Bruce Wentworth, owner of the design/build firm Wentworth Studio, in Chevy Chase, Md., says that current economic conditions are causing clients to take longer to commit.
CHARLES STECK Bruce Wentworth, owner of the design/build firm Wentworth Studio, in Chevy Chase, Md., says that current economic conditions are causing clients to take longer to commit.

Last February, a prospect contacted Bruce Wentworth, owner of Wentworth Studio, a design/build remodeling company in Chevy Chase, Md. The homeowner was interested in an addition combined with a kitchen remodel. That initial conversation was followed by several meetings, including a site visit. Only in December did Wentworth receive a tentative go-ahead.

That’s far longer than it normally takes, but given the current economy, Wentworth says, “it’s hard [for clients] to be decisive.” What won him the job was not just the company’s expertise matching remodeling projects to a range of historic home styles, he says, but “the fact that I hung in there and was persistent and professional.”

Strategies to sell upscale remodeling jobs vary, as do the knowledge and resources of sales prospects. But it all starts with the same goal: “To get inside the [homeowner’s] head and learn as much as possible about what they’re trying to do,” Wentworth says.

They end the same way too: when you’ve convinced the homeowner that you have what it takes to create something good enough to invest a lot of money in and have persuaded them to commit to working with you.

Jeff Clark, of Metropolitan Design & Build, in St. Louis, typically brings a group of 8-by-10 before-and-after photos to the first meeting. He sells prospects on what happens between the before and the after.
DOUG METHOD Jeff Clark, of Metropolitan Design & Build, in St. Louis, typically brings a group of 8-by-10 before-and-after photos to the first meeting. He sells prospects on what happens between the before and the after.

Jeff Clark of Metropolitan Design & Build, in St. Louis, calls it “sequential and consummate.” Meeting by meeting, buy-in builds and prospects become clients.

Prep Work

Prospects can find out a lot about you if you direct them to your Web site. But don’t just assume they’ll go. One company found, via post-project poll, that half its clients never actually visited its site. Sometimes they have an idea of what they’d like to see happen, but just as often they have only vague notions. Even if they come with plans, they may not know what the project costs. Typically they’re referred by others, including architects. They’ve heard good things about your work, and if they weren’t inclined to believe them, they wouldn’t be calling. But that’s all they’ve heard.

“For the most part, [prospects] only know that somebody thinks very highly of us,” says John Rusk, owner of Rusk Renovations, in New York City.

Ultimately, in the run-up as well as in the first meeting, you want to seem interested in the project and excited about it, without appearing over-eager. You build the value of your company by asking the right questions and explaining how your systems and services provide a solution. “I don’t call it ‘selling,’ I call it ‘helping,’” Rusk says. “I want people to say: If you’re going to do a renovation in New York, you want to talk to Rusk. They’ll help you get approved by the co-op board, work with the architect to improve the plans, streamline costs, and value-engineer it.” He assumes that prospects are talking to two or three other remodeling companies, so his goal in that first meeting is to be the friendliest and most knowledgeable person they consult.

Crucial goals in any first meeting include confirming those high opinions of you and your work, but, even more importantly, gaining prospects’ trust, gathering the information you’ll need to begin preparing designs or proposals, and moving the conversation toward a construction contract somewhere down the road. “The job is sold over that first cup of coffee,” says John Sylvestre, owner of Sylvestre Construction, in Minneapolis. “And they’re buying the relationship between myself and them.”