By Brian Van Bower
One of the most critical moments in the life of any watershaper occurs when he or she meets prospective clients face to face for the first time. This is when jobs are won or lost – and, more significant, the point at which watershaper and clients begin what can become a long and fruitful relationship.
I’ll state right up front that I do not approach my initial customer meetings with the idea of walking out with a signed contract and a check. Instead, I go in trying to do what I can to help clients realize their dream of becoming owners of a quality watershape. Whether I end up doing only a design or designing and also installing it, my goal is to lay the groundwork for an effective long-term collaboration.
I know this runs counter to the practice of those who seek to answer objections and close on the spot, but I can’t work that way. In fact, I use this first meeting to gather even more information than I already have in my notes, so I try to keep my mouth shut (as much as possible, anyway) and let my customers do much of the talking.
In other words, instead of parading each and every benefit of pool or spa ownership across the dining-room table and marching to a close, I ask open-ended questions and prompt my customers to share their views, confidently leading them to the conclusion that I’m the professional best suited to help them meet their goals.
As I’m walking to the front door, I have my file in hand with the customer name displayed neatly and prominently. Inside the file, I have all the notes I took during our initial phone conversation. I’ve reviewed those notes and have made a mental list of what I know about the clients and the job – and what I still need to learn. I also have my portfolio in professional-looking, wedding-album-type binders as well as a binder full of information from manufacturers (which I may or may not decide to use).
I look professional, which, of course, means many different things to different people. In my case, I think I’d look pretty silly in a coat and tie in South Florida’s heat, so I dress casually but neatly. (On really hot days, that often means shorts.) The important thing here is to be comfortable with yourself: If you find that you sell effectively wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, then go for it. Whatever you do, however, you should be well-groomed and clean.
As I enter the door, I focus on my clients and the moment at hand – relaxed, confident, prepared to ask questions and gather as much information as I can. I’ve already sized up the neighborhood, its age, relative income and level of care. I’ve looked at my customers’ current landscaping and make notes on what I can see of the roof, gardens and walkways.
As I enter the house, I observe and note its design, materials of construction and the sorts of choices that have been made when it comes to furnishings and decor. I look for evidence of children, for clues about how much pride my clients take in their surroundings and any and all things that will give me insight into their tastes. I’ll look at their photos to see if I’m dealing with an active family – Little League photos, perhaps, or soccer shots. I also look for vacation photos to get a sense of their leisure-time preferences.
As I go through the early, “getting settled” phase of the meeting, I think about preconceptions these folks may have about pool contractors. I consciously remind myself that they may be a little afraid of me because they’ve heard bad things about “us” or might have been conditioned to be inquisitive about pricing early on in the process. This in mind, I work very hard to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
My attention is entirely on them: I am in the moment, a true samurai salesperson.
TOOLS IN HAND
All customers are different, of course, so it’s always important to bring whatever tools you need to bear in bringing them around to your side. This includes using your instincts and paying very close attention to the signals they send you.
Indeed, your ability to read body language is a crucial tool that will tell you a great deal about their states of mind – often far more than the things they say. Quite often, the first few minutes of the meeting will be awkward. Again, I do everything I can to make them feel comfortable by listening to what they have to say. It’s critical at this stage to be patient and resist the urge to jump right into a presentation before they’re ready to hear it.
I sometimes use my portfolio to get past any initial hurdle. These materials speak volumes about the pride I take in the work I do, and I find that opening them engages my customers without my having to say a word.
I bring three photo albums with me, all filled with carefully mounted color shots of my work housed in neat cases. (I want these cases to look sharp; in fact, I get new ones the instant they begin to look the least bit worn.) Because these portfolios look a lot like wedding albums, I often make a joke that I wanted to show them my wedding pictures but couldn’t decide which of my three marriages to carry with me. (That may not be the funniest ice-breaker I’ve ever used, but it gets the job done.)
All I do is lay the first album down in front of the clients and let them flip through it at their leisure. Some people will look through only a few pictures and quickly satisfy themselves that I do beautiful work. Others pore over each and every shot, asking question after question. I go with the flow and let them tell me what they want to know about the work I do. Later, if the discussion rolls around to a specific feature (a perimeter-flow system, for example, or a cabana), I may refer to a photo or two – but I consciously avoid giving them a “guided tour.”
As I mentioned above, I also carry a binder filled with information on equipment and other products I incorporate into my projects. This is pretty much a back-up in case a customer wants to discuss a feature or component in detail. I never use this to go through and sell every item I’ll put in with a project.
This brings me to a key point: My philosophy is to avoid making multiple sales on individual features and products. Rather, I make one sale – I sell myself – and then move on to sell the design only or the whole thing designed and installed. My firm belief is that customers do not need to become experts on pool and spa products: That’s what I’m there for, and I tell them, “You don’t have to be the expert; allow me.”
As the meeting progresses, I always keep it in the back of my mind that my job is to make the process simple for my customers. I listen and give them honest evaluations of the pros and cons associated with various products and features; I answer all of their questions – and sometimes they have long lists prepared for me.
When I meet a customer who has gone to the trouble of writing down a list of questions and wears a pocket protector jammed with pens and markers, I know this will take a while. Other customers, however, are satisfied with the notion that they’re paying good money to have a professional worry about the particulars. Either way, I let them take the lead as a means of increasing their comfort level.
At every step along the way, I continue to gather information. Whenever possible, I try to ask questions that prompt my customers to do the talking. I may repeat some of the questions I asked on the phone, either to clarify or reinforce what I know. (In talking with couples, for instance, I often find that one or the other will amend or add to information I already have, such as, “We do want the pool for exercise, but we would also like some sound of water to drown out traffic noise.”)
One of the most important pieces of puzzle I’m after here is finding out who has the strongest interest in the project and why. I often find out by asking, “How do you see yourself using the pool?” Basically, I want to help them visualize.
Some will want a pool that visually impresses others (what I call a “whoa damn” pool that will cause guests to look out the window and make some sort of amazed exclamation). Or perhaps it’s a simpler desire for a place to get wet, exercise, wear out the kids, relax or entertain. Whatever the case, the more they talk about why they want a pool, the more excited one or the other will get about it – and the more guidance I gather from the meeting.
What I want to hear most from clients is something like “We’ve been thinking about this a long time, and here’s what we want.” That gets me excited because it tells me they will want to continue with the process. This often happens with referrals. In these cases, we may even have already agreed over the phone that I’m going to design the pool – and that’s great, because I don’t have to sell the concept of pool ownership. Instead, I’m taking important steps towards helping them realize their desires.
If you get the impression that feeling your way through this sort of process takes a large degree of patience, you’re on the right track. I don’t rush anything during the initial meeting, and I don’t rush anything afterward, because I know that many of my clients will play with their designs over a period of months. I strongly believe that my patience comes across as confidence and it puts me in a different category from most other contractors.
That might sound arrogant or elitist, but it’s true. To me, a willingness to let my relationship with the clients unfold over time transforms the entire process of selling into something altogether different from what we in the pool and spa industry are usually taught – and what our customers usually expect.
A GOOD LOOK
A big part of the initial meeting, of course, is the inspection of the area in which the pool is to go (assuming we’re meeting at that location, which is usually the case). As you might have guessed, I’m no fan of after-dark but “convenient” evening meetings, basically because I consider the site inspection to be too important to the very first stages of the design process. (Plus, I prefer my nights and weekends to be mine!)
As I walk around the backyard, I’m looking for things such as access, dimensions, landscaping and existing structures. I ask them how they see the installation fitting into the space and make quick notes and sketches to use later, when I get down to the business of designing the pool.
I do not try to design the project in front of them, “right before their very eyes” like a magician. I realize that this is an approach many builders use to impress clients, but I believe in doing the best job I can in the design process (which, by the way, I’m selling for a separate price) – and know that it takes time and concentration.
As we move through the space, I look for things such as children’s play equipment. If there’s a swing set, I’ll ask the client if it needs to stay or should go. I ask them how they think the pool should connect with the house. We’ll talk about ground conditions, fencing requirements and which rooms of the house will provide access to the area and/or look out over the area. I check to see if neighbors have easy sight lines into the backyard and then discuss privacy. I look at the topography and anticipate any changes in grade or elevation that we may have to create and how those contours tie into waterfeatures and landscaping elements.
We talk about decks and areas where parents can supervise children at play, relax or entertain. If there are older kids, I may suggest including some type of “adult retreat” area.
At this point, I’ll discuss pool size and shape and begin to dig a bit deeper into any specific features they may have mentioned. If exercise is of primary importance, for example, we’ll talk about the placement of the swim lanes. Or if relaxation is a priority, we’ll look at where the spa might go.
At this point, clients often mention an interest in something they saw in my portfolio, such as a beach entrance or a cabana. For now, the sky is still the limit as we spin out the fabric of a new backyard. And I’m still mostly all ears, picking up possibilities outlined by my customers that are now being shaped by the physical characteristics of the job site and that lead us naturally to a discussion of the big issue at hand: money, of course!
How and when money comes up in a sales presentation will say a lot about the real potential of the project at hand. It’s a tricky passage – a point of anxiety for the contractor and often a point of wild-eyed concern for clients.
At some point during our conversation (it varies from case to case), I will indeed broach the subject and ask them what they’re thinking about with respect to a budget. Often they will resist answering, and I can’t say that I blame them: They’re afraid that whatever they say is what I’ll make sure the project costs!
Given my gradual, even-keeled, inquisitive approach, however, the circumstances are somewhat different for my clients. I make it clear to them that we are all part of a collaboration and that we all are involved in designing something that will grace their backyard for years to come. In other words, I bring up budget in a context that lets them know I want to talk about cost as a way to corral and define the scope of the project and present possibilities that fall within limits they want to set. I find that by associating these issues of budget with specific features and the overall scope of the project, the focus remains on their desires and steers well clear of any notion that I’m interested solely in prying their hard-earned dollars out of their hands.
For example: I recently presented a design that, at the clients’ request, included a fairly elaborate stream. When they saw what the stream did to the overall cost of the project, they opted for a smaller, bubbling waterfeature that offered the sound of splashing water but kept the cost within budget. In this way, the subject of cost was dealt with in the context of what was and wasn’t realistic – and what was and wasn’t a true priority for the client.
Budgets are important, but we need to put them in context. Many times, I find that initial budgets simply aren’t valid, because my clients aren’t aware of all the features I can offer and the options they have. I also find that where there is a tentative budget, they aren’t usually set in concrete so early in the process.
Again, it’s not as much about selling as it is about collaborating. Dealing realistically with how much the project costs is an inevitable, totally natural part of that collaboration.
Another blunt question I often ask is, “How would you like to proceed from here?” Sometimes, clients are ready to go forward with a full-blown design/build contract; other times, they want to move ahead with a design-only contract that may or may not translate into further work for my company. Either way, I leave the meeting with an expectation of further interaction and a job to do.
If the client decides to take my design and shop it, great! I’ve been paid for the service of rendering the plans, and I’ve played a key role in helping them achieve their goals. If they end up wanting my company to install the project, well, I’m fine with that, too.
Either way, by approaching the meeting with the client as the beginning of an ongoing collaborative effort rather than an end in itself or a do-or-die sales call, almost invariably I find that something good comes of the investment of time and energy I’ve made.
Above all, I enjoy myself. Could a true samurai salesperson strive for anything less?