After several months of weathering the worldwide pandemic, the Natural Stone Institute held a webinar for fabricators and installers to share their experiences of dealing with business during the COVID-19 crisis. Moderated by Sarah Gregg, marketing manager of the Natural Stone Institute, the panel included:

  • Laura Grandlienard, principal at ROCK’interiors, Raleigh, NC
  • Geoffrey Gran, owner of The Countertop Factory Midwest in Addison, IL
  • Michaela Steinbach, general manager of Mario & Son, Liberty Lake, WA

The hour-long session gave insight into customer encounters, new procedures and supervising employees during the worldwide pandemic. It also sparked many questions from viewers who are experiencing similar situations.

Gregg explained that the Natural Stone Institute has been doing surveys regularly to help decide on topics to cover in their webinars. “Two weeks ago, we launched our second COVID-19 survey to see how members are doing,” she said. “We wanted to find out if people have closed, if they had reopened, furloughed employees, etc. The results show most shops are open. Some are at a reduced capacity and some are still completely shut down. [The survey also showed that] most haven’t had to lay off employees. Those that had laid off workers have brought most back by now or have plans to bring them back.

“Specifically to today’s topic, most are using social media and email, and some are doing multiple things,” Gregg went on to say. “It’s good to see people experimenting to see what’s best for their business.”

The following is the Q&A discussion that took place during the webinar.

Gregg: What are the biggest changes you have experienced in government regulations, employees not feeling safe, etc.?

Gran: I think for most of us, our employees are our number one asset. When COVID-19 came about, the most important thing was to communicate. We try to do that anyway, but we really tried to be transparent. We also spread our workers out in our facility. We moved shifts around and took temperatures in the morning and afternoon. If someone doesn’t feel well, we ask them not to come in -- with zero repercussions. We still paid them.

It has been really positive for us. Communication has gotten better. If you are not creating a culture in your company, you would have employees not wanting to come in. Create an environment that employees want to come in to build a career. Get employees endeared to the family you are trying to create.

Our vendors are also very communicative. Rather than deliveries every day, maybe now we get them two or three times a week.

Grandlienard: I echo what Geoffrey is saying. We have a weekly Round Robin meeting. It became more to ease each other’s [concerns]. We all took an oath that if you don’t feel well you go home. We take temperatures each day. We have kept records from day one of everyone’s temperatures and the time it was taken. So if something happens, we can track down and share that information with medical professionals.

Also, we want to put our clients at ease. We created a form that the team member in charge of the job can show our client with everyone’s temperatures, etc.

For the employees in the shop, we implemented a zone for each person. [Also], from the showroom to the shop to the parking lot it is always disinfected. This was a big challenge at first, but now it is something we just do. It’s challenging, but we are seeing results.

As far as our vendors, we are seeing that the supply is not the variety as in the past, but hopefully moving forward this will change by the fourth quarter.

Steinbach: From the beginning, we have had quite a bit of challenge with government regulations, as we split work with north Washington and Idaho. We are deemed non-essential in Washington State. We had to find a way to stay compliant in our state, but keep jobs moving in Idaho.

We had to lay off most of our employees, but kept a skeleton crew to work on the Idaho jobs. We had to make sure our employees were safe and business was safe. It was difficult to layoff so many employees, but fortunately, we could bring them back during phase one. We gave them the opportunity to stay home a little longer, if they wanted to. We wanted to make sure our employees knew there would be no consequences if they stayed home, but they all came back.

With our suppliers it has been an exceptionally big challenge. We got a new machine and need an Italian technician to come set it up, which can’t happen now, but hopefully soon.

Gregg: How are you staying on top of minds?

Grandlienard: Through social media and our website. We also have a newsletter sent to our clients. We are only taking appointments with clients. We are also keeping our Instagram going.

Steinbach: We kept our same advertising plans. We do a print ad in a local magazine. Social media is a major strategy. We are focusing a lot more on it to let people know we are still here and can help get things going for them.

Gran: We have a full time social media marketing coordinator. We used to post every other day or two day. Now in the COVID environment, we are posting every day to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Houzz. We’re doubling down on that. We also are advertising on Facebook.

Pre-COVID, people were buying online. Now in an environment where so many people are buying online, we want to make sure it is very easy for our customers to buy from us.

I know we didn’t go on spring break, and we have no vacations planned anytime soon. People are home and are doing home renovations. Big Box sales are up. Get your name out there.

Gregg: What digital tools are you using?

Steinbach: We have fortunately launched a website with all of our inventory online. It was helpful, but now it has been huge for our customers. We have ramped it up in other areas to make sure we have visual tools. Having an appointment-only environment has allowed us to pre-qualify clients so by the time they come into the showroom it is a brief finalizing because they are already committed. Sales can use their time more efficiently. We haven’t done any virtual meetings.

Gregg: In regards to live inventory, has there been challenges making sure the color is accurate?

Steinbach: We have spent a lot of time preparing for that over the last year. We use Slabsmith and SlabCloud, so they can zoom in very close on the slab. It is the closest you can get other than seeing it live. It takes high-resolution images.

Gran: Customers can now go to our website and choose one of three ways: a virtual sales call by either Zoom or GoToMeeting, an in-person appointment or they can reserve to be the only person in the showroom. We use Slabsmith and SlabCloud too. On our website, we use a tool called Quote Countertops. There are three components: a kitchen visualizer, a bathroom visualizer and then get a quote. Once we get a customer, we use CounterGo produced by Moraware and then transition to Hot Sauce, which allows us to sell all the upgrades. They need a faucet, sink, etc. We try to sell them everything they need to complete their project. It was always important, but even more so now. Customers want to limit how many people come into their home, so we just transitioned to all of these technologies.

Gregg: Is anyone expecting a lull or valley in a few months?

Gran: About 25% of our business is production builders and 25% is commercial. Both have remained relatively strong. We go back every week to see what they have in the pipeline. Surprisingly, contractors in Chicago are still selling. We are currently in stage three here, and hopefully, if we can get to phase four it is not going to be as bad as we thought because things are starting to reopen.

Grandlienard: We are trying to keep communication with architects and builders. We expect a low in August and September, but our number one client sold 10 homes in a week and a half so that’s encouraging. People want to move forward and get back to some sense of normalcy.

Gregg: What procedures have you implemented for in-person meetings?

Gran: Everyone is required to wear masks. Additionally, they are required to wear PPE in the field, including a face guard. It is super important that our staff feels comfortable. We bought a fogging system. It’s a backpack system so we can spray this anti-microbial [solution]. It lasts 12 weeks. We spend an entire day spraying down the facility. It makes our employees and us feel really good and comfortable.

We automated an email going back and forth with customers. Now, the day before we call the customer saying we are coming out and let them know we are testing our workers. We ask them how they are feeling. We will spend a few minutes in the beginning [of the visit] reviewing and a few after. There is very minimal contact with the customer. It makes everyone feel good.

Grandlienard: We transitioned to by appointment only. With that, every client comes in with a mask. No one has refused. We sanitize in between appointments and shutdown the production area where no customers can go there. It begins with the team feeling comfortable and safe and then they can go and advocate. It is a rule for employees to say when they don’t feel safe.

Steinbach: It sounds like we are all taking a very similar approach with internal processes. It brings more comradery among employees. We have handwashing stations and sanitize everything more frequently. It has all been very helpful for us.

Gregg: What new efficiencies have you implemented that will improve sales in the future?

Grandlienard: The most positive thing we have done is by appointment only. I can say it has led to 100% committed business. We don’t have folks who are “exploring.” Our customers have already done that on the web. It has been very positive and encouraging.

Steinbach: Being able to do so much online has really boosted [business] for us. It is a positive change. We have received great feedback from customers. We are finding more and more the walk-in environment isn’t very efficient.

Gran: The number one goal of the business owner is to make as much money as possible. You need to make money to take care of employees. Pre-COVID, everyone I talked to had a great first quarter. Now is a time they can look and see that they may have some processes that are not the most efficient. Our business is down about 40%. We have to see how we can continue to manage our labor and increase profitability. Selling upgrades – almost all of that is profit. We have been focused a lot on every job we do and how to make it the most profitable. We look at every department to see how to get each more efficient. This [period] has allowed all of us to take a step back and recalibrate.