By Brian Van Bower
During a presentation to a recent conference for the swimming pool and spa industry, I tossed this nugget to the audience: “By a show of hands, how many of you in this room believe that most people think highly of our industry? Please be honest.”
It was a mixed group of more than 160 people representing manufacturers, distributors, manufacturer’s representatives, retailers, service/maintenance firms and, in the majority, pool and spa builders. Even with all of these different segments of the industry in the room, not a single hand went up.
As one who often criticizes the industry, even I was surprised by the response. So I asked if they thought that most people had a generally negative view of the pool industry – and nearly every hand shot up.
This diverse group of industry professionals was united in the belief that most of the public thinks poorly of professionals on the pool/spa side of the watershaping trade. Looking around the seminar hall, somewhat amazed by the group’s apparently unanimous low opinion of the industry’s image, I posed what I believe was the next logical question: “How can we do better?
THE ‘E’ WORD
For years now, I’ve been among those who support the idea that the first and most potent answer to that question has to do with assigning far greater value to quality education. I wish I could say otherwise, but this position is now so common that it’s becoming somewhat of a cliché.
Trouble is, even though many of us are in agreement on the need for education, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough to quantify exactly what we mean by “quality education.” As a result, where it’s quite easy to ramble on and on in praise of education, it’s definitely another thing to make it happen.
In all fairness to the pool and spa industry, there are countless seminars one can take to learn the basics when it comes to water chemistry, running a retail store and to some extent about issues related to design, engineering and construction. The problem is that too much of this information is delivered in incredibly small doses, typically in one- or two-hour seminars, that give important topics a once-over-lightly treatment that may do more harm than good.
And in the worst cases, the short time frames lead to communication of a tremendous amount of information that is just plain wrong – and gets repeated over and over again at conference after conference, coast to coast.
It’s unfortunate that there’s no formal education available in the field of pool design and construction – no degree program at any design school, no credentialing system of any sort that recognizes the need for anything more than stepping over the exceedingly low barriers to entrance into the profession.
To fill the void, organizers of a great many industry events where seminars take place are constantly looking for volunteers who will teach a course on one relevant topic or another. The people who raise their hands and lead a seminar are certainly well meaning, but are they truly qualified to teach what they’re being asked to teach? Who evaluates approaches ahead of time? Who sets the standards?
The reality is that the standard for educational quality has been set very low in most places. As a result, we see the industry reinforcing, for good or ill, lessons it has learned over and over again rather than stepping back and looking beyond itself to find new ideas and information. And, regrettably, we sometimes see erroneous information doled out as gospel. Without pointing fingers, I know that this happens all too often.
Getting away from this haphazard, inconsistent and undisciplined form of education was one of the motivating factors in formation of Genesis 3’s design schools, and the fact that most of those schools have been sold out during the past five years testifies to the fact that they have value. I’m proud of that fact as one of Genesis 3’s founders, but even I acknowledge that our schools are only first steps on a much longer road to a better education and a better industry.
To indulge a daydream for a moment, try to visualize an industry where watershaping is a field of formal, academic study with full-time instructors, a rigorous curriculum and high standards.
That’s quite a stretch beyond where we are today, but ultimately, I believe that’s what it will take to elevate our trade to the next level. And if you consider the not-too-distant profession of landscape architecture as a parallel, I believe that taking some steps in the here and now toward establishing a program in watershape design and construction at a major design school is important to the trade’s future.
We shouldn’t be satisfied by two hours of information on structural engineering, two hours on hydraulics, two hours on the history of art and architecture and an hour on lighting. Instead, we should find ways to encourage development of programs in which key courses last for months rather than hours, completion of which results in a degree or some other form of reliable, respectable credential.
Over time, I think, the legitimacy that flows from such programs will translate into an improved self-image among all segments of the watershaping trades – to a better way of doing business, and, finally, to greater acceptance among consumers.
Certainly, this sort of prospective discussion leaves little for us to grasp in the industry we see today. As a result, I believe we still need to press on and ask ourselves how we can do better right away, beyond anything that might develop on the educational front.
In other words, it’s not enough to say that educational opportunities are poor, so there are no reasonable ways for us to elevate our profession. Instead, to move in a direction where customers are drawn to people in our trade rather than repulsed by them, we need to make smaller, incremental improvements on an individual, daily basis.
The most immediate thing we can do, I think, is to begin by improving the way we treat our customers. This is something we can each start doing with the next prospect we encounter.
Here’s a specific example of how something could have been better:
I have a long-time friend from the wine and food industry who recently hired me to design a pool for his family. I always enjoy working with friends and was eager to tackle the project, which, by most standards these days, was a relatively ordinary backyard pool/spa combination. To my friend, completing this project was a hugely exciting prospect.
The design phase was easy, but when it came time to recommend contractors, things became tougher because, quite honestly, I don’t have a great deal of confidence in many of south Florida’s pool-construction companies. Out of necessity, however, I do offer limited suggestions.
In this case, unfortunately, my client ran into a couple of truly rude people who almost immediately soured him on the process. In one case, the contractor was abrupt, saying he’d pick up the plans and specifications if he had the time – and did so in a way that was utterly dismissive of my client and of the fact that he had employed a designer to make that set of plans and specifications.
I’ll admit this rubbed me the wrong way, partly because it was a friend who was being treated so rudely, but also because this is far too typical of what I hear from clients and potential clients all the time: People in our industry tend to be rude and inconsiderate and, by the way, are horrible about returning phone calls.
As my friend told me (and as others have related to me in the past), this rudeness so early in the process foretold terrible things for the rest of the process. If behavior is so unpromising before the contract is even written – during the “honeymoon” period – then how is it going to be when problems arise? The next question many of these prospects ask is, “Do I really want to put myself through this?”
In this case, my friend moved forward – and he did so because our products are so attractive and desirable that people are willing to tolerate, with noses held, the process of dealing with our industry. Put another way, our products are so cool that they sell despite our best efforts to ruin customers’ good moods during the sales and construction processes.
To my mind, this is not difficult to fix. All it takes is a concerted effort to be nicer, more considerate and more professional in demeanor – a pathway to immediate rewards. And you don’t have to be highly educated (or even all that intelligent) to be kind to others. It’s my belief, in fact, that we can go a long way toward making up for other shortcomings by treating people in a positive and considerate way.
SCALING THE GROWTH CURVE
If that sounds overly simple or even naïve, so be it. Frankly, I’ve seen common courtesy work wonders, over and over again and in myriad ways.
The challenge is, while professional courtesy yields clear results, it’s an intangible – and nobody can tell you how well you’re treating your clients except for those clients themselves. They’re the ones who know for sure, and they’re the ones you need to take care of to stay in business.
As I walked away from that seminar room, my mind working to encompass the low self-image with which the industry regards itself, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to ask the consuming public to rate us on a scale of one to ten. My guess is that we’d have to grade on a curve to give out more than a few good marks: On a straight, objective scale, I’m convinced we’d fare pretty poorly – and certainly well below “average.”
In considering how we can do better, there are things that we can do collectively, by continuing to beat the educational drum, but there are many more things we can do individually, by elevating our daily approach to our clients and treating them with professional respect and courtesy.
Either way and on any level, the decision to do better begins with the acknowledgement that something is not right and needs to be improved. I believe the participants in my recent seminar had identified a need for improvement – a fact that gives me some hope.
Next time, we’ll turn our attention to some specific things we all can do better.