Read Part 2 in this series; read Part 3

Thousands of tales of consumer woe have found their way to rip-off and complaint Web sites. The Better Business Bureau received more than 16,000 complaints about remodelers and general contractors in 2006 (the last year statistics were available). Excluding reports that describe possible criminal activity, most complaints reveal consumers whose stories might have ended differently had they had a simple, honest relationship with a remodeler who spoke plainly and openly with them. Someone who kept his or her promises. Someone who engaged the customers' point of view when thinking about processes and systems.

Chris Withers of Old Greenwich Builders, in Denver, works with Barrett and Kristin Baker on their remodel. Withers takes time to find out about his clients' lifestyle and the neighborhood they live in before he meets them.
Photo: Ray Ng Chris Withers of Old Greenwich Builders, in Denver, works with Barrett and Kristin Baker on their remodel. Withers takes time to find out about his clients' lifestyle and the neighborhood they live in before he meets them.

What often happens, though, is that remodelers — problem-solvers by nature — come in to save the day. Having prepared for every aspect of the construction project, they hack away at each item on their list. They “miss the forest for the trees,” as the expression goes, and would benefit from stepping back and surveying the big picture, asking themselves, “What do clients really need and how can I make my world work best for them?”

What follows is the first article in a three-part series about engineering the customer experience — from sales to production to post-project warranty work.

The sales process is the initial source of anxiety for customers. The process begins with a phone call and moves through budget discussions and the visualization of the project until the hand-off to production. While guiding your prospect, you must establish rapport, trust, credibility, and professionalism.

CUSTOMER CONNECTION What if you were sick and visited the doctor, and all he did was talk about himself — where he went to school, other treatments he'd performed, and so on? That's what it's like when many remodelers begin the sales process says Bob Gregoire, vice president of global accounts at Sandler Training, a sales training program. “We diagnose and prescribe,” Gregoire says. “In the medical world, prescription without diagnosis is called malpractice. It's the same for remodelers.”

Sandler Training focuses on listening to prospects and asking them about their wants and needs. “It's 70% listening and 30% talking,” says Bhavesh Naik, owner of a Sandler Sales Institute franchise in Rockville, Md., who has a lot of remodeling company clients. “We specialize in ‘you-centered' selling as opposed to ‘me-centered' selling. Customers want two things: to be listened to and [to be] understood. Something has been bugging them for a long time — the living room is too small, the kids need bigger bedrooms, the tiling is coming up. You have to draw them out and get them to talk about their issues.”

Naik suggests asking open-ended questions such as, “What was it that compelled you to call a home remodeler? Why are you thinking of making this addition? Tell me more about it. How long have you been thinking about this project?” and even, “Why would a remodeler do this project better than you yourself could?”

Joe Dellanno, a building designer and president of My Design Build Coach, who has also been through Sandler training, has established a sales process that eases customer anxiety from the start. “The expectation is that [a prospect calls and will immediately] talk to a salesperson, so their anxiety level goes up,” Dellanno says. He developed a gatekeeper system, making sure that the person in that role has a pleasant voice and can nurture someone through the process, making them feel comfortable and raising their trust level. Most often it's a woman in that position.

After that initial phone call, the gatekeeper forwards the prospective client a draft agenda for a meeting. “This ensures that we've heard exactly what they've said,” Dellanno explains. Once the prospect gives his or her approval, a sales meeting agenda is sent out. Only after this does the gatekeeper introduce the salesperson (who may also be a designer or owner) to the prospect.

“A personal close rate is 85% to 90%,” Dellanno says. “A cold call is 1%, a lead 15%, and a referral is 50%. If [prospects] establish a relationship with the gatekeeper and see physical evidence of their requests and wants coming through on e-mail or on paper, they know we're looking out for them. It's a stronger connection.”

Once a connection is established, it's easier to get through what Gregoire calls “mutual mystification”; the point where both parties are confused. “You need to talk about objectives and outcomes and how long things will take,” he says. In other words, you must be honest. Clients will have a better experience if they feel respected.

Gregoire says that you should let prospects know up front that if, by the end of an hour, they don't think you are a good fit, they will feel comfortable telling you so. “It's like a date,” he says. “There are only two outcomes: ‘I don't want to see you again or yes, I do want to see you — and that means we can come up with an agreement on what each of us needs to do.' Unfortunately, in the dating world, we lie and say we had a great time and then never call. You need to help people to feel comfortable saying ‘no' to you.”