“We built their deck, drywalled their garage, designed a wine bar, installed a front door, repaired a floor. We’ve done plumbing, painting, electrical work, built a home office — all small jobs that grew,” says Chris Newcomer, owner of Prism Home Improvement & Restoration, in Rochester, N.Y., of his relationship with Debbie and Don Culeton. He has worked with the couple for so long that the original deck has been taken down and re-milled for the gazebo, part of the most recent project that includes a master bedroom suite, a geothermal system, and a ½-acre pond. That is a client-for-life.

Tend the Client Garden

While having the “right” clients — those with vision and funds — helps, the old axiom, “It’s who you know that gets you there, but what you do that keeps you there,” holds true. Newcomer parlayed every job into another because he tended this relationship: He built trust and did what he said he was going to do — “Chris communicates when there’s a problem,” Debbie says. “He deals with it up front, and there are no surprises”; listened to his clients’ needs; acted as a resource for selections; and followed up.

That’s par for the course, says David Beers of David Litchfield Building and Remodeling, in Simsbury, Conn. Beers, a remodeler for 30 years who writes and speaks about creating long-term clients, says, “It’s not enough to want a sale. You have to constantly reinforce that you’re giving the client good value through performance” (see Beers’ tips, below). “Anyone can bang nails. Can you keep the customer on an even keel during a stressful experience?”

Tips for developing a long-term relationship:

• The customer is always right — you’ll never gain a sale by winning an argument.

• Customer complaints are opportunities; draw them out.

• Be direct when speaking about money.

• Leave the site neat and organized; apologize for the mess.

• When a client is nearing the breaking point, a modest night out will show how much you care; a splashy night out will show how much you’re making.

• Inspect your own work for warranty issues long after completion.

• Do small extras, e.g., recommending a good chimney cleaner or inspecting smoke detectors for free.

• Write a thank you for every referral as soon as you hear of it. Call to follow up.

• If a client strays, stay interested in the project you didn’t get; they’ll soon realize what they’re missing.

“Clients are searching for the peace of mind they get from hiring responsible, thoughtful contractors,” Beers says. “Our recognizing this is the key to keeping the phone calls and emails coming in.”

—Stacey Freed, senior editor, REMODELING.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the November 2011 issue of REMODELING.