Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back in 2011 Austin, Texas real estate agent Donna Harris noted in her blog (“How Many Windows Does the Average House Have?”) that she had read somewhere that “the average home has 8 windows.” Skeptical, she threw the question out to Facebook friends as well as a private group in an attempt to find a more realistic average. “The unscientific average I came up with,” Harris wrote, “was 20.26 windows.” In the same blog article, Harris also pointed out that “to replace 20 windows at $300 a pop, we’re now talking a little more than chump change.”
Fast forward to today, and it’s highly probable that while that average number of openings in a house will be roughly the same, the idea of “$300 a pop” belongs on the same shelf as the five cent cigar. The latest data from HomeAdvisor says that, based on “actual project costs as reported by HomeAdvisor members,” a window job of less than five windows averaged $2,219, a job of between 5 and 10 windows averaged $4,917 and the window job of more than ten windows averaged $14,504. And trade magazine polls show window costs far higher.
Many window companies selling high-end vinyl products are near, at, or already past the $1,000-per-opening retail threshold. Some selling composites are moving toward the $2,000-per-opening mark. A $25,000 or $30,000 window replacement job no longer comes with bragging rights. But many window companies still post an average sale of less than $10,000. The reason? Partials.
Partials, of course, means that the company replaces some, rather than all, of the windows in a particular customer’s house. It’s what makes window replacement different. You can’t build half an addition or remodel half a kitchen; windows, on the other hand, are not an either/or proposition. Job scope is infinitely flexible, which, in the recession, proved to be a saving grace to many a window company’s sales.
“It kind of started in 2008, when the economy went down,” says John Gorman, president of Save Energy Company, a window and door business in Petaluma, Calif. “We said we’ll do one or two windows, wow them, and they’ll come back for more.” It worked.
Go for the Gusto?
Today in many markets the window replacement business is booming. The last two years have been the busiest in Save Energy Company’s history. If there’s a downside, it’s that subcontractor installation crews are in short supply everywhere. That makes it tough for a company to find a crew that will take a one- or two-unit window job, and to send a company crew out for a one- or two-window order is a losing proposition. That’s why many companies have a minimum order or attach a surcharge, which might be anywhere from $250 to $400, to cover labor costs.
Still, partials prevail. That’s the way many homeowners prefer to buy, although not all window replacement contractors think that’s the most efficient way. “For me as a homeowner, it would bug me to do only half the house,” says Dan Schweihs, who blogs as The Window Dog and owns Window Universe, a chain of 17 business units selling both vinyl and wood windows. “So, do we replace every single door and window every single time? Absolutely not.”
His guess is that a partial happens with less than 10 percent of customers. But “I don’t lose one bit of sleep over whether I could’ve sold a few more windows to customer X on Tuesday,” Schweihs says. The priority is a satisfied customer.
Gorman thinks the homeowner is better served by replacing every window. Reps, he says, “should always go for the whole order” (and measure every window). The reason is simple: Window prices always go up, there’s less paperwork, and homeowners won’t have to have a crew in the house two or three times. You sell the whole house by “showing the homeowner the benefit of not having to go through it again later.”
Eyes and Stomachs
Vaughn McCourt, an industry consultant who once managed one of the largest window companies on the West Coast, says there are two main reasons for partials, one legitimate, the other not. The first is that while the prospect loves the windows and the salesperson, “they simply can’t afford to put new windows in the whole house.” Even financing can’t move a salesperson past that hurdle, since many prefer to pay cash and/or may not be eligible for a large unsecured loan. The second reason is “a weak salesperson” afraid to ask for a large order.
Tony Hoty, and industry consultant and owner of Window Depot Cleveland, entirely agrees. “Start with what’s in dire need and work from there,” he says.“Measure and inspect, so you know what you’re up against.” If some windows are in good shape and you’re pushing to replace everything, you lose trust … and probably the business. But make the homeowner financially comfortable with the sale, and you get the business and more besides.
“I sold a window job the other day,” says Don Darragh, vice president of sales at Energy Swing Windows, in Murrysville, Pa., “and [the homeowner] wanted to do everything. I said: ‘Why don’t we pick out what’s worst?’ She says: ‘You mean you don’t have to do all this at once?’” The client replaced the windows on the front of the house, which receives the bigger brunt of bad weather. “Now,” Darragh says, “I have a satisfied customer and someone I can market to later on.” Sometimes, he says, if customers “order 20 windows and 3 doors, they end up with nothing” once they see the price tag. “Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs.”
But sometimes the problem is obvious. In Florida, it might be units that are so inefficient they’re forcing air conditioners to work overtime and running up a power bill. But when those homeowners realize what windows cost, affordability becomes an issue. “People don’t want to tell you they’re watching every dollar. They’re cautious,” says Earl Rahn, president of New South Windows, in Tampa. “We help them identify the windows that could be most effectively replaced for energy savings. We might say: Let’s do six or eight. Could you help me identify the ones you want changed?”
Some homeowners buy a partial as a way to essentially test drive both the windows and the company, says Scott Barr, owner of Southwest Exteriors, in San Antonio. “Ideally,” he says, “they want to do the whole house, but they’ll do one room and see how it goes.”
Staying in Touch: the Fine Line
Partials create a whole special class of previous customers—people who know the product, know the company, know the salesperson. They not only did business with you, they expect to do more. But time passes and it’s easy to forget. Or at least it was in the days before CRM systems. Recent software enhancements make follow-up simple. Ask the homeowner when they might want to do the rest of the windows. Plug that in, then call, email, or text them when the system reminds you the time’s arrived.
But bombarding people with messages will only destroy your good will. “Pester them too often and they’ll unsubscribe to your emails,” Schweihs says. “It’s a fine line between staying in touch and irritating someone.”
At Southwest Exteriors it’s up to the design consultants—who sell the job—to follow up at some point with homeowners who buy a partial. “They need to lock that in,” Barr says. “Ask clients: ‘When will you be ready for the next phase?’ Come up with a plan to do the rest, put it on your calendar and follow up.”
Rahn says companies that take an all or nothing approach—and they’re out there—are misguided. “We position ourselves with ethics, character, leadership, and quality products,” he says. “If they can only afford six, why not get six now and then the other six in the second quarter of next year? Normalize that process. Say thanks for the business and do a great job, and they’ll never call anyone else.”