Contractor’s Corner: Successful commercial contractors must have a big-picture view - Nov 2018
By Dave Stafford
In today’s market, a flooring contractor cannot simply rely on technique to keep business humming. How they deal with every aspect of business-including installers, training, customer service, membership in co-ops and associations, sales management and business development-is a factor in determining success.
Experienced, trained, competent installers are tougher to find, and it’s really a seller’s market. The premium now being asked and paid for those with recognizable credentials such as International Standards & Training Alliance (INSTALL) or Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI) is at an all-time high and will be going much higher.
Mills are continuing to “dumb down” the installation complexity of their products to match up with the experience level of many newer installers. Well-regarded professionals are getting off their knees in favor of becoming supervisors, trainers, inspectors, project supervisors or managers. Physically, they are worn out, but mentally they can deal with job glitches, unexpected problems or challenges.
One astute former installer remarked, “No matter how much the products change, it is still a matter of dealing with defective concrete, wet slabs, quick-turn projects and unrealistic client expectations. The real success of an installation team [or installation manager] is how they deal with turning a project specification on a blueprint into the reality of a finished project. Along the way, there will be challenges and your success or failure in outcome is knowing how to cope.”
The FCICA (the Flooring Contractors Association) Certified Installation Manager (CIM) program for installation managers highlights increased interest in formalized training for those responsible for guiding project delivery. Filling an installation manager’s position is one of the most critical hires by a company. It is not about experience-“I was a certified installer for carpet, resilient and ceramic products…”-but rather about overall familiarity with flooring and management expertise. All of us have made mistakes by hiring a crackerjack installer or a former team lead and found glaring deficiencies in techniques of supervision. In one case, this culminated in a fistfight on Friday afternoon when paychecks were distributed. Fortunately, the CIM program and other training cover an array of skills necessary to succeed. Certification in this area will continue in scope with supplemental additions to keep one current.
We may see a resurgence in regional workrooms that specialize in certain aspects of installation where a high degree of skill is needed: installation of Axminster carpet, complicated patterned hospitality fabrics, or flooring replacement, for example. There will always be certain floorcoverings where the type of installation needed does not lend itself to having an employee installer on staff.
Research seems to show that there are fewer employee installers and more subcontractor installation teams. This goes to fixed cost items that are necessary with employees versus a per-job-all-in cost for a sub. No, you don’t have as much control with a sub, but neither do you have the overhead or potential liability. With a shrinking pool of qualified personnel, costs are rising, and general availability limits the securing of complex projects. Commercial flooring companies are walking away from some bids. And while that’s a shame, it is excellent news for the larger, financially responsible flooring contractor like Bonitz or those connected with one of the flooring cooperatives such as Starnet or Fuse.
Whether you use employee installers, subs or some mixture of both, your future will depend on keeping up with training in professional installation and certifications and customer service skills. Some have concentrated on the former and given little thought to the latter, to their sorrow. You should have a refresher “charm school” course in place for installation personnel. This can be something as simple as an early-morning meeting to review job site conduct, frequently-asked-questions to be discussed with the client before leaving the job site, how to request that a survey be filled out, or simply saying “thanks for your business” so that the client knows you mean it.
In my own recent experience, an installer rushed through the job like his hair was on fire, grudgingly reworking one area when cornered. I was left to inspect the job by myself, while he labored through the online sign-off procedures. I did accept the job but also called the company and expressed my displeasure, “Yes, the job was adequate, but it seemed that your technician was a lot more interested in getting to the next job than buttoning up mine.” Of course, I got an apology, but this was a training issue, not technical competence. I may just check with their competitor the next time I need something done.
The last person the customer usually sees is the installer. If he’s having a bad day or leaves a poor impression, it will undo thousands of dollars you’ve spent to develop your client base. Ratings from Angie’s List can make or break your reputation.
FLOORING COOPERATIVES AND ASSOCIATIONS
Those who have been members of a flooring cooperative or association for years will extol their value. Members not only receive rebates but also discounts on services that they could not otherwise afford. Membership allows one to reach across state lines for help and benefit from member experience throughout the country.
Part of the underlying value of the co-ops is their ability to assist with marketing and branding. The commercial dealer must still do his own marketing but may get needed tips and training or some insight as to what to avoid. When there was an idea for the co-op to enter the commercial insurance replacement market, they did market research and found this to be a highly fragmented area, quite geographic- and general contractor-dependent. That niche area information was passed along to members. “If you’re going to pursue this area commercially [versus residential insurance replacement], here’s what you need to know.”
There is a certain status afforded those who can qualify under the stringent financial, sales volume and geographic standards, but make no mistake, this is important when being selected for a project dependent on perceived qualifications. “Well, they are a member of Starnet too [maybe they can help if there’s a problem].” More than one bid has been awarded that way when prices or experience were close among several competitors.
And then there’s the interaction between association members locally and regionally, whether it be WFCA (World Floor Covering Association), CFI (now part of WFCA), FCICA, or INSTALL. When I had a problem on a job, I was able to talk with another member in Alabama, California, Minnesota or New York. I was able to ask questions or probe for solutions when I was not comfortable talking with a nearby dealer. When we had a “no-show installer” at a critical job, I was able to pull in a replacement through another member within 24 hours! He saved our reputation and the job. If you’re not a member, you should be.
While social media and Internet presence is important, the human touch is needed to close sales. Just as the installation trend is toward employing subs instead of employee installers, compensation for sales personnel will trend even more toward performance metrics rather than a more static salary model. The hybrid method of base salary, some reimbursed expenses and a share of the profits will be the norm. The reality is that competition will cap the amount of a gross profit dollar that can be paid out for sales efforts.
I suspect that a team incentive will be used to reward the blend of two or more members’ efforts. This approach will mean the sharing of brickbats as well as rewards. The sales brilliance and mercurial temperament of one member will be enhanced by the steady, organized, even-handed nature of the other. Both will be rewarded for their combined abilities through team bonuses.
The trend toward using specialized employment recruiters will gain momentum when owners finally understand it is cheaper and more effective, with fewer mistakes, to contract out the hiring process as much as possible.
What owner has the time or experience to sift through hundreds of resumes, do multiple interviews, background checks and the like? Better to set up a relationship with an expert to help refine your wish list and to do a preliminary investigation. The right recruiter already has a list of qualified personnel ready to make a job change for the right opportunity. Allocate time for several interviews with the most qualified and then make the decision to hire the best candidate.
MARKETING AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
I expect to see acceleration in a variety of services offered by the commercial flooring company but staying within their core discipline, i.e. flooring. Those that have expanded into related areas, such as cabinetry, furniture, fixtures, wallcovering, window fashions and design services, have seen mixed results. Part of the problem is when you move into new areas, you cannot use the same suppliers, credit lines, estimators or installers. An installation manager said it best, “When we measure for carpet, we allow 4” to 6” extra, but with mini-blinds and shades, you must be within 1/8” to 3/8” on length and width.”
For years, one large flooring dealer shied away from complicated ceramic and certain types of sheet resilient, opting for subs. Finally, though, an astute manager said, “I believe we can offer training to certain installers with an eye for exacting detail to do both, including heat welding, and bring this in-house.” While a painful learning curve, the dual capability allowed a couple of teams to stay busy with ceramic and resilient.
An integral part of the marketing effort will be social media and the company website. At this stage, everyone knows they should have a website. That’s where people check you out and decide whether to give you a call or go elsewhere. Set up a good-sized budget for development of context and content so the website will be a true reflection of your company’s personality and values. Having a static website is worse than not having one at all. You’d be wise to set aside the extra dollars to add interesting content to your website. Plenty of pictures, company philosophy, project details or case studies, outreach efforts, testimonials and company credentials are all critical.
Your website must do something to engage the reader and be easy to navigate. If you can, establish your own team so as to have someone full-time who can constantly tweak your content, that’s ideal. If not, contract out the procedural work of updating and coding; you’ll still need someone in-house to look after refreshing content.
Aside from personal contact, your Internet presence and personality will do the most to keep you in the hearts and minds of your target audience. Put dollars to work and make it part of your marketing budget, not an afterthought.
Copyright 2018 Floor Focus