In a strong remodeling market, small-business owners face the challenge of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. When time is the most limited resource, time becomes the most valuable resource. To be effective, resource-poor business owners must focus on specific actions that will have a positive effect on their business.
One such action involves the process of qualifying a prospective customer in a phone conversation before going on a sales call. This prequalifying conversation is essential to prevent wasting valuable time traveling to and meeting in appointments that have little chance of leading to a sale. The call should take just 15 to 20 minutes and serve as a client “audition” to help you decide whether you want to invest time with this client and project.
This is not a social call; it’s a directed interview intended to tease out essential information from the prospect—information you need for deciding whether or not to take the next step. In my experience, you need to ask at least seven key questions during this conversation, and unless you get seven Yes answers, you should think twice about pursuing the sale.
When you first reach a homeowner by phone, identify yourself, then begin the conversation with the following statement: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions to find out more about your project and what you want to do?” Unless the timing is simply inconvenient, everyone will agree to answer your questions and you can proceed to asking the seven questions described below.
How did you learn about our company? (Determine which marketing tactic generated the lead.)
It’s important to understand where the potential customer came from. If you can track where the lead originated, you can allocate additional time and resources to those activities that generate the highest number of leads.
Could you describe the work you’d like to have done and the problems you hope to solve? (Check that the scope of work matches the services you provide.)
Ask the prospect to describe, in detail, the work they want to do. Allow them to create a project picture for you with as much detail as possible. This should include the full scope of work as well as some description of the reasons for the changes they are asking for and any goals they have for the project. Don’t accept overly simplistic answers; this is your workshop, so ask questions that will help you understand the underlying reasons.
This is the first agreement you must make before you can move forward with the call. When the prospect has provided you with an in-depth project description, you can then determine if you provide the services they need. If not, let them know that you can help by referring them to another contractor or to qualified tradespeople with whom you’ve had good experiences. Homeowners will sincerely appreciate this kind of referral, and it could lead to future work with them. (It’s also a good way to bolster your relationships with trade partners.)
How soon would you like the work to start, and when would you like the work to be completed? (Match their timetable to your availability.)
It’s critical to ask about when the homeowner would like the project to be completed, but try to also find out how soon they expect the work to begin. Homeowners often have
little experience with the amount of time required for planning and design, so you may need to guide them through an appropriate timeline when you review all of the choices
that must be made.
If you’re not satisfied that you’ve established clear expectations about the pre-construction process and project timeline, and if you suspect that waiting a few months is a deal killer for them, then politely explain that you’re sorry that you won’t be able to meet their schedule, and that you would be happy to speak with them again if they decide they are able to postpone the project. Otherwise, move on to the next question.
Do you have a budget for this project? (Find out if the project is financially feasible.)
You must ask this question of every prospect. If they can’t afford your services, it’s better to learn that now than to waste everyone’s time finding it out during a visit to the home.
This is a reasonable question to ask any homeowner—don’t feel shy about asking and don’t be deterred if they’re reluctant to share this information with you. If a homeowner says they don’t have a budget or that they don’t want to tell you what it is, try asking another way. For example, if they won’t talk about their budget for a new kitchen, respond by saying something like: “I understand. Let me ask this another way. I’ve renovated kitchens for as little as $30,000 and as much as $70,000. Are you closer to $30,000 or $70,000?” This tactic provides a less threatening way for them to reveal their thoughts about cost.
If they tell you that they were thinking about spending $10,000, you have come to a hard stop. Homeowners who have little or no experience with home remodeling are often unprepared for the real cost of your services. You already have a rough estimate in your head from your earlier discovery questions, so if their budget is unrealistic, you need to tell them now.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not a good prospect. But it may mean that you’ll have to educate them about home improvement. The quality of the call will help you decide.
What kind of research have you done? (Determine whether they will let you do your job.)
Today’s homeowners can watch myriad home improvement shows on television, and the Internet is teeming with do-it-yourself advice. Many homeowners think they have the ability to take on part of their project. They may want to save money on their custom kitchen by, say, ordering the windows themselves or coordinating the cabinet order.
Do you want a partner in the project? More precisely, do you want an inexperienced partner when taking on a big remodeling project? We know what goes into a successful job, and managing every element of the project is the key to effective scheduling and is the basis for profitability. When we start giving homeowners responsibility for a part of the project, we start surrendering control.
And relinquishing control will cost you money. Good clients hire you because of your skill at project management. If they insist on controlling certain parts of the project, will you be able to effectively do your job? Do you want them as a client?
Who will be involved in the decision to move forward with the project? (Make sure all parties are available for an appointment.)
Prior to going on a sales call, you need to know who will make the final decision. If two people must be involved, then both must be available. Otherwise, the person you speak with can always say that they can’t make a decision until consulting their spouse or partner. To counter this, ask the person you speak with on the phone who exactly will be involved in making the buying decision. If the decision involves both homeowners, make sure both will be present for your sales call.
Have you remodeled before? If not, do you know someone who has remodeled before? (Find out what informs the homeowner’s expectations and What they fear about the project.)
Ask this question to determine if there are past resentments or potential land mines that you should be aware of. You want to know—before the project starts—what concerns or fears a homeowner may have regarding the remodeling process. This question can bring these concerns and fears to light, which allows you to address them either on the phone or when you meet at the house. It may also alert you to a potential problem client.
For example, if a potential client had a neighbor whose remodeling project went over budget and ran four weeks longer than promised, you may need to address the fear that this will happen on their project. If you can find this out during the initial phone call, you can address the fear head-on if you decide to go on the sales call. Alternatively, there may be fears about cost overruns, and you typically work with a fixed-priced contract. Explain that project cost can only change for two reasons: unforeseen circumstances (mandatory changes) or customer-generated change orders (discretionary changes). Note that in the case of a discretionary change, the homeowner has complete control. Clear communication is the key here.
The last step is to summarize what you’ve heard during the call to let the homeowners know you understand and to make sure that what you heard was what they intended to convey. This includes the scope of work, any scheduling deadlines, as well as the budget.
Remember, however, that you aren’t making a sales call on the phone. When conducting this phone interview correctly, you are completing a review and evaluation of the “problems” the homeowner has identified and are discovering the homeowner’s expectations around budget and schedule. You’re doing your due diligence to determine whether or not you want the job and are determining if the prospects are people you want to work with.
To do that effectively, don’t try to sell anything, just listen. Follow the 80/20 rule: Let the homeowners speak 80 percent of the time and limit your comments to no more than 20 percent of the time. If you are successful in this, you’ll discover that real prospects want to talk about their project. You’ll get a sense for when people are responding honestly and when they’re withholding information.
You may find that you make a good connection with the homeowner. If so, you have already pre-sold yourself. When you have a good connection with someone, your follow-up sales call is more of a formality because you have reviewed budget and schedule, and addressed any fears the homeowners may have. In short, you’ve determined in advance, before spending several hours in a site visit, that the homeowners are serious buyers.