By Scott Tarpinian
Every wood flooring contractor can tell you that when you walk up to someone’s house for the first time, you never know just what to expect. Every job and every customer is different, but some contractors try to do all their estimates the same way—get in, measure, and get out. If you’re charging $4 for refinish (for example), you are probably losing jobs that you would have got at $3.50, but you’re missing out on extra profit, because someone was willing to pay $4.50. What I’ve found over the years is this: Don’t just bid the job, bid the customer.
From the initial phone call with a customer, you start getting important clues about the job and what’s important to them. I start by asking basic questions. For example, on a call about refinishing: Are you in this area? When were the floors last refinished? (You’d be surprised how many people have no idea, even if it was five years ago.) Did we do your floors? If people say they don’t know, right away that tells me price may be their No. 1 concern. Refinishing hardwood floors, even for a small job, is going to cost a couple thousand dollars at least. I remember everybody in my life to whom I’ve paid a couple thousand dollars, so if they spent $5,000 and they can’t even remember the company they gave the money to, that tells me they aren’t trying to worry about quality or establishing an ongoing relationship.
Once I arrive for an estimate, I am looking at the neighborhood, looking at the house, and looking at the car in the driveway for clues about the customer. It’s almost like you need to get inside the minds of the customers and find out what their concerns are, so I never know exactly what I’m going to talk about at the estimate until I meet the homeowner. Some people think there is going to be an inch of dust all over their house and as soon as you say, “I’m going to handle that for you—don’t worry about it,” they’re fine. For other people, it’s about how they are going to get their furniture out, so your conversation is about calming them down and telling them you’ve got a moving company you recommend.
With some customers, you can guess what their concerns will be. If you’re at a bid and the lady has three young kids running around and bothering her, you probably don’t want to get into the details of describing the chemistry of different finishes; she’s probably going to care more about you reassuring her that you’re going to get it done on time and leave the job clean.
When you’re at an estimate with people who are around retirement age, they tend to do business in more of an old-fashioned way. These are people who want someone to take the time with them; they will often offer that you sit at the table and have a cup of coffee while you talk about the job. You might be thinking about what a rush you’re in, but you need to take the time. Also, they tend to like to do business on a handshake, and they might not be used to things like email.
First-time homebuyers tend to have some characteristics in common. In general, they tend to need a lot of education; many don’t even know that a wood floor can be refinished, much less how much it typically costs or what the options are. Oftentimes it seems they want to itemize out their bids by room and might want to do the work piecemeal. In cases like that I try to educate them that if I have to do just 150 square feet of sand and finish, that’s going to cost more per square foot than if I’m doing 500. Customers appreciate when you are trying to help them get the best value; I’ll tell them, “If this were my house, this is what I would do.”
When bidding, there are also red flags. A classic one every wood floor contractor knows is when you walk into an immaculate house and the homeowner apologizes for the mess. Another one for me is when people ask you a question, you start to answer, and they interrupt you and start talking again. People who just don’t listen tend to be the ones who tell me something ridiculous after the fact like, “You said you would move my furniture”—something we have never done and I would never say. Another thing that sends up flags for me is when you’re dealing with a single-income family and the decision-maker in the family doesn’t want to bother being home when I do the estimate—you better really impress the spouse you did meet, or the decision-maker in the family is going to just look at price.
No matter who the customer is, I do know one thing when I get to an estimate: it’s about engaging the customer. One of the most important things I try to do is start a conversation with them about something other than flooring. You have to make some kind of a connection, because you’re only in there from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the job. Sometimes I’m in there for 15 minutes and it’s 10 minutes too long, because it takes me 5 minutes to measure and they don’t really have any questions. If I don’t take an extra 10 minutes to just start a conversation with them, they have nothing else to go on besides price when they start comparing bids, and we typically are more expensive than the competition.
At the NWFA Expo in Orlando, the keynote speaker, Ken Schmidt, talked about how people need a story to tell about you—how you have to engage your customer—and I totally agree with him. If you go in and bid every job the same, then you are the same when the customer is comparing bids. Spending that extra half hour just chatting with a customer at the estimate can pay off big-time in the end. Sometimes you will get burned, but more often than not, you will be rewarded with the job and a lifetime customer.