SFA Roundtable: Establishing a niche
What do you do to make your company unique, whether actual or apparent? How do you stand out among the competition? What do you offer that “Quality Countertops” down the road doesn’t? And lastly, what do you do to show your market your advantages?
Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone LLC, Tampa, FL: As a small “microshop” - with less than 5,000 square feet of space and a FabCenter - we offer a “digital showroom,” with digital renderings. We also have a stone boutique, with high-end exclusive products.
I cannot and will not do the volume needed to be anything else. So why do the cheap jobs? Now that we have reached our capacity (a job a day and some “fab only”), I am deciding who I want to do business with. Yes, I get to decide who I do business with and for how much. That is a good place to be, while all these other Tampa shops are “chasing a rabbit down a hole.”
Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC: Always hit your install date, even if you have to work late.
Do what you say you are going to do, and give the customer a heads-up all the way through the production process. We provide prompt call-backs and always sell ourselves on a personal touch and quality.
We are also a one-stop shop. We help get the plumber, handyman, general contractor, sinks, demolition, tile sales, tile installations, etc.
Eli Polite, Delaware: We have a one-stop shop where everything is high quality. We also emphasize customer service and educating our clients.
Doing everything is not something you can just do. We are a four-man shop, and I was lucky enough to practice in all countertop materials and become proficient at it. Last week, everything [in our shop] was granite, with one stacked edge 2-cm engineered stone display. This week, I am fabbing a huge solid surface job with cove splash and integrated sinks. We don’t do nearly as much solid surface or laminate, but the answer is always, “Yes, I can do that.”
Cameron DeMille, DeMille Marble and Granite Inc./Millestone Marble and Tile Inc., Palm Desert CA: Clients never annoy us. We spend every minute the client wants with them to answer their questions. We do things others don’t, like fireplaces. Details make a difference; customer service makes a difference.
If a client calls with a petty problem, go take care of it.
Nick Patrona, Patrona Marble and Granite, Lake Worth, FL: I am searching for this answer myself. We do everything that Cameron said, and I think that is a good post on how to retain your status. There is no right or wrong niche; you need to be whatever makes money for you that you’re comfortable with and like doing.
I think that confidence and history are important when speaking to a new decorator, and I think that shameless self-promotion is a part of that - without overdoing it. The problem is, “How do you properly solicit a decorator that views all attempts to get their work as another desperate company wanting some of their pie?” I don’t know. But I do know that they will only use you if it is their idea and not yours. So word of mouth is huge - not just for “Suzy Homeowner,” but in larger arenas as well.
I don’t have a showroom or company logos on trucks. I really believe that I do not need these things to get the jobs I want. I had two of my ideal contracts this year. There was another fabricator on both of the jobs. On one job, I came in midway and lost the master baths. I really think it is because of my age and the unknown of another company. As it stands now, we are the only fabricator at the house.
The other had two fabricators from the get-go. We were lucky enough to know the mechanic that does a lot of their smaller work, and the builder bounced his fabricator and asked him [for a referral]. We came on with another good company after bidding everything. Our end was about 25 slabs of Thassos in most of the bathrooms - all mitered and mitered soap niches and door jambs. We are now replacing a vanity that someone broke for free. It is costing us a slab, but we just want everything done and everyone happy. Hopefully, this goes a long way in the builder’s mind. This is arguably the premier builder in Palm Beach. We worked really hard to give him a reason to call us on the next one, and that is all you can do. You won’t get credit for nice work on those jobs, but you want to be the sub that had “no problems” on the last job for a builder like that.
I think for that niche, it is more a matter of time, along with experience on jobs that people know and a name from being on those jobs. This matters more than logos and a showroom. We don’t meet these people, and they wouldn’t come to your showroom if it was the Taj Mahal. The architect/decorator has their vision spelled out, and you need to make it happen. You also need to say “how high” while already starting to jump when they say so. This is HUGE.
People want to come to your showroom, even if it is a waste of time. This is a good time for you to interview and educate your client.
For us, it will go like this: The customer comes in and watches a five-minute education video. Then we discuss their project, show them slabs on the monitor, along with edges, sinks, pictures of our work and examples of our digital process. Then we send them to the yard. Picture all of this in a clean neat showroom, and we can make the best of companies look ridiculous.
Miles Crowe, Crowe Custom Countertops, Inc., Atlanta, GA: I love the plan. But here’s one man’s opinion: Don’t think that the customer can’t get that same experience in a huge shop. We have all the things that you are talking about. We just opened a 3,300-square-foot showroom. We have all the toys. We have 100+ colors in stock at all times. I have multiple salespeople always ready to spend as much time with the customer as needed.
The difference is this: The customer you are marketing to (in my humble opinion) is the one that wants or needs to deal with “the man.” They need to feel extra important. They don’t want to deal with the Vice President of Sales or a manager. I used to deal with these customers, but now I can’t and don’t want to. Those customers don’t choose us.
So, if you can identify those customers, then there’s the niche for the Microshop.
Nick Patrona, Patrona Marble and Granite, Lake Worth FL: A lifelong friend of mine is running his father’s company and builds ridiculous homes. He has told me granite shops (and a lot of different subs) call him and ask him what number they need to do the job. He has ZERO respect for these guys. He could make a ton beating up mediocre guys with a $20 million home, but these builders and decorators get their money anyway; they just want no problems on the way to getting their money, so they are beating up better, more expensive companies.
I know for sure that these builder/decorators don’t respect someone they don’t know calling for work and offering whatever they can. Even if Michelangelo called him, it wouldn’t matter what he said. If they don’t know him and haven’t heard of him or a project he worked on, there is not even a second thought to giving Michelangelo a bid.
Approaching these people can be like approaching a Cobra: you have one chance to do everything right. After that, you’re shot with them if you don’t come off right. That is why you need them to know of you, or of high-profile projects you have done. Then the ears open up a little. My problem is: How do you make them hear about you from a source that is not you? How do you fabricate buzz without it being advertising? Old fashioned word of mouth is all I know of.
Antonio Almonte, River City Stone Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: If you want the high-end decorators/designers and architects, go after them. Join their associations and network. Let your salespeople and employees take care of the day-to-day activities, and you go after the big dogs. When you are in their respective associations, hold educational seminars to gain their confidence on you and your company’s service, quality and expertise (in our local designer and architect associations they have these available to members). Invite these same people you want to attract to your boardroom to do educational seminars on proper usage and application of stone in their designs and the proper way to install them. Ask them what you need to do to make their jobs easier and vice-versa.
I believe branding is huge as well as to bring these people in and to use you. I believe they also want to work with the companies that have the best reputation and presence. I want the real estate agents to put “granite countertops fabricated by xxx company” in their ads to help sell their houses because of the reputation and brand recognition of the stone company.
I also believe that beautiful, clean and nicely designed showrooms, well-dressed, professional sales people - as well as uniforms for templators and install crews - are important. It gives you credibility and helps with the whole “buying experience” that the high-end, discerning client expects and wants. I, too, am after the stone studio/boutique in my showroom and believe I am close to finally finishing. Hopefully I designed it right, and I will know when we finally have our grand opening of our new showroom. I expect close to 200 designers, architects, general contractors, past clients, etc. attending.
Anna Almonte, River City Stone Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:
I am completely new to retail sales, but this is what works for me. For any retail client that walks in my front door, I find out what their needs and their wants are, so I can meet their expectations. I get excited for every project, and I make it known to them that they are important to me. In my opinion this has worked for me so far and I believe in it.
If I see the client smile at a certain material, I will make sure to tell them, “Look at how that color puts a smile on your face.”
Alex DiPietro, Rye Marble Inc., Rye, NY: Scott, you’ve put in a nutshell exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for the past couple years. Until now, I haven’t had the time. Basically, I want to use my slow time now to improve my customers’ experience because I have a feeling that I am going to get slammed all at once. (Not that I would complain.) I’ll never complain about being too busy again. I like the idea of a large-screen display used to show slabs and finished projects.
Nick Patrona, Patrona Marble and Granite, Lake Worth FL: Scott and Miles, are either of you using an online inventory viewer for your clients? Something on your Web page for people to check what you have? I have been toying with an idea of a virtual online showroom that would make up for me not having one. What if a decorator that doesn’t want to be bothered can view your remnants for vanities via your Web site, then confirm in person if they want one. What if I made my online showroom bigger than me, or seem that way, as long as I can produce what I show?
Do you find that people really do use it? If your salespeople told them to look online, would they rather see it in person, or do they look online and then schedule to meet?
Joe Little, Stone Concepts, LLC, Birmingham, AL: Get out and get it done, no matter what. Create your own niche, whatever it may be - boutiques, showrooms, Web sites, whatever. They have to not only portray the best of what’s out there and what you can do, but the attitude also has to follow with that creed to the customer. If you’re playing to the high-end market, you have to put them in that environment and live up to the expectations that you project.
We play both sides and get both types of work. I’m not real good at the low-end side, so I don’t really sell those jobs, but my “number two guy” does. His job is filler work, so that’s what he sells. I play the higher end and try to give them what they want and desire. With the economy the way it is, I’m not sure if we could have lived on high-end work alone, and it takes both right now to keep the doors open and money flowing. If we were too “high end,” the low end would not come in the door.
It sounds nice to be the stone boutique in your area, as long as your area can afford it and it keeps you working.
Chris Yaughn, Statesboro, GA: Online inventory has been really useful to me as I was buying fab-only from three hours away. Yes, they will want to come and see them in person, but having them online allows your designer’s clients to be “meeting” with you (in a way) without wasting a ton of time while you look at remnants.
If you put images online, make sure you control the lighting where you take pictures really well.
The online inventory can also help feed a sense of urgency with your clients, when you state, “Remnants are a very fluid market, and we experience a lot of turnover,” and points like this. That was our experience.
Miles Crowe, Crowe Custom Countertops, Inc., Atlanta, GA: We all have our ways of producing granite. We need to help each other with the selling of granite in this tough economy. The way we do it is at one the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Nick and Scott’s Microshop.
Nick Patrona, Patrona Marble and Granite, Lake Worth, FL: I think that regardless of your niche, some things are key elements across the board. Customer peace of mind, confidence, or whatever you want to call it that means your customer KNOWS you’re the right company/person for them, and I really think Anna touched on something I have done naturally, but never thought about in retrospect. If you’re excited about making an awesome kitchen, they sense that and that makes them like you, which really leads back to point #1 of customer confidence in your company. I love that Miles listed that first because everything else falls into place if you have that, whether it is a $500,000 tract home project or $60,000 custom bathroom. Once whoever is signing the check feels they picked you, and that you will deliver, that is key. Let’s face it, for most of us, delivering is the easiest part.
Stone World would like to extend its appreciation to the Stone Fabricator Alliance (SFA) for its cooperation in preparing this roundtable discussion. For more information on the SFA, visit www.stonefabricatorsalliance.com.