Adam Bressler of Builders and Remodelers, a home improvement company in Minneapolis, arrived for the sales appointment only to find his prospect, a 30-something single homeowner who works out of this home, on a conference call. The house needed work. Windowsills were rotting, openings leaked air. Cedar siding in front and Masonite on the back and sides had similarly deteriorated. The homeowner jumped off the call for the 15 minutes it took to walk the premises with Bressler and set up a second appointment, which he thought would take 20 minutes.
“They’ll spend three hours researching that TV at Best Buy and then another hour in the store,” says Bressler—who is also in his 30s—about Millennials, whom he guesses make up somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of the company’s customers. “We’re talking about a $30,000 investment in your home, and you expect to be done in 20 minutes?”
Skeptical and Steeped in Data
Millennials—those aged 20 to 37, or born between 1977 and 1995—are a demographic wave of about 80 million people. The 2008 recession delayed the wealth-building years of many, but now they’re in the workforce and are beginning to enter homeownership en masse. All kinds of marketing and sales organizations are developing strategies to get their attention. Home improvement companies? Not so much.
Homeowners under 40 aren’t a big market for home improvement companies, with the exception of places such as Seattle, San Francisco, or certain New York city suburbs; “booming economies with big employers,” says home improvement consultant Tony Hoty.
What’s so special about homeowners in this age group? For one thing, they do their research. “They’re people who wouldn’t order a pizza without reading the reviews first,” Hoty says, “and this habit that’s been created bleeds into how they shop for anything.”
Not only will they be fully versed in the home improvement industry’s sales and marketing practices, they’re also likely to know all about your company, your product, and your service reputation.
Chris Behan, founder and president of Socius Marketing, a Tampa, Fla., business that manages the Internet marketing for several hundred home improvement companies, says 70 percent of prospects research a home improvement company before the sales appointment ever happens. And the younger they are, the more likely they are to have done that research. Some have already made up their minds about whether or not to do business with your company before your sales rep has even arrived. “They’re definitely more decisive,” Behan says.
Quick and Real
Home improvement companies of any size typically use a scripted sales presentation that moves sellers through various steps—introduction, rapport-building, company story, etc.—toward a close. Any Millennial worth his salt will know all about that, since complaints about salespeople who propose wild price drops, won’t leave the house, or otherwise annoy or offend homeowners are all over the Internet. Baltimore home improvement salesperson and trainer Tommy Steele was recently on a kitchen appointment when the 20-something prospect asked him what his closing percentage was. Steele was flummoxed. “I told him that all our cabinets close,” was Steele’s reply.
It is why K&B Home Remodelers, a roofing, siding, and window company in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, has modified its sales process to accommodate a client base that vice president of sales and marketing Mike Damora estimates now consists of about 40 percent Millennials. Damora advises any home improvement company with Millennial customers to “stop selling them and give them facts.”
“The biggest thing about Millennials is to be real,” Damora notes. “The more real you are, the better your chances. If you’re selling a brand-name product, you better know its pros and cons—about R-value, U-factor, your competitors, and what’s real about them.” If asked, for instance, what kind of dent your ultra-efficient windows will put in the prospect’s monthly energy bills, the best answer is: I don’t know. “Say: I can’t tell you,” Damora advises. “I don’t know how well-insulated your walls are, or how often people are coming in and out.”
“With Millennials, it’s OK not to know,” he says.
Revert to Technician
So what does impress your Millennial prospects?
- Knowledge of the product and the house. The Millennial roofing customer, Hoty says, could be waiting in the driveway for your guy to arrive. They want real information, not fluff. “Millennials know that they don’t know,” Bressler says, which is why they’re on the Internet Google searching “roofing contractor.” They bond with the industry expert, not the sales guy. When Millennials detect that a sales presentation is under way, “the energy goes out of the room,” Damora says. Steele says that his goal is to earn respect as someone who can help solve a problem. To do that, he says he will “revert to the technician.”
- Awareness of their specific situation and of their time. “I always like to emphasize the appointment and the duration,” Bressler says. “Millennials like to get it done and done quick.” Many travel for work or are bouncing babies or shepherding kids across town and back. Many have little or no experience in contracting for home improvements, so your goal as a salesperson should be to get them to cede to you the time needed to explain the project and close the sale. They often insist on a second appointment. Bressler closes 42 percent of appointments. He closes 30 percent on the initial visit and the rest on a second call—business that wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t willing to work with the homeowners’ schedule.
- Authenticity to build rapport and trust. Rapport creates the psychic glow needed for a successful conversation and sale. Bond with prospects and they may trust you enough to give you the business. But with Millennials, forget about scanning the shelves for trophies or asking the cat’s name. That’s transparently manipulative. “Be yourself,” Damora suggests. “Deliver your data. This is a business transaction, and in the course of that transaction, your humanity will show.”
Millennials as Future Customers
Not every company markets to Millennial customers, and some say that selling to Millennials is no different from selling to anyone else.
“Sales are sales,” says George Faerber, co-owner of Bee Window, in Indianapolis. “If you put the right salesperson at the kitchen table with the right products, the process isn’t any different at all.”
Others see Millennials and cross-generation selling as a possible distraction. “I put it in the category of a lead is a lead,” says Fred Finn, president of Euro-Tech, a home improvement company in Illinois. “If we have a lead and we confirm it and we sit down in front of someone, whether they’re 30 or they’re 60, if you don’t sell them, that becomes just another excuse.”
Still others say that generational differences are real, sometimes vivid, and that salespeople need to take stock of those differences. Brian Brock, general manager of Hullco Exteriors, in Chattanooga, Tenn., who estimates that about 10 percent of his company’s customers are Millennials or early 40-somethings, notes that they strongly resist hard closing tactics. “A lot of the home improvement industry is going to have to evolve in order to sell this generation and Generation X,” he says. You have to market to them differently and sell to them differently. Millennials, for instance, are far less likely to open the door for canvassers. If the name of someone under 35 is on your lead sheet, they found your company on the Internet.
What Millennials want, Brock says, is straightforward pricing, time to think, and the best bang for their buck.
“Don’t play into tricks, gimmicks, or the hard sell,” he adds. “Do that, and you instantly lose credibility.”
Millennial homeowners are relatively few and far between for the moment. But they want to be sold on their terms