Remodeling Magazine
April 2008

Sell It
Like It Is
Thousands of tales of consumer woe have found their way to rip-off and complaint Web sites. The Better Business Bureau received more than 16,000 complaints about remodelers and general contractors in 2006 (the last year statistics were available).

Excluding reports that describe possible criminal activity, most complaints reveal consumers whose stories might have ended differently had they had a simple, honest relationship with a remodeler who spoke plainly and openly with them.  Someone who kept his or her promises. Someone who engaged the customers' point of view when thinking about processes and systems.

What often happens, though, is that remodelers—problem—solvers by nature—come in to save the day. Having prepared for every aspect of the construction project, they hack away at each item on

their list. They "miss the forest for the trees," as the expression goes, and would benefit from stepping back and surveying the big picture, asking themselves, "What do clients really need and how can I make my world work best for them?"

What follows is the first article in a three-part series about engineering the customer experience—from sales to production to post-project warranty work.

The sales process is the initial source of anxiety for customers. The process begins with a phone call and moves

through budget discussions and the visualization of the project until the hand-off to production. While guiding your prospect, you must establish rapport, trust, credibility, and professionalism.

Customer Connection
What if you were sick and visited the doctor, and all he did was talk about himself—where he went to school, other treatments he'd performed, and so on? That's what it's like when many remodelers begin the sales process says Bob Gregoire, vice president of global accounts at Sandler Training, a sales training program. "We

diagnose and prescribe," Gregoire says. "In the medical world, prescription without diagnosis is call malpractice, it's the same for remodelers."

Sandler Training focuses on listening to prospects and asking them about their wants and needs. "It's 70% listening and 30% talking," says Bhavesh Naik, owner of Sandler Sales Institute franchise in Rockville, Md., who has a lot of remodeling company clients. "We specialize in 'you-centered' selling as opposed to 'me-centered' selling. Customers want two things: to be listened to and [to be]

understood. Something has been bugging them for a long time - the living room is too small, the kids need bigger bedrooms, the tiling is coming up. You have to draw them out and get them to talk about their issues."

Naik suggests asking open-ended questions such as, "What was it that compelled you to call a home remodeler? Why are you thinking of making this addition? Tell me more about it. How long have you been thinking about this project?" and even, "Why would a remodeler do this project better than you yourself could?"

Joe Dellanno, a building designer and president of My Design Build Coach, who has also been through Sandler training, has established a sales process that eases customer anxiety from the start. "The expectation is that a prospect calls and will immediately talk to a salesperson, so their anxiety level goes up," Dellanno says. He developed a gate-keeper system, making sure that the person in that role has a pleasant voice and can nurture someone through the process, making them feel comfortable and raising their trust level. Most often it's a woman in that position.

After the initial phone call, the gatekeeper forwards the prospective client a draft agenda for a meeting. "This ensures that we've heard exactly what they've said," Dellanno explains. Once the prospect gives his or her approval, a sales meeting agenda is sent out. Only after this does the gatekeeper introduce the salesperson (who may also be a designer or owner) to the prospect.

"A personal close rate of 85% to 90%," Dellano says. "A cold call is 1%, a lead is 15%, and a referral is 50%. If [prospects] establish a relationship with the

gatekeeper and see physical evidence of their requests and wants coming through e-mail or on paper, they know we're looking out for them. It's a stronger connection."

Once a connection is established, it's easier to get through what Gregoire calls "mutual mystification"; the point where both parties are confused. "You need to talk about objectives and outcomes and how long things will take," he says. In other words, you must be honest. Clients will have a better experience if they feel respected.

Gregoire  says that you should let prospects know up front that if, by the end of an hour, they don't think you are a good fit, they will feel comfortable telling you so. "It's like a date," he says. "There are only two outcomes: 'I don't want to see you again or yes, I do want to see you—and that means we can come up with an agreement on what each of us needs to do.' Unfortunately, in the dating world, we lie and say we had a great time and then never call. You need to help people to feel comfortable saying 'no' to you."

Do Diligence
It's important to get to know

your prospects before you attend a first meeting. Dellanno uses Google Earth to help familiarize himself with the prospect's neighborhood. "You could ask, 'Isn't there a lake around here?' Engineer a connection. This makes the howeowner feel comfortable."

Chris Withers and Cress Carter, owners of Old Greenwhich Builders in Denver, also turn to the Internet to research clients and find possible commonalities. What industry do they work in? Are they involved in the arts or in other areas? "There is a certain amount of a sales call that's not business," Withers says.

"We try to get to more of a personal level." Old Greenwich Builders has a system calculated to establish the company's credibility and professionalism with the goal, Withers says, of "going out on a second date." To show that the company is better organized than other builders, the salesperson takes customers through a detailed job binder that shows how process-oriented Old Greenwich Builders is. "This puts [customers] at ease," Withers says, "and they realize that they're talking to professionals."

Depending on what was

discovered in the Internet search, salespeople will stress different topics. When the meeting is over, Withers leaves behind brochures and directs prospects to the company's Web site.

"We conclude our initial sales call by inviting [the customer] to join us for a 'job tour,' and we try to get a time scheduled before we leave the meeting." The tour starts at the Old Greenwich Builders Office, "to show them that we do, in fact, work in a professional office environment," Withers says.

Then the prospects are taken to see two or three projects

similar in scope to their own.  "This point shouldn't be underrated," he says. "We don't want to take a $200,000 potential client through three, million-dollar remodels; it would only scare them away. We conclude the tour by letting them know we are interested in their project and would love to be their builder. We offer to present them with a 'soft' bid and 90% say 'yes' at this point. Then we start to build financial rapport."

Same is Good
Once you've learned the techniques for drawing people out and making them

feel comfortable, train your staff to do the same. "Most successful businesses make sure everyone is on the same page," Naik says. "It's a crucial step in going from good to great."
At Synergy Builders, in West Chicago, owner John Habermeier, who uses the Sandler sales system because, he says, "it's a defined process," has his staff role-play various parts of the remodeling process at what he calls "Synergy University." "We meet every three weeks - from newbies to managers. We rehearse the customer experience,

and we get 360-degree feedback [from the staff participants]." Sales and design practice answering tough questions without getting defensive. "They try to understand a client's pain by asking more questions about their situation," he says.

To ease client's fears, Habermeier relies on systemization and updated technology. One place he looks to for business inspiration is McDonald's. "No matter where you are around the world, [McDonald's] is consistent," he says. "You can anticipate a product and it will be delivered exactly as you anticipated it."

Habermeier, whose business focuses on high-end basement remodels, strives for a consistent sales process. "When we set up an appointment with a client, we have the goal of measuring their basement on the first visit. We always set up a second appointment at the same time we're setting up the first appointment," he says. The first appointment is done at the customer's home and takes about an hour.

"About 15 minutes into the visit a [prospect usually] asks if [we] had a chance to read their wish list," says Habermeier, who explains to

the customer that the first visit is mainly to look around, take measurements, and allow the customers to describe their lifestyle.  Habermeier and his staff visit the basement on their own. Using a [Leica] laser distance meter and Bluetooth technology, they can transfer accurate measurements into Chief Architect on a tablet PC within 15 minutes. Then they give the homeowners a 30-second overview of their basement on the tablet PC. "They usually go, "Wow, how'd you do that?' This builds the anticipation level, and they get excited about the second appointment," Habermeier says.