When George Drummond started his Virginia Beach, Va., deck-building business, Casa Decks, he thought that the way to sell decks was by starting low, giving a “bare-bones price,” and working up to a higher, more profitable design. Eventually he learned to propose a design that includes options, “and if the [homeowners] want to cut corners,” he says, “they can change the deck size or quality of the materials.” By starting at the high end, Drummond sells more decks, at better prices.

Consultant Dennis Schaefer advises caution. “If you're at $20,000 and everybody is $12,000, you're going to lose a lot of jobs,” says Schaefer, who, before becoming a speaker and consultant, owned a $3.5 million Michigan deck-building business, which he sold to employees. Customers, Schaefer says, “automatically look at the bottom line” — the highest number on the contract — and compare it with other proposals they've received. His solution: “I would put my basic deck — square footage, rails, and stairs — in the center of the contract.” With that price established, “you can talk about options.”

DECK DIFFERENTIATION Knowing what people might want to spend before you get to the home helps. Wes Barber, co-owner of DW Elite Decks, in Kansas City, Mo., a high-end deck builder, says that “most guys shoot the low stuff.” For an upper-end demographic like that in some of the markets where DW Elite builds, Barber says prospects are more interested in the quality of the design than in getting a low price. “The biggest drawback is that companies don't pre-qualify people,” Barber says. “I give them a number to start with, then I ask point-blank, ‘What are you thinking the project will cost?'” DW Elite Decks also asks what kind of products people are looking for so Barber not only has a sense of cost and design but knows what materials to bring.

SOLVE THE PROBLEM Drummond — who gives seminars on deck design — points out that deck buyers are essentially “trying to solve a problem, real or perceived.” That may be a need to entertain or a desire for peaceful relaxation, he says, “so figure out what that problem is and address that with the design.” About 70% of Casa Decks' business comes through the company website (casadecks.com), which gives Drummond enough time to scope the property out using Bing Maps “so I am looking at their house when I am talking to them.” That way he can come armed with design ideas. Drummond says he likes being the first one in the door so he “sets the standard.”