Roofing is an unusual business,” notes Dean Mainardi, who did it a long time before he started his company, Only the Best Builder, in 2009. “You don’t think about it until your house has a leak. Get it fixed, and you don’t think about it again.”

For Mainardi, recession made an unusual business even more unusual. And the recovery hasn’t much changed things. “Everybody is looking at price,” he says. “We’re not in a want economy, we’re in a need economy.”

Yet Mainardi closes 60% to 70% of appointments and says he typically gets 10% to 15% more on price than the nearest competitive bid. He competes against one-truck operators and big home improvement companies that are hard closers. How? “I sell [homeowners] the value of quality,” he says. And the idea that they need it.

Defining Quality For The Customer

Ask roofing contractors what it is that homeowners fear most about buying a job and they will name the same thing in different words. They’re afraid of being ripped off. Of making a mistake. “I think their biggest fear is that they’re not going to get a good job, no matter what they pay,” says Mark Kaufman, owner of Mark Kaufman Roofing, in Sarasota, Fla. And with more contractors than ever eager for that job, how do you choose? “They don’t want to make a bad decision,” says Ken Kelly, owner of Kelly Roofing, in Naples, Fla. More specifically, says Mark Watson, co-owner of Exterior Medics, in Northern Virginia, “they’re scared they’re going to have problems later — because someone they know had a roof put on and it leaked.”

What We Do, What They Don’t

Noticing that, Watson says, “we molded our selling process around the inadequacies of the contracting business. Contractors offer as few details as possible and hand you a number on the back of a business card. They might show you some colors and samples when they’ve gotten a commitment.” What he realized is that “even with those who had a pleasurable experience, there was always a ‘but.’” It all boils down to communication, he adds.

The often unprofessional practices of an industry that most homeowners know nothing about is an opening for companies that know how to look good, or great, by comparison. “I had a guy the other day,” Kaufman notes, “a retired engineer from Dell, say: ‘You’ve brought white-collar professionalism to a blue-collar industry.’”

For Russell Roofing, in Oreland, Pa., a key question in selling is whether the homeowner has ever had the roof replaced. “Most people have had some kind of nightmare with contractors, or they’ve heard of one,” says sales manager Ron Hall. “It doesn’t even have to be a roofing contractor. And usually the worst outcomes are because they chose the lowest price.”

Reviews Are The New Referrals

These days homeowners don’t keep their experiences to themselves. “What’s happened is that the Internet has changed the way people shop,” Hall points out. “People ask around less and less. They’re not talking to neighbors or friends. They rely on the Internet. Online reviews are what the referrals used to be.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how a roof goes on. “The majority of the people I speak with,” Kelly says, “know about products and colors.” What they don’t know, he says, are the actual details of the job.

Buying the Least Risk Roof

Every market has roofing contractors who pitch quality over price. Their client is “Anybody who cares about their home and is interested in getting the best value and product,” Hall says. “We can educate them so they make a good buying decision and know if they’re purchasing the least amount of risk.”

Here’s what, in the homeowner’s mind, reduces that risk.

  • Up on the roof. “We always get on the roof,” Watson says, “when we’re physically able to. If we can’t, we use satellite imagery. Even if salespeople set the ladder up and get to that gutter line, they can get a sense of what’s going on up there.” Such as, for instance, a dead valley where water ponds.
  • Picture this. An important selling point is that if there’s a roof problem, installation is where it happens. “We take a lot of pictures,” Hall says. “We come down and show the [home­owner] the deficiencies. Ninety-nine percent of it is installation issues. We explain to people that roofing companies are all installing the same shingles. It’s not about the products, it’s about the company’s habits.”
  • Attic inspection. Excessive heat and cold reduce roof life. The remedy is a well-ventilated attic. Few roofing salespeople will bother to inspect the attic, even though what you might find there — rust on nail ends, rotted sheathing — is tell-tale information. “I’ve gotten jobs because we went into the attic,” Mainardi says.
  • The big nut. The cost of insuring roofers is the second highest in construction, right after tree surgeons. Yet many residential roofing companies don’t carry up-to-date workers’ comp and general liability insurance.

Insurance costs make up a major component in any contractor’s general and administrative costs, and if the roofing company doesn’t carry it, homeowners could be sued for anything that happens to a worker on their property. “Most people are not aware of that,” Mainardi says. “And you should see the look on their face when they realize they could lose their house for wanting to save $300 on a roof.” Insurance is “a big nut,” Hall says. “If other contractors are skirting the issue, what are they doing with drug testing and background checks? Or OSHA regulations? And if they aren’t doing any of those, are they installing the roof right?”

  • Employee installers. Doug Fry, owner of Douglas Fry Roofing, in Wichita, Kan., says that his small company differentiates by being one of the few with its own crews. “Customers are concerned about landscaping, housekeeping issues, vehicles on the property, what the guys who show up on the job look like. I talk about the fact that all my guys are employees.”
  • Worry-free warranty. Most manufacturers offer warranties on their products, which may lead homeowners to believe that if a new roof fails someone will pay to fix it. Since most faulty roofs are due to installation errors, they’d be wrong. So imagine how persuasive it is to say that your company has been around 52 years, as has Kroll Construction, in Michigan. “You can get Owens Corning from anybody out there,” says co-owner Todd Kroll. “It’s what happens afterward.” At Kroll, what happens is that the company covers repairs for 20 years after installation.
  • Personal visit. Mark Kaufman, owner of Mark Kaufman Roofing, visits every job every day and meets with homeowners. “That difference is huge,” Kaufman says, “because with a lot of roofing companies the customer never even sees the owner.” Personal site visits contributed to the steady uptick in referral business his company has earned over the last few years. “Normally, we’re the highest price 70% to 80% of the time.”
  • Checklisted. Mark Kaufman Roofing also does a final inspection by a foreman with a checklist. “He paints the vents and boots to match the shingles. He runs the magnet again,” Kaufman says, for a clean, complete job. In addition, “the tear-off crew has a checklist, and the shingle crew has a checklist.” Checklists are part of the sales presentation. That way, Kaufman says, “clients see that you have a plan that you make sure you’re going to get done.”
  • Aftermarket care. Best Builder offers customers a once-a-year annual roof inspection, which includes a free gutter cleaning for five years after the roof is installed.

Steal The Show

For Kelly, of Kelly Roofing, the key to getting business in a tough economic climate is the ability to offer “the best of everything” to homeowners when others hang their hats on one or two key competitive points. “It used to be a contractor could walk away with the job if there was a large key bullet point that the customer liked,” Kelly says. “Now the best contractors are the best in every key area, hitting all bullet points and stealing the show. We need to overwhelm the customer and eliminate the competition, not just beam them.”