Truth, dreams, and trust go a long way in the minds of upscale remodeling clients. They also lend themselves to significant projects for remodelers who understand that the upsell — in fast-food parlance, “Would you like to supersize your order?” — isn't really about selling at all. It's about listening.

“If you're telling, you're not selling,” says Anthony Wilder, whose eponymous design/build company in Cabin John, Md., is sitting on a backlog of $15 million these days. Wilder attributes much of his current success to the white-hot housing market in his preferred neighborhoods and to his company's award-winning projects. Yet he also credits his process of getting clients comfortable with the realization that their projects may cost more — perhaps much more —than they might have expected.

Regardless of the client's wealth, “it's always going to cost more than they hope it will cost,” says Jack Hauber, Wilder's sales coach at the Sandler Sales Institute ( Set their expectations early, and you're likely to delight them later. Money is almost never the real issue with high-end remodeling projects, he notes. “It's an emotional buy.”

In one-on-one meetings with prospects, Wilder's process begins with a blunt embrace of the truth. “I say, ‘If you think it's going to be 2 [$200,000], we both know it's going to be 4 or 5, so let's help each other save a lot of time” by deciding together: whether the company and the prospect are a good match, and whether the house might deserve more than what the client has in mind. That conversation can veer off in surprising directions, as with the $400,000 remodel that morphed into a tear-down and rebuild budgeted at nearly $2 million, including design fees.

When the property is valuable and the client can afford the home of their dreams, Wilder notes, “it doesn't make sense to keep a smelly basement” and other “leftover skeletons.” Telling it like it is, he says, is what clients want you to do. “They don't want you to manipulate their thinking.”

Having a spectacular backlog, of course, lets Wilder be selective about clients. But the “real magic,” he says, “is that I now doubly care about them. I go in with the clients I want to work with, and I know I can make them happy.”

ORGANIC EXPANSION Listening is also a key tool for Michael Matrka Inc., a design/build company in Columbus, Ohio. Matrka considers himself more introvert than salesperson, but his work selling projects as big as $2 million has given him insights into how wealthy people rationalize spending money.

In Matrka's experience, wealthy clients are used to being in control and like to prescribe their own solutions for their home. Yet they tend to overlook factors that make a house homelike. “I try to understand their family,” he says, noting that his own blended family, with eight children, gives him “permission to ask a lot of questions.” How many kids? Their ages? What does the family like to do? Where do they hang out? This exercise often “rearranges priorities,” he says.

Rather than nailing down selections and project details at inception, Matrka allows the project to take shape more organically. “Everyone has a budget,” he says, but this number is often what clients feel comfortable spending, and not what they're really willing to spend. “They don't want to be ostentatious,” Matrka says. “As the work begins and the clients start getting more comfortable and having more fun, it's, ‘Let's change this, and since we're doing that, let's …'”

This unfurling could easily spiral out of control, but Matrka is careful to “manage” his clients. He budgets in extra time for changes and clearly explains change orders, which one year accounted for 20% of company revenue. He remembers one client who began with a strict $350,000 budget, added “odds and ends” during the course of work, and wound up with a $550,000 whole-house remodel. “Later he told me he wouldn't have spent that upfront,” Matrka notes, “but that he was happy he did.”

Leah Thayer is a senior editor for REMODELING.