Tom Kelly's father, Neil Kelly, began hiring women as salespeople and carpenters in the mid-1970s. “In those days, it was a great business strategy for my father. More of our clients then were stay-at-home wives,” he says. As a young man working for his father, he recalls one instance in which the saleswoman invited women in the neighborhood to see the project. That inclination toward relationship building has benefited Neil Kelly Designer/ Remodelers in Portland, Ore. The company's years of creating an atmosphere that encourages women has paid off. Now, of the company's 12 design/build salespeople, 7 are women, and since 1985, 10% of its carpenters have been women. Kelly is not the only remodeler to realize that women bring a different perspective to the office and the field — a perspective that he believes improves the remodeling process. Many company owners are becoming increasingly aware that creating an atmosphere in which women thrive helps everyone in the company.
Sales Benefit Clients' perceptions of women influence both the sales and the design processes. Kelly says that customers are often intimidated by salespeople and are fearful of being sold. “Women present a softer, more easily relatable individual,” he says. “When consumers walk into one of our showrooms, they are more immediately comfortable with a woman than with a man.”
Debby Allmon, vice president and sales manager at Schloegel Design Remodel in Kansas City, Mo., says that this is especially true of single female clients. “They are very untrusting and sensitive about someone taking advantage of them,” she says. They also worry about the crew and subcontractors who will have access to their home — concerns that Allmon says they are more likely to confide to a female salesperson.
Allmon says that saleswomen try harder to earn the client's trust. “Women don't assume. We want to prove we can take care of them,” she says. Saleswomen also ask more questions, such as, Why are you doing this? How will it make your life better? “We find out more about lifestyle than about construction,” Allmon says. She and president Jake Schloegel often make calls together as a mixed gender team, which they feel is the best option. “He is the construction expert,” she says, “and I can talk about soft things such as the impact on the family.”
Iris Harrell says that having saleswomen works well for Harrell Remodeling. “There is a gentleness — something that puts clients at ease. We offer suggestions like adding an outlet in the hall to run the vacuum. We talk about the safety of children or scheduling work around naps. I'm sure other companies that are not gender-based do this, but women think about these things and bring them up more often,” says the president of the Mountain View, Calif., company.
Architect Anita Rogers of Byggmeister Associates in Newton, Mass., says many clients take on remodeling projects at turning points in their lives. “People need handholding along the way,” she says. “The perception is they will get that more from women.”
Rogers handles most of the laundry and the cooking in her household, so she relates to clients who are renovating to enhance these chores. “I would not say that men can't answer the same questions,” she says, “but these are topics that women are more used to discussing with women.”
On the other hand, Allmon says it's an unspoken assumption among clients that, as a female, she can offer advice on the kitchen design. “People defer to me because they think I should know these things,” she says. “But I'm not the cook in my family.”
Building Relationships Female salespeople and designers also look at the larger picture — not just making the sale, but building a relationship. Jill Moran, a project developer with McCutcheon Construction in Berkeley, Calif., says that in their cultural training, women learn early to focus on family and on nurturing relationships. This training is especially helpful in remodeling because it involves working inside people's homes. “We have skills in our back pocket that men living as bachelors might not have,” she says. However, Moran acknowledges that she sometimes has to demonstrate her understanding of building technology. “If it's too much of an uphill battle and the sale might be jeopardized,” she says, “I will ask for support from a male production manager.”
Michael McCutcheon agrees that in some situations it's better to send a male. “When we get into a very traditional culture where women are not accepted in business,” he says, “we try to identify that and send a man.” Harrell says that even after 20 years running her company, if she feels that prejudice exists, she will introduce a male employee to aid her in the sale.
Most of Schloegel's salesmen have a construction background, so he sent them out on their own sales calls early in their training. “With women,” he says, “I stay involved on the construction side because they don't understand the complexity.” Schloegel says that he would rather his saleswomen focus on what they excel at, “getting clients excited about their project,” rather than learning the details of construction.
Sales consultant Adrienne Zoble, president of Adrienne Zoble Associates in Fort Collins, Colo., says that males focus on the sale, not the follow-up. When she suggests to male remodeling company owners that they call past clients to touch base, they are often surprised. “They say, ‘I don't have a new product or a new service and you want me to just call and say hello?'” she says. However, women can have difficulty closing the deal. “Women are programmed — particularly in the South and the Midwest — that it's not ladylike to talk about money,” she says.
In any role, women can bring a positive energy to a company. “They are quicker to give kudos, more generous with compliments, and more likely to reach out to employees and ask them what they think. Some look at that as wimpy. Others look at it as good management,” Zoble says.