By Brian Van Bower
Not long ago, my friend and Genesis 3 co-founder David Tisherman was in Miami. We took the opportunity to drive around and look at some of my jobs. As we moved through the Coral Gables area, really enjoying that beautiful waterfront community, he said, “This is nice. I’d really love to work around here.”
Now, in case you don’t know, Mr. Tisherman is one of the finest pool designers and builders anywhere. My first reaction to his remark was, “Jeez, what would
it be like to compete against this guy?”
As I thought about it, I came to recognize that, far from being a threat, it would actually be one of the best things that could happen in this area – and to my own business. Later on, I began to expand the scheme and think about Tisherman and our Genesis cohort, Skip Phillips, and what might happen if both of them were working in my area, competing with me for jobs and, no doubt, referring work to me as well.
The more I considered this scenario, the more I realized that good competition might be one of our industry’s most underestimated, underappreciated assets.
When I say “good competition,” I’m talking about quality-oriented companies that strive to perform at a high level with respect to design and construction: great concepts, sound engineering, quality materials and superior execution. And there’s a pretty compelling list of reasons why being blessed with such professionals stands to benefit to every single operation in that marketplace.
For starters, the good builders would no longer stick out like sore thumbs. Because so much of what goes on in the pool and spa industry is geared toward volume production, the bar is set extremely low. Everywhere you look, you see this approach to selling, design and construction driven by the lowest possible price points and the slimmest margins of quality.
The main way this low-brow approach is expressed is in pricing. I work with many customers who know my reputation and want to work with me, but when I design a pool and come in at $150,000 compared to others who roll in at $80,000, many of them cannot ignore the differential. They know what they’re getting for the lower price isn’t even remotely similar to what I’m offering with my higher bid, but they understandably assume that the low bidder can’t be that far off the mark.
Rewrite this situation and include another top-notch designer/builder: When good operations set up in the same marketplace, you’ll find that there will still be some price differences – but the ranges will narrow considerably. A quality competitor will share your design values: He or she will be incorporating raised spas, vanishing edges, waterfeatures, chlorine generators, quality materials – and, most important, will focus on an overall integration of design.
When you bid against a volume builder who’s looking only at margins, you’ll see bids that are a quarter or even a fifth of your price. That kind of quality gap is amazing – and invariably results in an erosion of credibility for everyone involved. By setting the minimum performance standard so incredibly low, the gap that’s created between low and high is so huge that you can’t be surprised when customers respond with confusion, skepticism, disillusionment, distrust or even anger.
If, by contrast, other bidders are bringing the same design sensibilities and dedication to quality to the design/bid process, the customer sees consistently excellent designs and installations and the benefits of an elevated approach are reinforced and validated.
NOT JUST THE BUCKS
Now let me very clear: Good competition is about more than justifying high prices. Much more important is the fact that good competition serves to elevate consumer expectations in a given area, a factor that reaches far beyond purely monetary concerns.
On one level, good competition is about the availability of a pool of quality contractors. If you don’t see the value of that right off the top, think about it this way: If you have to refer a client to someone else in your market and you want someone who does beautiful work, whose number would you pull from your Rolodex?
I’ve asked builders from all over the country that question, and many of them say they have nowhere to turn. And think about markets where not a single company is operating at the high end: In those areas, the discerning customer who wants a quality pool will not be able to find anyone who can build it! That’s truly sad, but it’s the state of the industry in far too many markets.
Identifying the Competition
It’s often been said – almost to the point of numbing us to its essential truth – that other pool builders and designers really aren’t the ultimate competition: It’s RV dealers and travel agents who are really siphoning off resources from the discretionary-dollar pie.
I believe this to be true, absolutely so, and that the only way to combat these threats to our livelihoods is to work at the top level, emphasize quality and let the product speak for itself.
Good competitors raise that bar. Ultimately and together, we will draw more discretionary dollars to our coffers and get a bigger slice of the pie.
I do a lot of design work for customers and, often, I don’t end up building the project. This one contractor is only person in my entire area who really has my confidence. I know that my design is in good hands if he lands the contract.
Now, as you can tell by the first paragraph in this story, I’m not immune to the fear that good competitors can strike in the hearts of their peers. It’s a natural tendency, and I guess it boils down to human nature on some level and some indescribable self-protection reflex. But when you stop and think about it, as I did in the days after David Tisherman dropped his little bomb on me, competitors who bring their own brands of creativity and quality to the process are allies to be desired and cherished.
There’s certainly enough work to go around in most markets, and I believe it is in our best interests to become quality competitors and to prize and even nurture others we run across.
A DIFFERENT DRUM
Now let’s look at this picture from the customer’s perspective – and find out where this high-level competitive scene really pays off.
We all know that many customers like to buy what they’ve seen. Sometimes they’ll spot a feature they like at a commercial facility or a waterpark; other times, they’ll have something etched in their memories during a stay at a resort or in a visit to an aquatic sports facility. Or they’ll see work done at other private residences and go looking for the same sorts of things for their own backyards.
These experiences can have a dramatic effect on clients: They will associate these positive memories with the prospect of buying their own pools, recalling, for example, the relaxing time they spent at some resort or other where they were impressed by the rockwork or the tile or the waterfall or the texture of the deck under their feet.
This sort of background imagery definitely influences the customer’s desire to buy in the first place; moreover, it sets a standard – and usually a very high one – in their minds. And it all comes down to one thing: They want what they’ve seen.
With so few good builders in a market like mine, there are relatively few opportunities for consumers to see quality work. It therefore makes my job that much harder: I have to start on the ground floor by defining quality and working with limited expectations. By contrast, if there were a half dozen top-level companies in my area, not only would customers have far more opportunities to see quality work in their friends’ backyards, but they would also have the chance to select among different styles and a broader variety of features.
Honestly, I feel like the odd man out in my own market. Instead of knowing that my clients will be talking to a set of like-minded professionals who want to win jobs based on their expertise and design skills, I put my best foot forward knowing that others in the market are actually angling after jobs by pursuing least common denominators.
Under these circumstances, I have to bring customers so far along the curve that I sometimes seem unreasonable and unrealistic. In other words, this “quality gap” erodes my credibility and that of all other bidders and ultimately keeps customers from really understanding and appreciating their full range of options.
THE COMPETITIVE SPARK
Another huge benefit to good competition is that it keeps you on your toes. It’s not unlike great sports rivalries where outstanding players or teams elevate themselves to even higher levels of greatness because they’re inspired to beat an outstanding opponent.
In my case, I’ve had the benefit of seeing the work of both Tisherman and Phillips at first hand. Even though we’re not competing directly in the same market, seeing their devotion to quality has definitely inspired me to expand my capabilities and strive to become better.
Now ask yourself: If the top pool designers in the world all were gathering in your home town to talk about their work, would you want a busload of them touring your pools, evaluating and critiquing your design decisions, the materials you’ve chosen to use, your level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, the engineering principles you’ve applied? How would you feel about all of these people standing around your equipment set and telling you exactly what it says about how you build pools?
I believe there’s a far greater likelihood you’d be comfortable answering in the affirmative if you were lucky enough to have good competitors in your market area. Good competitors motivate you to do better, raise your standards and pay more attention to details and finishing touches. They force you to scrutinize yourself and reach for a higher level. Whether it’s the need to win jobs based on excellence or simply a matter of ego that drives you, the urge to better yourself because a competitor is doing really great work can only benefit your business and, ultimately, the local customer base.
What we see instead among competent (but isolated) professionals is all too often a debilitating sense of complacency. I’m certain that there are many talented people in this industry not working anywhere near full potential – and the simple reason for it is that there’s nobody in their market pushing them to do better.
Certainly, it takes confidence and moxie to stand up and say you can compete with the best of the best. But just think about how you’ll feel when you can say that because you work in a market where it’s really true and where quality is valued. That kind of positive thinking simply builds on itself and becomes habitual. All of a sudden, the process of competing becomes energized: Customers get excited and everyone – even the unsuccessful bidder – is lifted on the rising tide.
DON’T FORGET THE RESPECT
The one note of caution that needs to be sounded about even constructively competitive markets is that there is nothing less appealing to customers than to hear one company bad-mouth another. This is something that’s been discussed at length in our industry, yet we know it still goes on all the time.
When you respect your competitors, all of that changes. First of all, it’s not in your interest to say negative things about a company that may give you a referral someday or to which you may eventually send a customer or two yourself. In avoiding that kind of negative selling, you don’t drag yourself down in the process and make everyone look bad.
Beyond that practical point, you’ll find that good competitors are often like-minded people you may actually come to like. When you share in the prosperity of a given marketplace and you know that your competitor is working to elevate the quality of the work being done around you, I find that you can actually take comfort in knowing they’re out there, backing up the principles for which you all stand. You might even make a friend or two!
My vision is of an industry where every market is populated by designers and builders who strive to do their best. This would support higher pricing and elevate our collective output. More than anything, I believe that the competition will energize the pool experience for both designers and customers – and that would be truly great!