It's a no-brainer that people want to hire people who they like and trust. And because much of remodelers' work comes from referrals and reputation, the most successful upscale companies not only do top-quality work but also build strong, enduring relationships with past and prospective clients.

Jim Cathcart, a well-known author and speaker who specializes in sales topics, calls this “relationship selling.” He has written a book by the same name, with the premise that “business ought to be a profitable form of friendship.” That description doesn't sit well with some people, but his point is that many of the same attitudes and activities that build trust between friends also apply in the business world.

“The art of business is connecting with people profitably, not merely persuading them to buy,” Cathcart says. But he also points out that the emphasis should be on the connection, not the profit. How you go about approaching prospective customers and whether or not they perceive you as someone who's just trying to make a sale, or as someone who truly wants to help them, can make or break your company.

How do remodeling companies make these connections on a consistent basis?

LISTEN, THEN TALK According to Jack Hauber of the Sandler Sales Institute in Rockville, Md., the focus on the connection has to start with the initial sales call. He says that while many remodelers naturally want to stress their skills and accomplishments, you won't make a good impression if the first thing you do is open your portfolio and start talking about work you have done for other clients. Instead, you must be 100% focused on listening to the prospect. “You need to talk about their needs, not about what you've done,” he says. “People don't care about your awards.”

That may sound counterintuitive, but when remodelers build themselves up to a prospect, the prospect may sense a hard sell coming, which can make them feel defensive. “People don't want to get sold, they want to buy,” said the late Richard Kaller, president of Certified Contractors Network of Ardmore, Pa., a consulting organization that works with local contractors. “If the consumer thinks you smell anything like a salesperson, your job automatically gets harder.”

Anthony Wilder of Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, Md., has found this approach to be very effective. “I used to think that my job was to get my clients excited about all of my ideas,” he recalls. “But I had so many ideas that they would feel overwhelmed.” Now he tries to find out about their ideas so he can make sure those ideas are part of the project. “Asking questions and never assuming anything has changed everything for my business,” he says. “I now have 12 times the projects than I ever imagined having, and I have the clients I want.”

BE AN ASSET Shedding the sales smell means approaching prospects with the attitude that you genuinely want to help them. That's why Kaller preferred the term “consultative selling,” which he defined as “developing relationships on a consultant-to-consumer rather than a sales-to-consumer basis.” If you focus on helping people solve their problems, rather than on making a sale, then the first meeting with a prospect is a time to find out whether you're a good fit with each other and whether the job is one that your company has the skills and resources to complete. If not, then helping them find a company that's a better match will do more for your long-term reputation than simply walking away.

Robert Criner, president of Criner Construction in Yorktown, Md., has embraced this approach and has found it a clear winner. “Sharing your knowledge freely with others sets you up as an expert in your field,” he says. “Once you are seen as an expert, people will want to consult with you concerning any projects they are considering.” He also agrees with Kaller that sending a potential customer to a competitor is not necessarily a bad thing. “It lets you focus on getting the projects that make the most sense for you,” he says.

Criner is another remodeler who dislikes the term relationship selling. “I don't build relationships in order to make sales. I do so to build deeper roots in the community. In some cases, these relationships lead to work; in others, they don't,” he says. “But I have a fuller life because of them.” Having said that, he also credits the success he has enjoyed during 30 years in business to the fact that he has made relationship-building a priority. His community involvements include the local school board, the Peninsula Remodelors Council, his church, and Habitat for Humanity.