“One thing about being in our business is that the longer you stay in it, the longer you learn,” GK Naquin of Stone Interiors told participants of a virtual Stone Summit held by Stone World and the Natural Stone Institute on Wednesday, October 6 and Thursday, October 7, 2020. “After 47 years in the business, I still learn every day and from these seminars.”

Naquin moderated the two-day workshop, entitled “Selling Natural Stone: Building Your Company’s Sales Structure,” which on the first day also included industry veterans Blake Christensen of Valley View Granite in Tremonton, UT, and Alicia Mooney of Cutstone Company in Alabaster, AL, who shared their experiences with viewers. The Stone Summit was sponsored by MSI.

“Do you have training for sales staff to teach them how to engage customers?” Naquin asked the two panel members. “Yes and no,” said Mooney. “We teach them about establishing a rapport, but leave a lot of room for flexibility because everyone has a different personality. Everyone is going to have a different approach.”

Naquin said that he looks for a course of education. He explained that customers can sometimes have misconceptions about various products, and it is important to inform them.  

Mooney explained that she teaches her sales staff to be welcoming. “The message we are trying to convey is that this is a friendly place,” she said. “We want to accomplish your goals. Rely on our expertise.”

Naquin asked the panel to address how they handle a situation where their salesperson promises a customer something that the rest of the staff, and owner, might not be aware. “That can be tough,” said Mooney. “Salespeople are known for mentioning those things.” She explained that for this reason it is crucial to have a written contract. “Having a document that you can point back to is going to be your saving grace,” she said. “Address things such as what the environment will be like and the services you will perform or won’t perform. You want to set the proper expectations.”

“I find that our salespeople who know our company goals and know the products we sell are much more comfortable selling to our customers,” said Naquin. “They are much more natural. Training is a big aspect of how a successful sale goes down.”

Christensen told participants about the “buyer’s guide” his company follows. “Anytime you don’t have it written down, it is a recipe for unmet expectations,” he said. “We have made a lot of mistakes over the years. We put together a 10-step guide for our customers and sales staff.”

He went on to explain that when a new salesperson is trained, they spend a week experiencing various aspects of the business. “We set up a day with a templator, installer, ask them to silicone a sink, polish a backboard, etc.,” said Christensen. “We let them into our world so they can experience what we do.”


Customizing the selling experience

Next, Naquin posed the question, “How do we sell?”


“You are going to sell differently to “Sally homeowner” then to a builder who does 300 homes a year,” explained Christensen. “We have found greater success when kitchen and bath dealers and designers send leads to us, and we establish the relationships. It’s hard to take a cabinet or carpet salesperson and have them define sales of a countertop.”

Another topic discussed was upselling. “This is an emotional sale for people,” said Christensen. “This is their countertop. If the sales people are trained that way, they will be more successful with it. We brainstormed with our management team about anything that we can offer to add value. Services are something we added. We have trained our guys to connect and disconnect faucets. People will pay $300 to $500 to a plumber. Why not offer that as a service?”

Christensen also told participants how his company sells a service where they come in once a year to steam clean and fix little chips. “Service is key for us,” he said “We hire college students and train them how to do the steam cleaning. Especially with COVID, we have had great success with that.”


Commercial contracting

On the second day of the Stone Summit, Dacia Woodworth, a current member of the Natural Stone Institute, and Brett Rugo, president and owner of Rugo Stone, a natural stone contractor and fabricator, joined Naquin for the discussion. Three key points that were covered included:


  • Defining commercial sales customers
  • Connecting with the design community
  • Securing contracts with general contractors


Rugo started the discussion by saying that the word “commercial” needs to be defined. “To me, it is anything that is not residential,” he said. “It can be institutional, include the landscaping elements around the perimeter of building and the cladding. It can also include the countertop guys doing high-rises.

“Architects, in many cases, have become more general,” Rugo went on to say. “They are still good designers, but not always the most mechanical. They don’t know how to attach stone.” His point was that they need to work with an experienced contractor when specifying stone for commercial jobs.

“How do you build relationships with the contractors and/or the architect community?” Naquin asked.

“First and foremost, you have to have tangible experience and be a communicator,” said Rugo. “If you don’t have deep experience, the attention span of the customer won’t last long. It’s competency from the front end, and then you have to get out there and let people know you are willing to do it. This takes time. You have to develop a brand, and you have to have a lot of exposure to a lot of different systems and a lot of types of stone.

“Often times, architects between studios know each other and share leads,” Rugo continued. “Introduce yourself at the lowest level and work your way up to hopefully the principal. It is sort of a long road, but you have to stick with it. My advice to anyone going from a fabricator business model to a contractor model is that you have to understand there are a different set of standards and risks. It’s not just about cutting a stone accurately. It is about putting the stone up.”

Naquin asked Rugo to elaborate on who is the customer and who is the client? “A customer is someone who pays you and a client is someone who cares about what you are doing,” explained Rugo. “A customer is less attached to natural stone and its aesthetic qualities for which it was picked. If your customer is a general contractor, your client is an architect or owner [of the project]. We found that if you have a really good relationship with clients, it helps the relationships with the customers.”


Setting expectations

Moving on, Naquin asked Woodworth to explain techniques she has to set up expectations for designers. “First and foremost, it is about building relationships and gaining that trust,” she said. “Build a knowledge base. Continue to learn something new. You have to listen. You need to help them find what their vision is, and sometimes it is difficult. You have to listen and solve their vision. If you come to a particular project where they have already specified everything, it is important to realize they have an emotional tie to that design. Perhaps they picked something that’s not great for that application. Then listen to them and ask questions. The more you know, the more affected you can be.”

“A lot of times, we do lunch-and-learns to get recognition to designers about different products,” said Naquin. “At least twice a year we try to do something for our clients.”

Woodworth agreed that lunch-and-learn presentations are an ideal approach to get in front of the design community and educate them on products. “That is a chance to be the first person in the door. It’s important to educate them. Set expectations upfront. It is important to work and communicate through the entire process. Hopefully, if you have done your job, at the end of the day if there is a challenge you work though it to solve it.”