Mark Robert Halper Photography

Chris Edelen, a friend and recent finalist of the 2009 Fred Case Entrepreneur of the Year Award, once said to me, “If a business is not changing, it will become irrelevant.” Wow, who wants to become irrelevant? It’s worse than being regarded as average or being judged as producing poor-quality work or receiving a low customer satisfaction ranking. Being irrelevant means your business isn’t responsive to the marketplace. It’s not at the bottom of the list; it’s not even on the list.

I agree with Chris that the best prescription to this outcome is to change. But change has many facets, and it rarely helps to change everything at once. So where is the best place to start?

Begin with Clients

In the remodeling business, I think change should begin with your clients. How have they changed and where are they heading? Just a few years ago your clients were confident about what they wanted; their attitude was, “Just do it.” More recently, however, homeowners have become very nervous and are influenced less by the facts than by their emotional response to the stories they see in the media. This nervousness has caused them to stay in holding patterns, unable to decide to go forward. In some cases, it has paralyzed them so that they don’t even pick up the phone to call to discuss a remodeling project.

As is the case with a plane, which can only stay in a holding pattern for so long, indecisive homeowners eventually have to make a decision one way or the other.

And a number of factors lead me to think that time is coming. For one thing, I believe Americans are impatient and have short memories. I think they still look to their homes as their greatest asset, regardless of any recent slippage in value or rate of appreciation. I frequently speak to groups of businesspeople, and most of them are still not ready to put their money back into the stock market, but they are willing to invest in their homes. And even though unemployment is high, nine out of 10 Americans are still employed, and Americans are saving at a much greater rate than in the go-go times of five years ago.

New Attitude

The word that keeps resonating for me around these factors and behavior is “resolve.” Americans are adopting an attitude of resolve toward the new economic order. They accept it that we may be in these economic conditions for a couple of years, and they are beginning to once again think seriously about the need to tackle remodeling projects, even if those projects may look a little different than they did five years ago. Homeowners understand that they need to keep their home “alive,” beginning with routine maintenance and repair, but extending also to updating existing spaces and finishes, and eventually to adding new spaces.

While this “resolve” will not likely open the floodgate of leads, it should fuel some improvement in inquiries. When two-thirds of homes are occupied by people who own them, they will not have a choice but to break from their present “holding pattern” and “land the plane.”

Positioning your business to manage this new attitude of “resolve” requires some adjustment to the way you see things. You need to see yourself as the voice of reason for your clients. Your team needs to feel comfortable being a financial adviser, a cheer leader, and a therapist all at the same time. Your sales process should be tailored to competently manage client fear, using words such as “risk,” “easy,” and “painless process” to help your clients make the transition from nervous noncommittal to confident resolve.

While the better-run, more honest businesses will do especially well under these conditions, most people resist change, and overcoming it is the biggest challenge. None of us has a crystal ball, but the remodeling market tends to behave logically and sensibly. If you stay the course and pace yourself, you will find that you will be able to turn things around.

—Mark Richardson, co-chairman of Case Design/Remodeling, is author of the book How Fit is Your Business?; 301.229.9580.