Mark Robert Halper

  Remember when clients were paying five-digit deposits for the privilege of waiting six months or more for you to start their project? Marketing amounted to little more than a job sign and a quarterly newsletter to keep your name in front of past customers. It was only two years ago, but it might as well have been last century. Now revenue is off 40%, everybody has cut staff and prices, and half the competition’s business cards display company names that end with “Building” to which a handwritten “and Remodeling” has hastily been added.

Many remodelers tell me that, in this environment, people just aren’t buying. True, but not because they don’t want to. They still have the itch, but they need new ways to scratch it. This recession has changed the way that people buy, and you have to make corresponding adjustments in the way you sell.

Worry work. For starters, learn how to work with homeowners who are seriously worried, not just about their home’s value, but about their job security. So many of the decisions they made a few years ago have gone sour that they just can’t get off the dime.

Your role is to be sympathetic and reassuring. Pat answers won’t work. You need to learn how to listen for the worry that lies behind homeowners’ indecision and find ways to help them face down their fears. More than ever, you need to be an adviser. Getting the job is secondary; winning over a client comes first.

Flex plan. It used to be that you called the shots, but today you need to be more flexible. With money so tight, people need more options. That could mean a smaller deposit or smaller progress payments spread out over a longer period of time. Or it could mean operating with more of an open book. In past recessions, for example, some remodelers had success with cost-plus arrangements because it made clients feel more secure about getting the best possible price.

Delayed gratification. Replacement companies have jumped on the stimulus package as a way to generate new business, but most full-service remodelers don’t see much they can use. I think it’s worth a second look.

A lot of homeowners are only vaguely aware of the stimulus or else they don’t understand how it might apply to them. But they all have a water heater, a furnace or boiler, a roof, and windows and doors. Even if you subcontract all of the stimulus work, talking about it with clients keeps lines of communication open, and any savings they realize will forever be associated with your smiling face. That’s going to have real value down the road.

This market is tougher than any I’ve seen, and I’ve been watching for almost 40 years. When it finally turns around — and it will — “business as usual” is going to look completely different.

How are you adapting?