Reaching the female homeowner

Bridget Brennan, an expert on female consumer behavior, talks about how to sell to that important demographic

September 15, 2010
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Bridget Brennan

Bridget Brennan

Consumer analyst and business strategist Bridget Brennan has made a career of studying the buying behaviors of women. Her book, "Why She Buys: Inside the Mind of the Female Consumer," has been called essential reading for anyone with a Y chromosome. She has worked with a wide range of companies to help them refine their sales strategies to meet the needs and expectations of this trillion-dollar market. We talked to her about how women feel about their homes, the reasons they remodel, and what they expect from both the sales process and the remodeling experience.

Q: Let's lay a bit of groundwork for the conversation. Why is it important for remodelers to reach out specifically to women homeowners as prospective customers for remodeling jobs?

A: The number one reason is that women drive 91 percent of all home-purchasing decisions. The DIY industry, which is related to remodeling, has long acknowledged that they're the ones who tend to say, "I'm sick of us being cramped in this house.'"Women tend to instigate projects. Everyone knows about "honey do'"lists. What has changed in the last 25 years is that women aren't passively writing a list of things they want husbands to do. Now, they're coming up with their own lists and taking much greater roles. There are tons of data about women buying homes. Women are the ones who say, 'We can't afford that right now.'

Beyond that, when you make women happy, you make the whole family happy. Men are not motivated to live in homes that make their wives unhappy. In virtually every society, women are the primary caretakers of children and the elderly, even if they're working full-time. Sociologists are still working out why this is. You'll hear in older men, "Ask her, she's the boss."

Add in this new element of women earning their own income, which has been proven to impact household decision making in every country where women work outside the home. It changes the decision-making process. A quarter of all women make more money than their husbands. That's your important customer in the remodeling process.

Q: Are there innate differences between the ways men and women make buying decisions, or are the differences more related to personality types and upbringing?

A: There are innate differences. It's well established that women are very focused on the details and they're highly attuned to color. Women will see details in the remodeling project. They look at practical details because they're impacted by the practical aspects. They'll look at traffic flow and how the family will communicate. Will I be able to hear my children in the middle of the night? If I'm working in the kitchen, do I have a line of sight into the back yard or to where the children are doing homework?

Understanding the details that women notice will help you. A closet is not a hole and a door to a woman. It's important to her. Shelf heights are important. The average height of an American woman is 5-foot, 4-inches.

One of the things that women do that is important to remodelers is that women look at projects from the perspective of everyone who lives there and all of their guests. They want them all to be comfortable.

Q: Are there generational differences in women as well that remodelers should pay attention to?

A: The differences that are greater are more based on lifestyle than generation. ... The way the trends are going, women are getting married later in life. Young women in their 20s are buying houses when they're single. Then in the middle of life, they're often single heads of households. Then later in life, they outlive their husbands, so they're single heads of households again. We're seeing nascent burgeoning trends of older women finding themselves single and buying a house with a friend. They have strong decision-making power when they're married, but these days, remodelers will encounter women who are sole decision makers.

Q: In general, how do women homeowners feel about their homes? What does it mean to them? What are they trying to accomplish with a renovation, versus what a man might be trying to accomplish?

A: For a woman, the home is the center of her personal universe. In so many ways, it's a combination of safe haven for her and her family members, but it's also a true reflection of her personality. She sees her home through the eyes of the people who will walk into it. When she does renovations, she's trying to improve her life and the lives of the people who live there.

Q: When remodelers meet with women prospects for the first time to discuss a potential remodeling project, what are some things they can do to make a powerful and positive connection (and win the job!)?

A: Ask a lot of open-ended questions. Women will give you all the answers you're looking for if you just give them enough time to talk. Women and men have different communication styles. Men have this very challenging way of speaking with each other. They have a lot of playful insults if they know each other. One will play devil's advocate or do things to demonstrate their knowledge.

Women's conversations are very different. When we talk to each other, we take turns. I'll tell you all about your day, you'll tell me all about yours, back and forth like a tennis match. A male sales rep with a female client will use male communication style. He'll be busy trying to demonstrate his expertise, and never let the woman get a word in edgewise. Her frustration is she waits for her turn to speak and she doesn't get it; there's not enough of a pause or an invitation that's explicit, and she doesn't want to interrupt. So, that's a trap to avoid.

Don't have an overreliance on technical specs and blueprints as a way to sell a female customer. Women just do not get excited about a bunch of drawings. Show pictures of homes you've done already. Bring in samples or swatches of wallpaper. Make it tactile, show photos. Don't rely on a sketch.

Q: What's a good example of an open-ended question in this situation?

A: Ask her things like, 'Do you have any concerns that I haven't addressed?' A woman can be hesitant to bring them up because she doesn't want to insult you. If you bring it up, though, you're giving her permission. It may be something as simple as, 'Have you done a job like this before?' or 'Can I talk to your references?'

Q: If a prospective woman customer tells you as a sales person, "I need to think about it," what is she really saying to you?

A: She really means it. Women take their time with big decisions. They do their research. If she lives with a spouse or a partner, she wants to get their input. She has to feel comfortable with the decision. To help her feel comfortable, explain the payment process. Never assume your customers know how you get paid.

Q: Let's talk about the remodeling process itself, which goes to the heart of the buying experience. What are some best practices for working with women customers?

A: Remember what we said earlier about how a woman feels about her home, how it's the center of her personal universe and how she considers it a safe haven for herself and her family. The remodeling process literally involves tearing her personal universe apart and leaving her exposed and feeling unsafe.

The best practices involve being respectful with her home and her family. It's things like dressing professionally and addressing her and other women and girls in her family with utmost respect. That also means watching your language, and I'm not just talking about profanity. Locker room talk - any kind of sexual innuendo - doesn't have any place around women customers.

Take care of her home by doing things like wearing booties over your work shoes when you are working in her house; keep her family safe by picking up debris everyday and keeping the work area cordoned off and tools out of harms way from any children.

Also, remember that women view their homes as if they'll be seen by everyone who visits there. That extends to the remodeling process and how it impacts her neighbors. A best practice there is to inform her neighbors about the work that's going to be done and to invite them to let you know if there are any problems. Those kinds of things will be very powerful.

Q: Are satisfied women customers particularly likely to tell their friends and family about their good experience with a remodeler? What about dissatisfied ones?

A: Oh my lord, it's practically an imperative in women's culture to pass along great resources in some categories, particularly in areas where they feel uncomfortable, like auto repair, plumbers, computers and remodelers. Women like to do favors for other women. If they have a terrible experience, they'll also tell everyone they know. They'll warn people off. What has augmented this is all the Web sites where people can post stories of what happened when they did business with you. It's no accident that they're often run by women, such as Angie's List.

Q: If a remodeler wanted to show his appreciation to a woman customer for her business or for a referral, what might be some appropriate ways to do that?

A: I'm not sure what the right answer is, but having a thank-you gift would be fantastic. Women really appreciate it when someone shows appreciation for their business. They're the ones constantly drilling into their kids' heads to say please and thank you.

As for referrals, women are a rich, rich source of referrals. I was at a pizza place recently, and they had a sign that said, "Any friend of yours is a friend of ours," and offered a discount for a pizza. It seemed so friendly.

Maybe you could say something like, "We get our best customers from customers like you. If you send us a friend within the next year, we'll offer them a discount."

If you give them something that will benefit their friend, it makes the woman the hero. Women like to be the one that is able to bestow these things on their friends.

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