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The Selections Maze

Everyone wins when trusted systems make for smooth product selections.

From "Remodeling" Magazine
April 1, 2005
By: Elizabeth Landry

A remodeled kitchen or bath is usually a dream come true for your client. So you'd think they would eagerly look forward to product selection. After all, choosing tile, appliances, and faucets is supposed to be the fun part of remodeling. But most remodelers find that their clients are overwhelmed by the process and need a great deal of help. More and more remodelers are developing systems and practices to help guide their clients through the wide world of products and budgets. And though each has a different approach, they all have one goal in common: better communication. Whether it's fielding cell phone calls 24/7 or patiently explaining why it costs more to install granite countertops, experts agree that constant contact is the secret to mastering product selection.

In the Beginning

Remodelers who excel in the product selection process spend a great deal of time at the very start of the job working on selection. Amie Riggs of Riggs Construction in Kirkwood, Mo., starts by talking about money. “At the initial sales call, we ask ‘What kind of investment do you want to make?'We try not to call it a budget.” Riggs says this gives her a good idea of where to start making suggestions on brands and finish options, and it's also where the initial allowances are drawn from. “After meeting with the clients and discussing their tastes, we know if they're laminate people or granite people; if they're chrome or satin nickel,” Riggs says. We also “find out the things that are important to them. For some people, spending top dollar on a commode is important, rather than on a faucet.”

“We start with their expectations,” says Tricia Sinn of Sinn Construction and Development in St. Louis. “What they want versus what they need, and how that relates to the budget we're working with. For instance, on a kitchen, if we're talking about appliances and we have a $5,000 budget, I tell them, ‘This is the product line we're looking at.'” This ensures that the homeowners limit their search to products they know they can afford.

Liz Ropele of Pro/Craft Painting and Contracting in Libertyville, Ill., finds that many of her clients don't have a clear idea on how they want their new room to look. “They might say, ‘I want a Jacuzzi and a shower panel with a body spray for the bath,'” she explains, but they won't have specific ideas about tile or color. Ropele suggests that these clients look through kitchen and bath magazines for inspiration, and she'll often bring books from her office for them to peruse.

The initial meeting is also a good time to set time guidelines. It's important that the client know exactly when selections need to be made and when products need to arrive on the jobsite. “We figure out what they need, what they want, what the time limit is,” Sinn says. She also gets the homeowner to start thinking about how long the job will take and when they'd like to be back in their home. During the second meeting, when she knows the scope of the work to be done, she works with the client to make the actual construction schedule.

For Sinn, product selection starts with the layout. “We start with the general floor plan, and then attack from there,” creating the finish schedule by going through every component of the room: plumbing, flooring, colors, fixtures. As the construction schedule gets firmed up, the client knows how crucial it is to make decisions on time.

Another important part of the initial selection discussions is to let the homeowners know that they're supported.

“At the beginning, they're overwhelmed,” explains Carrie Carroll, designer/project administrator at Quality Design and Construction in Raleigh, N.C. “I let them know it's supposed to be fun, and that I'm there for them.” Carroll finds it's easiest to communicate over e-mail, because most clients have day jobs. “Over the weekend or at night, something will pop into their heads and they can just write me. After they see that I'm going to keep up with them, they're fine.”

Getting it Down
Putting things in writing is usually the next step in the process. This ensures fewer surprises down the line. “What we typically do is put together a job-specific selection sheet called a Decision Worksheet,” explains Debby Allmon, sales manager at Schloegel Contracting in Kansas City, Mo. It includes “cabinets, plumbing, etc. We use that as a guide. We want our final contract to have all those decisions in it.”

Allmon includes “due dates” for each stage of the selection process in the worksheet. “The overall goal is to have all of [the products] two weeks before construction,” she says, so thoughtful scheduling is critical.

Amie Riggs puts together a design agreement after the initial sales call. If at that time the clients don't have a predetermined amount of money they want to spend, she gives them a range based on her estimate. “Say our estimate is $200,000. I'll give them a range of $210,000 to $220,000. If they're comfortable falling within that range, then we go ahead.” On the other hand, if the client has a limited budget, and Riggs' estimate goes over that, she'll ask the client if they'd like to cut some items. “I go over the list and say, ‘These are the things we can either take away or modify in order to get closer to your budget.'” The selections manager at Riggs also puts together a spreadsheet with the allowances for all the products the client has to select, which the client can take with them when they're shopping.

Along with the design agreement, Riggs gives the client a letter detailing the next 12 steps in the process, from the measuring meeting to the construction contract meeting. It “describes how many hours everything takes, how many shopping trips, etc.” Riggs asks the clients to incorporate the steps into their calendars.

Putting the process in writing helps avoid confusion later. “Communication is key,” says Tricia Sinn. “We agree up front on a schedule of when things need to be selected. I ask for a primary contact who [will be] available when I need to call. There are surprises in every remodeling project, but they're minimized because of this. Change orders are kept to a minimum.”

Let's Go Shopping!
Remodelers have different approaches for dealing with the actual shopping part of the selection process. Some have showrooms or design centers at their offices. Many choose to go along with the homeowner to provide support and guidance as they navigate miles of countertops and mazes of cabinet doors. Others provide some guidelines and send their client off to their vendors with well wishes.

Having a design center on site gives clients a good head start, according to Allmon. “We have some things here they can select from. The whole reason we have it is to get as much done ahead of time as possible, so they don't have to go all over the city.”

Sinn also tries to get all or most of the selections done in the office. “Normally we will do it all here,” she says, “or I will go and make selections with them.” Keeping the process in-house has the advantage of ensuring that the products chosen are tried and true to the remodeler. When clients stray, they often pick items out of their budget. Sinn had a client who found a granite countertop she loved while out shopping on her own. “We had done an estimate off a B category of granite, and this was from the A category. [It cost] three times the amount.”

Outside of the office, Allmon has specific vendors she sends clients to. “Usually one of our salespeople will go shopping with [the client]. We have two plumbing and several tile [vendors].” Allmon sometimes makes pre-selections for clients who she thinks might have trouble choosing from a wide array of options. For instance, “granite slabs in a warehouse. [They'll ask] what's the difference between this one and that one? So I'll usually go first and mark the granite and preselect ones that match their colors. That way they can just pick from those.”

Ropele of Pro/Craft learned the hard way about the usefulness of pre-selections. “The first client we did this [product selection process] with went out and purchased everything in one day, but none of it was in the specs. We ended up using everything she bought, but we had to do a change order and change our specs around. In the end, she was OK with the extra cost, and now we're getting ready to do her kitchen.”

Having a set group of vendors and showrooms to send clients to is common practice. “We have a vendor list, with two or three vendors in each category,” explains Carroll. At Riggs, a selections coordinator goes along with the client to supplier showrooms. If the coordinator has to return to a supplier with the client for a second visit, Riggs charges an additional fee. This helps to keep the selections, and the entire job, on schedule.

Even more hands-on is Matt Philbin, sales/project manager at Philbin Construction and Remodeling Co. in Chicago. He and his staff pick out an initial selection to present to the client at the start of the job. He then asks the client what they like or don't like. Philbin is strict on keeping to a select range of products that he depends on. “We usually stay within certain manufacturers,” he explains. “There's a handful that we trust that we don't mind putting our warranty on,” he says, adding that the client is free to choose a different model from the same brand. If homeowners really want a brand that Philbin doesn't want to use, he'll try to convince them to reconsider. “Depending on how adamant they are, we try to get them to switch to ours. Often they will go with what we chose. You'd be amazed in most cases how very few of the products the customer actually picks out.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Carroll, who guides clients with a light hand. She gives them a vendor list at the start of the project and then communicates with them via e-mail during the process. Quality also has a showroom on-site, where Carroll will help clients choose, but when they go shopping off-site, she's comfortable letting them go on their own. “I've never had anyone ask me to go,” she says. If a client happens to be overwhelmed and needs more attention, Carroll recommends an interior designer who works with the company.

On Their Own
When clients want to get their own products, most of these remodelers will let them, but with a great deal of caution and a number of caveats.

“If it's a finish item, like a faucet or flooring, it's OK as long as it can be on site well in advance,” Allmon says. “There have been times when a customer got something that didn't work, or was backordered, and that held us off the job. We're absolutely fine with it as long as we can get it on time.”

Carroll agrees. “It's not a problem as long as they let me know. I just tell them when we need it by. As long as they're willing to have the stuff on site when we need to put it in, it's fine.”

Remodelers find that their clients usually trust them when they tell them a product isn't right for the job. Sinn says that her word carries more authority than even that of an interior designer or well-meaning friends and family. “I'm responsible for the whole project. I know what might go wrong, and I let them know right away.”

Philbin has found the same. “[Clients] like the idea that they have the influence of someone who really knows the products'performance, rather than a salesperson that might be looking at a commission. We're [suggesting products] strictly on performance and reliability.”

If a client chooses a faucet, for instance, that Riggs doesn't like to use, she'll tactfully suggest a more trusted brand. “I approach it like, ‘I love that faucet, but, in our experience, we have not had good luck with it.'” Riggs will then suggest a brand she prefers and will explain why.

Going Over Budget
Because budgets and allowances are set so early in the process, it's rare that clients go too far overboard. Remodelers who have their clients sign a contract or agreement often have tools in place that keep budget overages to a minimum. “[Our] design contract stands alone from the construction contract,” Riggs says. “Our markup on allowances is 27%. If the allowance was $1,000 and they spent $2,000, they're going to owe me $1270 for that. And we do an allowance change or product change order, and they have to sign for that. They're paying for us to do that.”

Allmon is willing to work with clients who go over budget as long as there's time in the schedule to make the changes. She gives an allowance for all the finish items. In the last two weeks, there's often some change. “When we get to the point where they're going over budget, we go back through and start cutting and changing. There might be degrees of expense with options, like in cabinets or something. We can start figuring out what's really important, and cut other things.”

Allmon also makes it beneficial for clients to stay on budget by giving back the unused allowance plus 25% if the client stays under, and charging the excess amount plus 25% if the client goes over.

Education and communication seem to be the magic combination when it comes to staying on budget. Sometimes clients don't understand that installation costs can change when products do. Ropele specified ceramic tile for a client's spa bath, but during the final materials meeting, the client changed her mind and wanted porcelain. Ropele had to explain that porcelain was more expensive to install, and the client was fine with that. During this last materials meeting before shopping starts, Ropele goes “page by page over the contract and the specs,” she says. “We let them know what will cost more.”

Budget success starts with the initial communication with the client. Having systems in place certainly makes product selection easier. But getting to know your client seems to be the most important aspect of the process. As Tricia Sinn says about her clients, “By the time we're selecting things, I could do it for them because I know them so well.”

Cybershopping Trips
A remodeler's showroom is no longer the first place homeowners see the array of products they have to choose from. More and more, they're arriving at the office with products on the brain. Carrie Carroll sees clients getting a lot more knowledgeable. “We have some who come in with everything they've investigated for the past year. They've done their homework.” A lot of this “homework” is being done on the Internet, where people can find out about any product that piques their interest. “The Internet has had a tremendous impact on all this,” Tricia Sinn says, “because you can't control them! In the past five years, people have gotten much savvier about what's available.”

There are benefits to having this overabundance of information, though. “We've found some great new things from clients seeing things on the Internet. I use a lot of antique elements, like corbels. And there are some great sources on the Internet to find these things. Without it I would never find this stuff.”

Liz Ropele also sees mostly positive effects from the Web's influence. She uses it often to research products for herself and her clients. “Sometimes people can get crazy ideas and get misinformed,” she says, but that presents an opportunity to educate. “[I want them to] understand how the application is going to be used in their project. As long as my clients are well-educated, that's what I want.”

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