A study from a few years ago reported that the average remodeling customer spends 41 weeks becoming informed about the design, process, materials, and prices of the project he or she was planning. Once these homeowners select a contractor, they rely heavily on the professional's advice. In fact, Hanley-Wood's Housing Continuum Survey of a year ago showed that remodeling contractors control product decisions 85% of the time.

Plusses and minuses

A company showroom may seem like the best way to influence customer product decisions. But a showroom is not the right choice for every company. For one thing, the abundance of products available in today's market would make it just about impossible to display everything you install. And showrooms are expensive to operate. They need to be staffed eight to 10 hours a day, including weekends. They need to be cleaned daily, and the products displayed must be kept up to date.

Still, customers need to select products and someone needs to guide them through the process.

In most situations -- especially for design/build companies -- it's the remodeler's responsibility to educate a prospective customer on design, products, and installation. A salesperson, in-house architect or designer, or dedicated "product selection coordinator" has to ensure that client product decisions are made prior to the start of work.

This is true to some degree even when customers come to you with a completed design. While they have usually already made product selections using their architect's samples, they often still have questions about installation and cost.

The easiest solution for companies that don't operate their own showroom is to send customers to someone else's, usually a lumberyard, distributor, home improvement retailer, or specialty operation. I suggest that for major purchases, such as kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, or expensive windows and doors, remodelers should send a qualified person to accompany the client. When that's not possible, it's important to talk with store personnel in advance to ensure that they know what to push and what not to, what prices to quote, and what commitments to make -- or avoid -- regarding availability. If store or showroom personnel deviate from these clear instructions, or if they try to sell customers other products without calling to check first, it's time to switch vendors.

Selection center

Another option is to create a "selection center" for customers who have signed a contract. (For prospects who haven't yet signed, the center can double as a closing room.) One company I know uses a 12-by-20-foot room where they store and display samples of many of the products they offer. They can also bring samples of other lines at a customer's request. Samples aren't as compelling as full-scale displays, but they have the advantage of low initial cost, and they're easy to update. And samples still permit you to compare and contrast a large variety of products and to quickly narrow the field to one or two choices. Using a selection center focuses the customer's attention on product selection while allowing you to control the process. Plus, you avoid the risk that outside showroom personnel will point customers in the wrong direction.

Another way to handle product selection is to make the selection center or closing room into the company technology room. Using a CAD program will allow you to display on screen both the products as installed and the finished remodel. I recently spoke with the salesperson for a Florida remodeler who sold a $350,000 kitchen/eating area total renovation project to a baby boomer. He said that if he hadn't used technology to show what the finished project would look like, he would never have closed on the deal.

--Walt Stoepplewerth is a publisher of management and estimating information for professional remodelers. (800) 638-8292; htbill@worldnet.att.net; www.hometechonline.com.