With 13-plus years of experience in both B2B and consumer advertising, Aylie Fifer, relationship architect at Sonnhalter, specializes in strategic branding, client marketing communications programs for skilled-labor and field-service firms — the trades.  Fifer spoke with The SmartVan about how the sector’s aging workforce puts many companies at risk, and what many need to know about technology trends and their younger counterparts.

How are service firms using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking channels most successfully these days? What’s worked for you?

Trade forums are really important. We found that with field service managers especially, peer-to-peer recommendations are a very important source of information. There are things like HVACTalk.com or other sites that really let professionals interact with one another to trade best practices or to say, “I had this issue, how would you solve it?” There is a lot of different information that can be exchanged at that level.

Another valuable tool is being able to be recommended on Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you’re connected with your customer, I think a lot of recommendations can happen through social media. For example, we worked with a plumbing contractor out of Kansas City to help him get set up and he was amazed at how many recommendations he got from having a strong online presence. One other tactic is real-time situation analysis, like if you’re on LinkedIn or if you’re in trade groups, you can share an issue you’re having and ask your peers what kind of tools they would use to solve it and trade best practices.

It’s really interesting because the trades in general have an aging workforce. You have these guys that grew up with face-to-face conversations and handshakes and they’re going to be retiring soon. They’re trying to attract newer, younger talent to come into the trades. And the more that we see that, the more that we start to see an increased comfort level in terms of Facebook, etc. So it’s interesting to see that  balance and we’re seeing the power of social media. I think that a lot of guys can really embrace it once they’re taught how to do it. It’s just the fear that holds them back. If you take the fear away, they’re OK.

So what do some of these older managers stand to learn from younger colleagues?

I think technology is a natural area for the younger generation to help the trades grow because they have grown up with it in their lives and are used to it versus someone who is at retirement age and maybe does things in a more antiquated way. The fact is, the workforce is aging in this sector, and if we don’t have younger people looking to go into the trades, we are going to have a serious shortage of who does the work on the infrastructure of our world in years to come.

What are the most important marketing tactics field service managers should be using to grow their business?

This is actually the hardest one for me. The three things I had listed were a comprehensive lead generation system, social media and direct response.

In this particular market, leads are the golden goose. I think one of the issues a lot of companies deal with is not being able to see a valid history of how they’ve interacted with a client. Or they missed opportunities because they couldn’t track someone along the path from being a prospect to being a customer and everything in between. You want to be able to nurture them if, for instance, they call you out for a simple service call. I think that being able to have an accurate history of your series of contacts with customers is extremely valuable.

As for social media, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are my top three. YouTube is actually another big one that we use. We’ve also helped a lot of clients establish blogs and I think interaction on trade forums can be extremely valuable, too. Direct response is just another way to get your foot in the door.

How has the growth of mobile devices changed all that? What do managers need to do to adjust to this growing trend?

That’s a really fascinating question because technology in general is obviously moving very quickly and there are tools that are getting more digitally sophisticated that can plug into field devices, like laptops, iPads or smartphones. One area where this is very valuable is the real time review that can happen with customers for validation. It gives your client a sense of credibility if you can turn to them with your mobile device and show them: “Here’s the problem, here’s the issue, here’s how I’m going to fix it.” It really shortens the close time and builds trust. I think from a manager’s standpoint, having that accessibility to their service associates allows them to keep better track of productivity. I think that that is becoming even more important as the economy is coming back. From a manager’s standpoint, we’re starting to see the value in investing in this type of technology, like mobile devices, because it does help with productivity, it does help with making better decisions.

Social media and mobile, then, are no longer even optional to succeed?

I don’t think you’re going to function for long without either. I definitely know of places that don’t embrace any type of technology. They’re extremely antiquated. If you don’t get with the times, you’re not going to be able to compete. You better get with it or you’re not going to move forward.

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ABOUT Sara Suddes

San Francisco-based contributor Sara Suddes writes frequently about small business, the economy and technology.