If you didn’t know better, you might think that slamming windows into a hole in the wall of a house was simple. You pry the old one out, push the new one in, tape, caulk, and wipe. Anyone who knows how to handle a screwdriver should be able to pull that off, right?
But window and door replacement contractors know it’s never that simple. Construction industry consultant, writer, and educator Bill Robinson of Train2Build is a window specialist. He believes it takes five years to master the craft of window and door installation. Some company owners concur.
Mike Kelly, owner of Kelly Window & Door, in Cary, N.C., for instance, doesn’t question that. To better structure his recruiting efforts and ensure uniform quality in the field, Kelly Window set up an internal “craftsmanship” program six months ago that steps new installation employees through a series of training levels, beginning as apprentice, through junior, senior, and finally master craftsman. To get to the top, Kelly anticipates, will take “years.” Setting up the program took time and planning, but for this owner it was a solution to the ever-present challenge of producing consistent quality installs. “We are trying to make sure our clients have an outstanding outcome and know they’ve made a wise investment,” Kelly says, “so we have to provide not only great product, but the installation has to be top shelf.”
Incentives Make the Point
These days you’d be hard pressed to find a company that isn’t searching either for competent subcontractor crews or—the bigger prize—skilled on-staff installers. Relying on subcontractors to install is standard industry practice, but it’s getting increasingly difficult because, as Kelly points out, subcontractors are harder and harder to find. In this business environment, companies with a strong sales culture run the risk of selling more than they can get installed in a given fiscal period, and that flattens bottom-line profits.
Five years ago, Brian Campbell, co-owner of Illinois Energy, a Chicago-area window and siding company, had a moment of enlightenment. He was studying his company’s numbers and realized that when collection rates were running at 92 to 96 percent, “our net was not where it needed to be.” Installers collected the final payment once homeowners were 100 percent satisfied. "But if that didn’t happen," he says, "those homeowners were holding our dough.”
Campbell found that Illinois Energy had its best fiscal years when collection rates went to 100 percent or 103 or even 105 percent, meaning all of the company’s 1,200 completed jobs were collected within an eight-week signing-to-job-completion time frame within the fiscal year, plus deposits had been received for new work. “We had higher profit margins because there was less product sitting in the warehouse,” Campbell says.
The solution was to devise incentives for Illinois Energy’s management team and its installers so that completion metrics correlated to sales. The first phase of the program was aimed at managers who were directly responsible for productivity and quality. They were awarded bonuses when completion rates hit 100 percent or greater based on a system Campbell devised called “Installed vs. Sold.”
The second phase provided installer incentives. “You have to pay good people good money,” Campbell says. He pegged compensation rates to the top of the market, and sweetened the deal with a bonus program tied to homeowner quality surveys. If everything comes up on top in the company’s 10-point list, installers walk away with an extra hundred bucks, which can add up to three or four grand a year per installer. With both phases in full swing, rates moved back to 100 percent plus. “If we’re collecting money and collecting it fast, then we’re doing a good job.”
A major advantage for top-paying companies over low-price competitors is installation quality. But homeowners often have no idea what that means, and it needs some explaining.
Quality and Availability
Window replacement companies tend to figure that a two-man crew will install one window in one opening every hour, give or take. “Four windows per man per day,” says Jim Lett, owner of A.B.E. Doors & Windows, in Allentown, Pa., who started his company 40 years ago as an installer. All his installers are employees and all his salespeople were once installers.
Unlike Lett, many window and door company owners come from a sales background. As their companies evolve, sales starts out with the lion’s share of management attention. Developing sophisticated production processes is something they learn to do in time. And it can be harder for companies that install with subcontractors, as many window companies do.
Industry consultant Vaughn McCourt, once general manager at Penguin Windows, one of the country’s biggest companies, says after overtime and other issues forced his operation to switch to employee installers, he found his two biggest installation problems—“quality and availability”—had been solved. But Penguin still had to deal with the time issue: Employees being paid by the hour were not quite as energetic as independent contractors who were paid by the opening. Penguin addressed that, McCourt says, by ensuring that crews had all the tools and materials they needed before they left for the jobsite (that is, no store trips), by establishing strict productivity standards (10 windows in 11 hours), and by GPS tracking. He also set up a bonus system that rewarded installers: When the labor cost of the job came in below estimate, they got a cut.
Ambassadors in the Field
These days good installers are in such high demand everywhere that some companies are looking to build an in-house installation team, much like A.B.E.’s, finding that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of added margin points and managing for seasonality. Energy Swing Windows, in Murrysville, Pa., which also installs with employees, has extended those inherent advantages into other realms, namely marketing. At Energy Swing, installers aren’t just putting in windows, “they’re bonding with homeowners,” says president Steve Rennekamp. “We treat installation as a marketing activity.”
Taciturn installers and chipper marketing personnel may seem worlds apart, but many homeowners appreciate technicians who can communicate in a friendly manner. And that happens when you hire the right people and make customer relations part of the job description. This simple fact is what’s behind Energy Swing’s 60-plus percent referral rate for leads, not uncommon in roofing but a rarity in window replacement, where marketing costs are typically in double digits.
In the Know
Of course, setting quality and efficiency goals, with friendliness as a bonus, can only work if those doing the actual installing are motivated to do their part, or more than that. Subcontractor crews are typically paid by the piece. The more windows you can fit in a day, the bigger the paycheck, with good companies today paying anywhere from $75 to $100 “per hole” and often supplying caulk and coil.
A major advantage for top-paying companies over low-price competitors is installation quality. But homeowners often have no idea what that means and it needs some explaining.
For instance, when one of the three crews used by Quillen Brothers Windows, in Bryan, Ohio, has finished up a job, the company conducts what owner Bob Quillen calls a phone audit. The crew chief calls the office. Only the receptionist, the installation manager, or Quillen can take the call. The 12-question “phone audit” asks about warranties and guarantees, screens, caulking, tilting, and whether or not installers demonstrated how each window worked. Crews also call each day at 3 o’clock to update the company on job status.
The best window replacement companies find factory visits well worth the investment.
Quillen sends any new installers he uses to his supplier’s factory, Great Lakes Windows, so they can get a sense of “what’s special about us,” he says. The best window replacement companies find factory visits well worth the investment. “Our guys love to learn,” says Rennekamp, who dispatches installers to a two-day educational experience at door manufacturer ProVia in Ohio.
Newbies need all the information they can get, whether from factory visits or AAMA certification. Companies that once were “always looking” for salespeople are now always looking for installers and finding that, regardless of what they say in the ad, anyone will turn up. When A.B.E. Doors & Windows needs someone, it advertises for a “door and window installer” with carpentry experience. But Lett says, "I've had guys who were stocking shelves in the grocery store answer my ads." One of the company’s best installers once dug graves. “If someone shows potential, you can put him out with a crew to be a helper for a year or two,” Lett says.
Still, it’s a skill that takes years to master. And the education is never done. Installation expert Robinson suggests installers upgrade their skills, or their knowledge, with each code change. It’s not so much that windows are different, it’s that wall assemblies are changing, he says. Installation is a kind of science, he says, and requires planning, though he doesn’t expect everyone will agree. “Ask 10 contractors what a good window installation is and you’ll get 11 opinions,” Robinson says, “because one guy will have two.”