Windows Of Opportunity

The Fat Lady Sings -- Almost

As with many a cautionary tale, Light's final date with destiny is unforgettable. Rock bottom came on December 5, 1991, the day he nearly died. After one of his routine afternoon bar stops, during which he drank a fifth of vodka, Light secured 3 1/2 grams of cocaine and then drove home, stopping on the way to pick up a bottle of rum. He drank the entire bottle, swallowed all the cocaine, and blacked out.

Amazingly, Light woke up the next day. But the picture wasn't a pretty one. He awoke in the fetal position with a pillow stuffed in his mouth to keep his teeth from breaking as they chattered and his body shook. His condition improved over the next few days, and, humbler but wiser, he made a beeline for a 12-step meeting. "[This time,] I finally sat down and listened," he says.

With Light on the mend--permanently, this time--could Window Man recover as well? "Because of the drinking, only a few customers were still around," he says. "Going out [to a job] with my breath smelling of alcohol hadn't enhanced my customer base."

He knew that on his good days, his window-cleaning methods had been meticulous, something he took pride in. With newfound sobriety and an increasingly clear outlook on life, Light was ready to try again.

"After I got sober, Window Man started to prosper, and I was able to make payments on the bankruptcy every month," says Light. "The whole business came together. I started applying everything I learned in sales management to the business."

Key to his strategy, says Light, was the "synergistic sale"--offering both window- and gutter-cleaning services to customers. Light noted that his customers often called a gutter-cleaning service after having their windows cleaned. "Cleaning the gutters gets debris all over the place, and then the clean windows get dirty again," Light explains. "It made sense for us to clean the gutters first, then wash the side of the house [and then do the windows]."

To keep customers coming back, Window Man began to emphasize some obvious but overlooked elements of the service sector, such as being on time for appointments. Looking for more ways to distinguish himself from the competition, Light worked on giving his customers a sense of comfort with the prospect of a stranger entering every room of their homes.

"When we go into a house, we won't go upstairs until we ask the customer [for permission]. They aren't used to this," Light says. "People [typically] come in and just start walking around. When we say we're professional window cleaners, `professional' is a big part of it."

Advertising in the Yellow Pages helped draw customers, and more of his business began to come from referrals. As the company grew, the phrase "just say no" took on new meaning: After a few bad experiences referring other window cleaners to handle Window Man's overflow, "I learned how to say no," says Light. "It's better to tell somebody, `We can't do your house; we just don't have time.' "

When Window Man started to average 50 phone calls a day, Light added an employee to his staff of eight whose sole responsibility is to drive around and do job estimates. "It's a major cost to me," says Light, "but I made a commitment that whoever calls and wants one gets a free quote."

Light's bankruptcies had forced him to rely solely on the cash-and-carry method, even when it came to purchasing company vehicles. The payoff? Today, Window Man is debt-free.

Recently, Light was able to secure a line of credit, which gives him some breathing room. Even so, "I still run Window Man the [cash-and-carry] way," says Light. "I build up cash, then buy this or that. By not having a high debt ratio, now when the wintertime comes [and business slows], I can survive."

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Windows Of Opportunity.

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