Over the past decade, I have visited many fabrication shops around the country, and I would like to share my thoughts on an interesting trend I have noticed recently. In addition to visiting the smaller and medium-sized shops, I have also had the opportunity to meet with some of the larger, well-established firms - some of which are the leading fabricators in their region. And it seems to me that some of these larger, more-established operations are going in two very distinct directions, and only one of these paths will lead to continued success.

On one hand, I think that some of the larger firms are busier than ever, and the demand is somewhat overwhelming for the principals - and sales staffs - of these companies. Over the past few months, I have visited a number of “besieged” stone fabricators, where I was immediately sent to a waiting area to languish with the other visitors. Now, since the other guests don't generally realize I am fromStone World, they simply assume I am a fellow homeowner. (Let's face it; I am quite certain the typical homeowner has never even heard ofStone World). As such, the unattended customers and I share a certain bond with one another - similar to the bond shared by car owners as they wait to have their tires changed. We stare forlornly at the clock; we roll our eyes at each other; we flip through kitchen and bath industry magazines that don't interest us very much; we play primitive “video games” on our cell phones. In short, we wait for someone to come out and rescue us.

Now in my case, I am on the clock, so if I am stuck waiting over an hour to be seen by somebody, at least I'm getting paid for my time. So let's take me out of the equation. However, the homeowners waiting by my side are not sitting at “Discount Tire of Paramus” having a set of all-weather tires installed. They are looking to pay thousands of dollars for a premium building material, one that costs a lot more than other materials. I know that granite is in demand at the moment, but let's realize that these folks are paying a lot for this product. They shouldn't feel like it's a privilege to have the attention of a sales associate.

I think it is relatively easy to see why this is happening. With the increased demand for stone countertops, most large-scale shops are as busy as they can be. As such, the principals of these shops feel like THEY are personally in demand. As someone who makes their living based on the success of the stone industry, I am urging these people to rethink this philosophy. Don't be a victim of your own success, because success can be fleeting. There is plenty of competition to natural stone countertops, and if homeowners have to jump through hoops just to look at samples, they are ultimately going to be turned off by the process. What happens then? I don't know; maybe they go to Home Depot and buy some Corian, since you don't really need to see samples of that processed material.

On the other hand, some firms are realizing that in addition to increased demand, they are also facing more competition than ever before - from manmade materials as well as other new stone fabricators. And they realize that if they want to maintain their profits, they must offer an increased level of customer service. This doesn't necessarily mean a fancy showroom with free espresso for all visitors (although that certainly helps), but it does mean that people spending thousands of dollars for their kitchen countertop want to feel like they are buying a premium building product.

Fortunately, in addition to visiting some self-appointed “rock stars” of the stone industry, I have recently had the chance to visit a number of fabricators who understand the concept of customer service. They have developed consumer-friendly showrooms that not only exhibit their collection of stone products, but also inspire people to use stone in creative, innovative (and expensive) ways. You can look forward to reading about these firms in upcoming issues ofStone World, and it is my guess that companies like this will represent the future of our industry.