When it comes to sales, Bill Simone of Custom Design + Construction leaves nothing to chance. From the initial call forward, the Los Angeles remodeler sets a sales system in motion to guide his ideal customer to a signed contract. Every detail is covered. During the first call, the receptionist works a series of qualifying questions into the conversation. Depending on the answers, she assigns a point value and, if the total is high enough, schedules a time for a salesperson to return the homeowner's call.

During this second call, the salesperson uses another script to share information about the company. "We tell them the top three reasons our clients do business with us," Simone says. The sales staff also spends part of the 20- to 45-minute conversation collecting additional information, which is also scored. At the end of the call, if the total score is high enough, the salesperson invites the client to visit their office.

During that one-hour presentation, the salesperson questions the prospects about their expectations and explains project phases. Ideally, at the end of this presentation, Simone wants compatible clients to sign a design agreement and write a check for a deposit.

At the end of every meeting, I get a plan of action from the homeowner." --Mason Lord, pictured with office manager Laura Lurcott
Tracey Kroll At the end of every meeting, I get a plan of action from the homeowner." --Mason Lord, pictured with office manager Laura Lurcott

Simone created this structured system based on his own personality and on his Sandler sales training. "For me, this one makes the most sense and is most comfortable," he says. "It's hard to argue results. The system also makes up for the shortfalls of the salesperson." For example, if a salesperson is distracted or forgetful, the system keeps them on track and helps them mentally prepare for meeting with clients. It also prevents them from being too eager or accommodating.

Another benefit is that Simone finds it relatively easy to communicate his system with another salesperson or a new employee, using written documents and scripts. He has taped and transcribed telephone conversations for salespeople to listen to or read and has new employees sit in on 10 to 15 office visits.

Personality, plus

Such a systematic approach does not work for everyone. Some remodelers prefer a looser, relationship-based approach. They have a basic outline, but when it comes to talking to clients, they tend to rely on their own personalities and judgment rather than on a script.

Sherry Bly is a salesperson for Marin Kitchen Works, a Novata, Calif., business owned by the brother-sister team of Betty and Scott Sundborg. Bly says potential clients like the idea of working with a family-run business. "It makes them feel warm and cozy," she says.

She builds on the warm feeling by using what she considers a hands-off approach to sales. "I try to establish a personal connection that has nothing to do with remodeling," she says. "We want them to think they will really have a great time doing this wonderful project and planning the project with us." Bly talks about pets or hobbies during the initial calls and says she has no problem making the segue to the project.

Keith Alward doesn't even like to label what he does "sales." He asserts, "I'm not selling a product, and this process does not have a price." The owner of Alward Construction, Berkeley, Calif., spends his initial time sharing information about his company and soothing client fears. "They're spending a lot of money. They are scared to death," he says.

Alward says any meeting with the client is a matter of developing a relationship. "You can't eliminate personality -- it's the biggest thing out there," he says. "I worry about gimmicks. They are used in place of human connectedness and contact."

An instructor at a sales system seminar Alward attended suggested asking clients, "What do I have to do to get you to sign? What is in the way of your deciding right now to go with me?" Alward says that technique would make his clients cringe. "I don't want someone cringing -- not when I'm trying to embrace them."

Alward feels that his honesty draws honest, trustworthy clients. "We're going to be in deep stuff together. I'm going to rip up your house and your life and take your money. If you think I'm lying to you at the sales meeting, you can't trust me when you're in the middle of an intense project," he says

"No-system" systems

Alward sends potential clients a list of all of his clients. "I bold the names of repeat clients, which is about 70% of the list," he says. Also on the list are current projects, plus the names of his subcontractors, architects, and other professionals. "If I can get this into their hands before we talk, all the better. Then they have a sense of 'seeing' me in the privacy of their homes," Alward says.

After he sends the package, he calls the prospects to explain two stipulations. First, he does not bid on projects. Second, he only works on a time and materials basis. "Essentially, I'm qualifying them," Alward says. "You could say that it is a hard pill for people to swallow -- why throw it out right now? Without scaring them off, I want to pressure them to see if they cave."

The next step is for Alward to meet the prospects in person. The homeowners usually want to focus on the project design during this meeting, but Alward steers them toward the business side of the job. He tells them, "You're trying to select a contractor, and I'm trying to select a client."

Alward's most powerful tool for weeding out a problem client is telling homeowners he will not give them an estimate up front. "Some will say, 'That's crazy. Other remodelers give free estimates.' That conversation will not go anywhere. If they say, 'I have to know what the project will cost,' I say, 'Of course you do. But no one will know cost without a lot of work.'" Then Alward explains that it's easy for someone to give a rough price now -- one that may not turn out to be accurate. But to actually figure out a realistic price takes time.

Salesperson Dave Watson does not have a structured sales system. Instead, he shifts his approach based on the client. Clients often express their appreciation for his listening skills and his problem/solution view of their project
Compoa Salesperson Dave Watson does not have a structured sales system. Instead, he shifts his approach based on the client. Clients often express their appreciation for his listening skills and his problem/solution view of their project

Alward says the main problem with his personal sales style is that it is difficult to find a salesperson to replicate his approach, which limits the growth of the company. "I'm daunted by the thought of training someone to do what I do," he says. Not having a written sales process, he says, is also a weakness.

Dave Watson also dislikes a structured sales routine, but unlike Alward, he prefers to focus on the scope of the project. "I'm not looking for buzzwords to react to. I listen to their needs to get an understanding of what they are trying to accomplish," says the salesperson for Spivey Construction, Indianapolis.

At the first meeting, Watson gives homeowners some rough ideas for their project and a ballpark budget. By the second meeting, Watson presents a more-detailed potential plan and price range. At the end of this meeting, he asks for a signed contract.

There is, he says, more than one way to ask clients for their business. For some clients, Watson doesn't ask outright. Instead, he may ask if they want to give him a down payment and add their project to the production schedule. For some introverted customers who have a hard time saying "Yes," Watson will pull out the contract and start filling it out and wait for them to comment. Watson does make sure he has an appointment or agreement established at the end of each meeting. "When you leave it open-ended, it seems uncontrollable," he explains.

Getting to know you

McLean, Va., remodeler Josh Baker says that there are "natural" salespeople, but the definition of a good salesperson is one who is well trained in selling.

"Just because you have natural golf talent, if you are not well-taught and well-practiced, you are not a good golfer," he says. "Some personality traits lend themselves to being a good salesperson, but they still need practice and training."

He says the training he chooses at BOWA Builders is not "used car salesman, manipulation, fast-talking" sales. It is about enhancing the type of consultative sale so common in remodeling.

The goal of Baker's first meeting at the client's house is to establish rapport and define the scope of work. "We have a formal list of critical questions that do get asked at some point during the meeting," he says. One revealing question company salespeople ask is, "Have you remodeled before?" Baker says if the answer is, "No, I've been afraid," their fears must be addressed. Or if the answer is, "Yes, and I had a terrible experience," the salesperson needs to get to the bottom of what made the experience so terrible. Even if the answer is, "Yes, and I had a wonderful experience," it's important to find out what made it so wonderful.

At the end of this meeting, the salesperson asks if the client will hire the company. "I tell my sales staff, the next best thing to a Yes is a No. You know you're not going to get it, instead of being strung along," he says. For a "maybe" answer, Baker and his staff find out what the client needs to make a decision, provide that information, and set a time frame for the final answer.

Mason Lord, owner of Hudson Valley Preservation, Sherman, Conn., learned to do the same type of thing during his sales calls. "At the end of every meeting, I get a plan of action from the homeowner," he says. "We know what's happening, and they know what's happening."

Lord sees his professional attitude as a major responsibility to his company. "Seat of the pants sales won't work," he says. His education through the Design Build Institute has increased his margins and made for more productive use of his time. "When I go on sales calls, I use the same system every time. Before, I was just going in selling my company. It's not a script, but I'm looking for the same issues," Lord says.

Before he established his system, Simone relied on sheer drive and desire. "I would hammer away until I had a sale. Now I prefer to work smarter, not harder." He says his process is scripted for two reasons. First, so he doesn't forget anything. (He has a debrief sheet to make sure he covers his objectives, see opposite page.) Second, he wants to generate emotional involvement from the client. That is one of the reasons he invites them to his showroom before he visits their home. He tells them, "We find when we come to your home, we learn about how you live and get a lot of personal information. We want you to have that much information about us." If he receives objections to this, he knows he is dealing with tire kickers.

Simone likes to give prospects three to seven days between the initial phone call and the showroom visit, so he can mail them information. When the prospects arrive at the showroom, he waits five or 10 minutes to greet them, so they have time to peruse the pictures and awards on the wall.

By the time of the visit, he has conducted background research on the prospects' properties through the title company. "We know what they owe, size, year built, type of architecture, the numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, and how much they paid per square foot."

He shares and verifies this data in a conversational manner. Clients are impressed, Simone says, by the research. It justifies the time they have taken to visit the office by proving that Simone and his staff have invested their time, too.

"Most clients want to talk about the project. I steer them away from that. If they do bring up an issue, I make a notation to go back to talk to them about that point. They like seeing me take notes," he says. During this conversation, he asks them how they make a decision on an important project. Will they do research? Create a list of pros and cons? Call references? "As long as I know what the rules are, I can play the game," Simone says.

Lord sets the tone for the meeting before it begins by having his office manager, Laura Lurcott, fax or e-mail an agenda to the client. She includes the details they gave her on the phone, asks that all decision makers be present, and requests minimal interruptions during the meeting.

The homeowners' behavior at the first meeting is very telling. "The clients who don't stick to the rules are disqualifying themselves," Lord says. "With people who don't play by the rules in the first meeting, they won't when the project starts."

Know when to walk away

No matter how strong a sales system is, knowing when to say "no" is a tool every remodeler must have in their arsenal. Baker says if the clients' budget is not realistic for their project, he tells them to feel free to call him with questions as they go through the process with another remodeler. "It establishes good will. I've had people come back and hire us for their next project," he says. Clients also want him to help them make a decision on whether to remodel or move. "Often we tell them to move. We don't sell people something that is not good for them or they don't want. Even if it is not in the immediate best interest of the company, it is still in the long-term interest of the company," Baker says. "They might refer us to a friend, or if they move, they might hire us."

"We'll walk away from a potential client we think will compromise our reputation," agrees Alan Freysinger of Design Group Three, Milwaukee. "For example, if they are badgering or bullying us, or if they are rude. Or if we say we're booked for eight weeks and they say, 'Of course you can start earlier.' These clients try to take you out of your process," he says. He and business partner, Bob Prindiville, say the reputation of their company is their "holy grail," because it allows them to meet with every potential client knowing there is no doubt about their quality or design. Without that, any sales system could fail. The Sensitive Question: When and How to Ask Clients for their Budget

Laura Lurcott
Hudson Valley Preservation
"I schedule a 30- to 45-minute phone call. I get permission to ask a lot of questions during that call. I say, after we discuss your project, we'll talk about the financial investment you have set aside. I don't use the word budget because it has negative connotations. I ask for big round numbers or a broad range."

Josh Baker
BOWA Builders
"We ask at the initial phone call or at the initial meeting. Some clients are reluctant. We tell them we just want to make sure that we can address their concerns appropriately and make sure what they are asking is realistic. We tell them we want to come up with a solution that matches their budget."

Dave Watson
Spivey Construction
"That is usually an offensive question. It's hard to ask without someone being hesitant or not giving you full information. I think it's rude to ask about budget over the phone. I think at a first meeting there are a lot of ways to find out financial resources available or equity in the existing home without asking about their budget. I prefer to extrapolate from the details they give me. Or I give examples of the cost of similar projects and see their reaction."

Bill Simone
Custom Design + Construction
"I ask when I talk to them on the phone and go through my 13 questions. It's rare not to have a number given on the phone. What do you expect to invest in 'round numbers,' I say, to soften it. I score it if it sounds realistic or not. I also ask: 'What if, for that money, you can't accomplish your goals? Will you add more money? Or will you scale back the project, material selections, do it in phases?'"

Sherry Bly
Marin Kitchen Works
"We give prospects a questionnaire before we visit their house. At the bottom of the questionnaire it asks: What would you like to spend? How much can you spend? How much will you spend? Usually they're open, but if they don't want to share, I point to our portfolio and say, 'This project was in this range.' We ask them what look they want to create, so I can get them to share the budget by asking about materials."

Alan Freysinger and Bob Prindiville
Design Group Three
"On the first call to the client, it pays to cut to the chase and talk about budget and time frame. We ask them to describe the scope of the project. We tell them another project we did similar to theirs cost, say, $350,000. Some say, 'Let's talk.' Others say 'No' right away. Like buying a TV or car, if you don't qualify their budget range, you can't give them what they want." Sales Checklist and Debrief Sheet

Here is an excerpt from Bill Simone's detailed checklist for sales calls.

Bonding & Rapport
* Make sure they are more OK than you, so that you can engage their empathy. Forget a pen. Say you were up late, had to take care of a sick kid.
* Accommodate your clients' preferred method of learning: by sight, by sound, or hands on.
* Match your prospect's posture, body movements, volume, rate of speech, tone, favorite phrases.

Up-front Contracts
* Establish an agenda for each meeting. What would you like to accomplish? What would define success in this meeting?

* Get to the decision-maker. Whose idea was it to do this project?
* Find out how the decision will be made.
* Find out who is involved in the decision-making process.

Post Sell
* Deliberately give the prospect a chance to back out. Bring up a compromise the prospect agreed to earlier, then ask if the prospect will cancel based on that compromise after you leave.