pick the neighbourhood where you are the best and you know the most and just own that neighbourhood. Not everyone with a garage door is my client.
Do you have anything to add about LSA? Do you find that certain markets outperform others?
Well, I see a lot of people that are always saying not a lead, not a lead, not a lead. If I were Google, I would probably punish the people that aren’t paying me. Now, Of course, I want feedback and I want to become the best algorithm and search engine possible.
A lot of stuff changes and this is why I work with people like Joy because I look for people that know way more than me and for different things. I don’t want to be the expert. Now I do think it’s important that you’re well-versed in everything you do with marketing, sales and your finances. I don’t think you should trust somebody else to look at a balance sheet, and not know what you’re looking at and go take a loan out when you don’t know what it is.
I would say that LSA does very well, but I think GMB still competes with it. I think done right, both of them combined. Here’s what I know for a fact, if you show up in the top three, you show up in the PPC, and then you show up in the sponsored GMB. Organically if you’re there four or five times, you’re going to get picked.
Do you have any thoughts on Live Chat vs. SMS website integration? Have you tried SMS?
I think SMS is the golden podium. There are all these different software. I would tell you that we are playing around with chat. We’ve never been great at chat because quite frankly, our goal is to generate a booked call or to book on a scheduling engine, but it’s something that I’m definitely going to dig into.
Here’s the great thing about something like this webinar, when you get to teach, you actually do better. So all I would say is if you guys have an opportunity to be on something like this go ahead and ask questions or interview more people. I think you’re going to find that you can grow like this is a really big opportunity for us.
As for SMS, my only problem is, and I would hate it for it to go this way, people are going to be texting pictures of everything and expect a quote over the phone. There’s no way without a technician’s eyes on that, that I can give you a quote. I can tell if your door is demolished and we need to replace it. What’s important here, I just hope it never goes to where you don’t get to meet the person and find out who you’re buying from.
Best recruiting tips and how do you get people to show up for interviews?
A: So this is very interesting. Number one, use your workforce as your recruiters. I give them 1500 dollars when they recruit somebody, but I teach a whole session on this where you take a selfie with the person you want to recruit. Okay, So I’m at a restaurant, I’m with the Amazon guy, I can be at a gas station, I can be at a friend’s house like a mutual friend, and I’m just going to take a picture with them and say, Hey what’s your cell phone number? Then I’ll say listen, I want to tell you a little bit about the career we offer here. Here’s how you can learn to work for A1. The last guy that I hired is making six figures. He bought a house. He’s a great father, he’s a great husband. And what do you want out of your life? Because all I’d ask you to do is give this an opportunity. Then I’ll text them the next day. Now, they’ll never do it the first day. So you have to follow up with a question mark for the next three days. They got to know that you actually want them. They got to know that you’re going to go above and beyond. They’re going to see that as part of your culture. We do all kinds of stuff, but we only hire one out of 100 people that apply to us, but we have a lot of people applying. I always say this, you got to love Mondays. If you hate Mondays, you might want to look for a new career. So be a talent scout. Don’t go to the unemployment line to find people. If I went to Glassdoor, indeed right now and search for a company I want to know what people are saying because I don’t go to Google to find a job. I’m looking at what employees are saying. So make sure you’re in the places where people are searching for you. The best people in the workforce already have jobs. They’re not in the line at the unemployment agency.
What traits does that person need to have for you to actually take that selfie?
When I’m at Discount Tire, those are the best. They work with their hands. So I look for people that have a great smile. They make eye contact. They got a good handshake. They’re attentive to my needs. They just seem like they’re having a good time and they come up to you and they’re like, Yeah, I just had a newborn and I’m trying to be the best dad I could be, since COVID, this has been the best-paying job I could find. When you know it, you know, you think, Wow, this is a good person. They got to show up sober that, you know, we do drug testing, the background check.
For the most part, the best people, they’re in hospitality. You can find them at a hotel, you can find them at a restaurant, you can find them at a bowling alley. They’re just good people because they work with every different ethnicity. They work with different ages. So they’re just very, very good at reading people and kind of roll with the punches. Those are the best people that I’ve found to take. Hire the personality, train the skill versus hire the person that’s trained and try to teach them the personality that doesn’t really work out well.