Among the many educational sessions at StonExpo/Marmomacc Americas, which took place from January 28 to 31, a panel of industry veterans held an open “Countertop Installation Forum” with an audience of fabricators of all sizes. Panelists included:
  • Dustin Braudway, Bluewater Surfaces, Wilmington, NC
  • Buddy Ontra, Ontra Stone Concepts, Bridgeport, CT
  • Tony Malisani, Malisani, Inc.,Great Falls, MT
  • Jon Lancto, Surface Products, Cornelius, NC (moderator)

How do you schedule your installations?

Braudway: Our jobs usually get scheduled at the time it is templated. That’s the first question that the client asks, “When will you be installing?”

Ontra: We have a white board hanging in our office, and it has all of our schedules. I try to adhere to it as closely as possible. We say a job is “typically” installed in two weeks or less, so we are covered when something gets pushed back.

People have been spoiled over the past few years. Since there is less workload, jobs are scheduled in less time.

Our priorities are: number one, safety; number two, accuracy; and number three, speed.

Malisani:We don’t take any jobsite information until we have the material. From there, we say it is templating plus two weeks, and the customer pays extra if they want it earlier.

Lancto:We use Moraware for our scheduling. Our shop process is “synchronous flow,” and we want to go from template to install in seven days. We plan our capacity so that we can achieve this. That’s when the cash register rings, upon installation.

Also, our salespeople should not be ordering material. If they are ordering material, then they’re not selling.

Malisani:On that note, it is important to remember that colors run in groups, so maybe you’re not ordering two slabs, but an entire bundle.

How do you establish customer expectations?

Braudway:I recently did a large job in Caesarstone. The customer wasn’t sure if she wanted marble or Caesarstone, but everything in her house was absolutely clean and perfect. After seeing that, I told her that Caesarstone was the material for her. Marble would patina, and it wouldn’t be “perfect.” I try to guide them to make the right choice.

Ontra: My customers look at me as the expert. I work with them on seam placement, and I explain the aesthetic and technical benefits of where they could go. Ultimately, I give them the information, and I let them decide.

Malisani:It is important that things are written down. We have literature that we give the customer at the point of sale. It is a sheet that states any issues that might come up. The more clear you are up front, the easier it is to deal with the customer.

You also need to get a feel for your customers. You need to know how they may react to certain things, so you can consider giving them options.

Ontra:Some customers will say, “What do you think?” This is ideal.

Lancto:We had a customer who picked what he thought was quartzite, but it actually was a marble. He said that he would want his money back if it etched, so we told him we would not cut the job, and he did an about face. You have to be brutally honest, even if it means walking away from a job.

Malisani: Sometimes the best job is the one you don’t get.

You have to educate yourself as well. Three years ago, using marble in a kitchen wasn’t a topic. Now you need to attend education sessions on it. There is a phrase, “Everyone is ignorant, except on different topics.”

Braudway:We grew up in the business with marble and soapstone; it wasn’t until the 1990s that granite came into the picture. There are plenty of resources out there for you to learn — the Marble Institute of America, the Stone Fabricators Alliance.

Malisani:Another point on customers, your installers are the last point of contact with the installer. They need to stick around after the install and answer questions, and they need to leave our contact information. You don’t want them staying around all day, but there should be a checklist for them to go through.

Lancto: Another tool that we use is Slabsmith, where we take a photo of the slab, and it shows how the pieces will be laid out. People are willing to pay to not to be surprised once the installation is done.

What about dyed stone or resin-treated slabs? Are you seeing more of this?

Braudway:We are absolutely seeing more resin-treated slabs than 10 years ago.

Ontra:We are also seeing that, and it is something to learn from. When you are working with resined Crema Bordeaux, it can be a lot tougher to work with. You can’t turn around and charge the customer more money, but you can remember it for the next time you’re quoting that material.

What kind of instructions do you provide for your customers on how the jobsite needs to be prepared — removal of dishes and things like that?

Braudway:We absolutely require that. I expect the site to be prepared for installation. You don’t want to be moving stuff around, and it is also a liability issue.

Ontra:I am not comfortable going through the cabinets of my customers. I let them know that the pots, pans, etc. need to be moved. We might move the microwave or other heavy items, but they need to move their own personal stuff.

I once did a job for my own orthopedic surgeon, and we removed the wine rack from the counter — breaking the wine glasses that he brought back from Austria in the process. We learn from our mistakes.

Malisani:If there are extra things to do at a site, then we charge the customer. Although if it is a safety issue, we might not charge. For example, if it just snowed, and they didn’t have a chance to shovel, we would rather do that and clear the walkway at no charge, because there is a safety issue there.

Lancto: There are three opportunities to educate the customer on how the site needs to be prepared. One is your Web site. The second is when the templater comes to measure, and the third is in the contract documents. You need to include disclaimers or the jobsite requirements, potential damage during tear-out, etc.

Do you allow the homeowner to leave the premises during the installation?

Braudway:There’s a trust issue there. If they’re the type of customer that will leave you in their home alone, then they’re probably not the type that would have some sort of issue. Lowe’s might never allow that, though.

Ontra:It is subjective. We are a small company; people are familiar with me and with the installer. We are rarely left in the house alone during the installation or templating, but if we are left alone, there is a level of trust. One strict rule we have is, “No wandering around.”

Malisani:That is the reality now. Most people cannot take the day off from work while their countertops are being installed. It is a sign of trust, and you need to have trained employees that can handle that.

Speaking of that, you need to set expectations for your employees as well. If they don’t know your expectations, then you need to do some training or do some hiring. In general, I have found that employees want more money, so consequently, they need to do more.

Lancto:Another good idea might be to do background checks on your employees.

How do you protect the floors before countertop installation?

Ontra:We have 18-inch x 6-foot carpet runners with rubber bottoms. That way, the footing isn’t compromised like it is with blankets that might move around.

Braudway: We make sure that we have pneumatic tires on all of our job carts.

Malisani: It’s not just the hardwood floors that you have to worry about; it is ceramic tile as well. We find the best point of entrance, which is not necessarily the closest. That is something that the templater needs to do. We also distribute the weight with plywood when needed.

You need to be careful, but if a mistake is made, you also have to make it right.

Lancto: We had a job where we re-did the floors. All of our installation trucks have cardboard and runners, but the runner slid and scratched the newly installed hardwood floors. That’s something you have to fix.

Are you sealing the countertops? How do you go about discussing sealing the countertops in the future?

Braudway:That’s something we discuss at the point of sale. Not all stone needs to be sealed, and sometimes you have to “uneducate” the customer on what he learned from suppliers of alternative products.

For stone that needs to be sealed, we explain how simple it is. Basically, if you can spray a bottle of Windex®, then you can seal granite. It is more of a matter of knowing what needs to be sealed.

Ontra:Everyone has a different story about sealing, and it goes back to customer education. For us, everything is sealed in the shop on the benches, but we also do an application in the field so the customer sees it happening. I explained to them that some materials don’t need it, but we do it anyway.

Malisani:We also seal everything. We do not seal on site because of exposure issues. We do provide our customers with a cleaning kit, and we sell sealer products after the sale.

Audience Member:We have a regular base of customers that pay us $250 once a year to come back and seal the counters that we installed.

Lancto:That is an excellent point. Sealing should be revenue generating. The sealers out there have come so far that if used correctly, you will never have a staining issue.

Are you installing countertops outdoors?

Braudway: There are a lot of materials that I would never use outside. I feel that outdoor applications need to be brushed stone or concrete.

Ontra:In the few outdoor kitchens that we have done, the failures are typically exotic materials. I know that the UV rays affect the resined materials. If someone asks about outdoor kitchens, we steer them to the classics and brushed materials. We like to keep it simple and earthy, with a salt-and-pepper pattern.

Malisani:We also do headstones, and that is basically the same color palette for outdoor kitchens, because they are proven for outside use.

Even some of the classic materials are resined, though, so we have a source that we know does not have resined slabs.

What adhesives are you using for different applications, like showers and outdoor work?

Ontra:In any wet application, we are using Portland cement. For the counters, we are using polyester or acrylic, but anything outdoors has a mortar mix.

Braudway: We are also using latex-modified mortars outdoors.

Malisani:If you are doing a slab shower, or any [vertical pieces] that are 2 x 2 feet or more, then they need to be mechanically anchored as per the MIA Dimensional Stone Manual.

The largest lawsuits you see are stairs and showers, so you must do your homework and make sure you are doing it right.

There are many sources for education. The MIA Countertop Installation Module provides guidelines for lippage and matching, and it sets a base level to work from.

Ontra: It is a great resource. That way, when a customer asks for a 16-inch overhang on an island with no corbels, you can show them that it isn’t recommended. It is written down for them.

What about conflict resolution? How do you deal with unhappy customers?

Braudway:In general, I am passive. I look at the situation, and again, we try and educate the customer. But when you’re dealing with that, you do your best to stay positive and focused.

Ontra:In eight years as an owner, I have refunded money only once. You want to correct the issue as opposed to giving money back. Sometimes taking $500 off is not the best thing to do, because your name is still on that job, and you might lose a referral. You need to correct the problem.

Malisani:We tend not to learn from our failures. You need to learn how and why mistakes happen.

Lancto: You need to quickly and creatively think of all options available to solve the problem. Don’t get angry or emotional. You don’t want to let it escalate to where people are going on to Angie’s List and talking about you.

We track our call-backs, which are about 4%, and we know which trucks are having more issues than others.

Malisani:You also need to make sure that your trucks are equipped to deal with issues, and that they have color enhancers and supplies like that.