For all the talk about the spectrum of watershaping – the existence of those who, on one extreme, pursue high-quality, truly custom projects and those on the other who live in a low-end, cookie-cutter realm – I must say that I’ve yet to run into anyone from the fringes of latter camp who’s stepped forward to say, “Yes, our company crawls in the dirt to win jobs based purely on price, and it’s only possible because we deliberately do substandard work.”
Quite to the contrary, people in the watershaping business at all levels will tell you that they’re in business to provide a quality end product that delivers real value to clients whether the average cost of their output is
$30,000 or $130,000. And in the vast majority of cases, even those on the lower-cost end of the spectrum truly believe what they say.
For my part, I’ve always seen that claim to quality in cookie-cutter work as disingenuous at best and delusional at worst, but I’ve always chalked it up to human nature: All of us want or need to believe we’re at the top of our chosen game at whatever level we manage to play it.
Beyond that, however, I think that our own industry is an enabling spirit in the self-deception, basically because, as an industry, we’re not clear about three basic things:
* First, a great number of watershapers don’t know what quality work really is, as evidenced by the fact that design- and construction-deficient projects are still being produced every single day.
* Second, most of those same people don’t understand the nature of today’s market or understand the dynamic ways in which it has been changing in recent years.
* Third, and perhaps most important, too few watershapers recognize what it really takes to redefine the nature of their businesses in more positive directions.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
I hear about this polarity between top-flight, custom watershaping and lower-end, cookie-cutter operations all the time – and I’m actually encouraged by the frequency of these discussions, because it tells me that there are lots of people out there who now recognize the benefits of raising the proverbial bar and are aware that doing so goes way beyond simply paying lip service to doing better.
But there’s no pretty way to say it: There are still numerous companies out there that do nothing but compete on price. Although it’s important to remember that price alone will never be the sole factor determining the difference between good and bad, the disparities observed between outcomes produced by low-bid operators compared to those who focus on real value and quality at a fair price point to a problem with perception.
Recently, for example, I looked over a proposal for a friend who’s looking to buy a nice but unexceptional pool/spa combination. The bid was developed by a contractor I know who professes to want to do a quality job; without going into details, the price came in at a stunning $35,000. And I say stunning because my projects of similar scope and extent – true apples to apples stuff for purposes of comparison – come in with price tags several times that high. Indeed, one I’m thinking of just came in at four times that price.
That’s an extraordinary difference, and while I certainly can imagine similar projects being installed for less than what I’m seeing in my own business, when anyone sees that sort of mind-boggling disparity, it begs the question: What are the differences?
Even if you consider measurable differentiation in equipment choices, finish materials and other features, the gap is too great for the low bidder to avoid significant compromises. And what amazes me most is that I’m certain my friend could have found someone in that particular market who would’ve been willing to do the job for even less!
Obviously, the low bidder will be working with a design template and off-the-shelf engineering – but that still doesn’t explain the disparity. Fact is, every single element of the project will have to be cheapened or downgraded in some way to make the equations work, and that includes everything from structural steel, plumbing and the shell to project management and on-site job performance.
The truth of the matter is, when you have one person offering a supposedly similar level of work for a fraction of the cost of someone who is manifestly working at a higher level, it’s safe to conclude that, in some way, the low bidder lacks a clear sense of what quality construction is all about and has no choice other than to misrepresent the quality of their work on some level or other to get the job.
When confronted by pricing chasms as deep as the one my friend faced, I have on occasion had candid conversations with the low-bid watershapers just to find out what they’re thinking. As mentioned above, they’ll never come out and say they’re producing an inferior product, but they get fairly passionate in saying they have no real choice other than to compete primarily on price.
Almost to a person, in fact, they’ve told me that their local market simply won’t bear projects that are more expensive – despite the fact that, in many cases, I know from personal experience that this is simply not the case and that I know people in that same market who are pursuing quality projects and have found clients willing to pay for them.
This is where the second point listed at the outset comes into play – that is, awareness of the big, important ways in which our market is changing.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, well-to-do clients are not the only ones seeking true value these days. Indeed, I’ll admit to being surprised sometimes at how people of apparently modest means have no hesitation about aiming high when it comes to quality and what they’re willing to pay to attain it.
I suppose that should be an obvious point by now, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there are many watershapers out there who just don’t get the fact that consumer expectations have been changing through the past few years to the point where the entire scope of watershaping has shifted. Increasingly, consumers understand the importance of excellence in aesthetic and technical design, want us to use quality materials, crave energy efficiency and are interested in the myriad features that now accompany watershapes, including cooking areas and fire features as well as swim jets and much, much more.
None of that should be new information, but many low-bid builders have told me, face to face, that their market isn’t up to speed, that their client base cares much more about price than quality. I might be willing to buy that explanation if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m either working in those areas or know someone who is. Indeed, I can honestly say that there’s not a region of the country I know of that lacks quality-minded consumers these days.
A more plausible (and honest) explanation for this feeling of being stuck on the lower rungs is the byproduct of another familiar component of human nature: fear.
Change takes courage and a strength that only comes comfortably with information and planning and a willingness to take measured risks. In this case, making the leap can result in greater income, vastly increased professional satisfaction, a better public image, fewer daily hassles and in general a more enjoyable and even healthier lifestyle – but some just can’t make the move.
RATES OF CHANGE
What’s involved in moving away from the low-bid mentality and toward true quality has been the subject of countless articles and columns in WaterShapes and stands at the core of what my partners and I offer in the Genesis 3 programs: No matter the source, it’s all about education and a willingness to address every aspect of how you focus your efforts.
Once you perceive the distinctions and can differentiate the low-bid mentality from the quality perspective and make the decision to step up, you need to plot a course of action.
Because of the aforementioned “fear factor,” however, too many firms are far too tentative in the way they roll out their new attitudes. What I often see as a consequence is the declaration of an upgraded approach anchored at a hopelessly low level by reluctance to engage in anything more than minor incremental adjustments.
I don’t think, for example, that expanding your range of offerings in waterline tile or including a free automatic pool cleaner with each project amounts to redefining your business. Instead, the changes involved in truly elevating your work require you to take bold steps in every single aspect of your business.
When I think about people who’ve made true and significant leaps of the sort I’m discussing here, I need look no further than my good friend Randy Beard and what he’s done with his company, Pure Water Pools of Costa Mesa, Calif., in the ten or so years we’ve been acquainted. Randy is the first to tell anyone who asks that he started out as a pool-service guy, just as I did. These days, however, he’s changed his business and his outlook to the point where his design work and construction skills are truly world class.
It took him years to pass through the transitions, and the commitment he’s made to education and polishing his skills have required ambition, confidence and a deep well of determination. Today, he stands as a prime example of someone whose big, transforming steps followed big, transforming thinking.
Let’s put it another way: If you want to be different, then think in terms of being completely different and then balance and support what you’re doing by expanding your capabilities and focusing on your goals. If you don’t have your eyes on a complete transformation and can’t visualize achievement of your ambitions from the start, you’ll never get there at all, whether later or sooner.
On a more practical level, of course, those who commit themselves to taking the high road have to figure out how to promote their different selves to prospective clients who seek the best our industry has to offer.
That’s a real stumbling block for some people, because there’s a “chicken or the egg” issue here: That is, to find quality-minded clients, you need to present them with a track record that speaks to your ability to hit the high marks – and until you’ve done a few of those projects, there’s no way to have them in your portfolio.
In trying to push their ways past that barrier, too many watershapers have been willing to take the short cut of representing other people’s work as their own. That’s dishonest, unethical and perhaps even actionable in addition to being a most hazardous pathway around (rather than through) the challenge.
That’s not to say you can’t use magazines like WaterShapes and books on great projects and designers as resources for ideas. It’s just that you can’t misrepresent the origins of the ideas – or exaggerate your ability to execute those ideas in a quality fashion.
Bottom line, there are no shortcuts. There’s absolutely no way on earth to get over the hump, at least not honestly, without fully embracing a no-compromises dedication to moving in the right direction. Very few people working in creative custom work started out at the apex of their powers: They all made headway by first offering clients greater sets of design options, and then translating incremental improvements into increasingly improved portfolios, enhanced presentations materials and, these days, compelling web-site galleries.
It takes courage to move in new directions and pursue change, but you also have to follow through when you land quality-oriented jobs and then stand behind what you’ve done. We all have learning curves to master, no matter where we start, so there’s no point to moaning that if you haven’t already done something, you never will.
Yes, moving into a new mode of doing business requires preparation, nerve and a belief in yourself. If you can pull it all together, however, it won’t be long before your claims of doing quality work will be backed up not by delusions, but by facts.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].