For most remodelers, customer service is something that happens only after a job is completed. We think of it as either a reaction to a customer complaint or a system of follow-up surveys and site inspections that keep small problems from growing into large ones.

That kind of service is an important part of making sure your clients are happy with the finished product. But the most important kind of customer service takes place before the project begins. It gets things off to a good start and sets the tone for everything that comes afterward. This may seem counterintuitive. Remodelers hear so much about the end game — punch lists and getting the last check — that we undervalue the importance of providing good customer service before the actual work begins.

New Perspective

I'm something of an instant expert on the subject, having just finished making three simple, or so I thought, product choices — tile, faucets, and toilet — for a small bath in my home that is being gutted. The experience was new to me because, like most remodelers, I did all my own remodeling while I was still in the business. But the process looks very different from the other side of the table (where, incidentally, most remodeler's wives, including mine, have been sitting the whole time).

It's obvious from this experience that one of the biggest challenges for remodeling customers is the sheer number of product choices. One toilet manufacturer we looked at had more than 30 models, three flushing systems, a dozen colors, and a couple of seat and lid options. Match those numbers with competing product lines and you're looking at hundreds of combinations. Faucet options are equally bewildering to the typical homeowner, who, after all, is anxious to get these functional choices out of the way and get on to the more glamorous choices. Like tile.

Tile selection is to faucet selection as brain surgery is to playing dominoes. After plowing through shape, size, color, finish, pattern, accents, and trim package choices, you find out your taste is richer than your wallet and that nothing you like will be available for six to eight weeks.

Tiling Up The Loose Ends

Here's what I took away from the experience. First, product selection is a hands-on process. That means it should take place in a showroom, where the environment aids decisions about color and texture that can't easily be discerned from catalogs or the Web. The ability to see products in displays is invaluable in helping to resolve doubts about how something might look when your clients get it home. Simple things matter, like being able to assemble the tile pattern from samples. Homeowners need all the help they can get visualizing the final product.

Next, remember that some showroom salespeople are better than others, and none knows your customer as well as you do. If you can't accompany customers to showrooms, the next best thing is to develop a relationship with a couple of salespeople who are both good at what they do and who understand how you like to work and what kind of customers you're likely to bring them. Help set up the appointment, and brief the salespeople on what your customers are likely to want to look at. Communicate any technical or time constraints directly to the sales staff to avoid sending your customers down a blind alley.

Finally, shop for price ahead of time. There are big differences in pricing between showrooms, and you should be aware of it before your customers are. I discovered, for example, that one brand of tile I liked was available at two different tile shops at 100% difference in cost (plus, shipping was free at the cheaper store). Clients will appreciate your looking out for their interest, especially with allowance materials like tile.

A remodeling project may finish like a marathon, but it starts like a 100-yard dash. Make sure you and your customers get a good start out of the blocks.