Tom Deja

In the days when a $10,000 job was “penny ante,” Gary Crowley, owner of Crowley Construction, in Colchester, Vt., could “pick and choose” clients. Brian Altmann, owner of Dutchess Building Specialists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says three or four years ago “the work would just come to us. It was a matter of finding a time frame that would work for somebody.”

Leads are fewer, jobs are smaller, says Joe Billingham, owner of Billingham Built, in Erwinna, Pa., who has operated his construction business for 40 years and seen ups and downs. Sticker shock is “rampant,” and design/build jobs few. When interest in second homes along the Delaware River disappeared, Billingham says, so did the large-scale remodeling jobs that often went with the sale of a property.

Going to Great Lengths

Remodeling company owners are willing to go farther these days to get a signed contract. For Dan Bawden, owner of Legal Eagle Contractors, in Houston, that’s literally true. Ninety percent of his jobs used to be within a 5-mile radius of the company’s offices, now it’s 10 or 15 miles.

What’s it take to sell in an environment where big jobs are few, and clients tend to watch every cent?

Go long on detail. Patty McDaniel, owner of Boardwalk Builders, in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a remodeling company she founded almost 25 years ago, gives prospects far more specifics when it comes to scope of work. “I used to provide several paragraphs,” she says. “Now it’s several pages.” That helped her land a six-figure exterior makeover, one of three big jobs this year, compared to 11 in 2007.

Be willing to make changes. With cost outweighing most other variables, few proposals are set in stone. “Many times when we put that final number on the table,” Altmann says, the clients declared they couldn’t afford the project at that amount. “It’s still an opportunity,” he says. “We go back to the drawing board and look for things we can creatively omit without compromising the design or the experience.”

Prepare to wait. Clients may dawdle about signing, start date, anything. That can make three, four, or five visits to the house necessary. Altmann estimates it takes 25% more time to get a signature. Bawden used to e-mail proposals on smaller projects. Now, after an initial visit, he sends a summary letter, with costs and options, followed by a phone call inviting them to Legal Eagle’s showroom.

Talk needs not wants. Crowley used to do a lot of kitchens. Now baths in the $20,000 to $40,000 range are his thing, and they’re being remodeled because what’s there can’t even be cleaned anymore. “The adjustment part is: stop selling luxury,” he says. “Concentrate on needs. I ask people: ‘Is this something you want or something you need?.’ I look on it as an opportunity to be of service.”

Address costs directly and up-front. “You want to make them comfortable with who you are and what you do,” says George Christiansen, owner of Pequot Remodeling, in Fairfield, Conn. “But they have to understand that for $100,000 they’re not going to get their dream. You have to find out whether they’re willing to spend the money to get their dream, and try to create that mindset.” Otherwise, when the design’s in and the numbers don’t match up, “you can spend two months for naught.”

Ask for the sale. Stuck in the mindset that says they want you because you’re known to be the best? However good you are, you still need to ask for the business. “There are plenty of people who want to buy,” Altmann says. “But they need some help. They just can’t pull the trigger. So you’ve got to make it OK.”

Learn, baby, learn. Michael Murphy, director of new-project development at Murphy Brothers Contracting, in Mamaronek, N.Y., says that few contractors cared much about professional sales methods five years ago. “Contractors were in the drivers’ seat and everybody got lazy.” Now, he says, he studies books and tapes by “brilliant selling gurus” such as Phil Rea. “I gotta keep learning.”

—Jim Cory is editor of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR, a sister publication of REMODELING.

For most full-service remodelers, sales is not a strong suit. Click here to read a Q&A with sales trainer Phil Rea to find out why.