My husband, Joe, and I have owned our small, 3/4” solid hardwood installation and refinishing contracting company, Artistic Floors by Design, in the Denver area for the past 13 years. Throughout the past several years, we have undertaken some unique projects to differentiate ourselves in our marketplace.
From the start, let me be clear: Neither Joe nor I were raised by entrepreneurs. In exchange for the service of both our (retired) Air Force fathers, our families received regular paychecks and benefits such as free health care. We met at the University of Colorado, but neither of us ever took a course through the College of Business, and both of us worked for large companies until I was able to stay at home and raise our kids.
In 2006, Joe was laid off by a Colorado Springs flooring company and decided he would open a wood floor contracting business focused on remodeling homeowners. I naively figured it would be short-term until something better came along. But then, I had an aha moment: this business was doing well for a small, owner-operated company in the southern suburbs of Denver. Artistic Floors by Design survived the Great Recession and could support our family, probably for the rest of our lives.
But I missed Joe. To keep the pipeline going, he worked long hours, including time spent doing estimates on his way home in the evening or on weekends. While money and career always are a concern, our family is as well. If we were in this for the long haul, a change was needed. I think a lot of us get to this point in our contractor career, but I think it’s also a legitimate concern for every person in this industry and others as well. Balance in life matters, and spending too much time and effort making money can harm health, family, and other unavoidable, inescapable conditions of our lives.
So I offered to help Joe with estimates. He was worried it would be too much with four kids, even though they were all now in school full-time. I was a little nervous myself, wondering if I would become one of those crazy moms flying through the carpool line at school, throwing snacks and yelling for everyone to be quiet while I talked with a client on the way to sports or dance practice. I was also scared I would stink at math and embarrass myself with the measuring tape in front of prospective clients. I had no idea what grading was and still am challenged occasionally by species identification on an existing floor, especially if it’s stained.
Aligned with NWFA
The keynote speaker this year at the NWFA Wood Flooring Expo expressed it best when he asked the audience, “What’s the most powerful animal in the jungle?” Everyone shouted, “The lion!” “No,” he responded. “It’s the butterflies in your stomach that you will have to endure and move past to succeed.” I can attest to the anxious feeling of being new to an industry; Joe spent months taking me with him to every estimate and giving me as many details as he could. I tried to visit our jobsites as often as I could, watching and learning the processes. A few years later, he found me in our home office, celebrating my successful completion of the NWFA Certified Professional (CP) Wood Floor Sales Advisor course and test.
For years, we have aligned ourselves with the NWFA and the CP program in particular. It’s not because we think Certified Professionals are better than any other contractor. There are many contractors who are better than we are at their skill sets and their business operations. However, we align our brand with the NWFACP program because it works for us to offer peace of mind to our homeowners. As Certified Professionals, we describe to our clients how we charge a premium rate for three reasons: first, we must adhere to technical standards set by the NWFA, the country’s only trade association dedicated to the hardwood flooring industry; second, we have a CP Sales Advisor dedicated to all customer communication and service issues; and third, we hire employees and train them, with a clear path to certification.
Define Your Brand
It boils down to accountability, communication, and craftsmanship. Many construction contractors say their focus is quality, which is fine. We just took the time to consider what quality means to the remodeling homeowners we serve. One of the greatest skills a salesperson has is the ability to listen. Aesthetics matter, but what we discovered from more than a decade of client conversations is that beauty is not our customers’ greatest concern. Our customers are concerned with:
- a clear, detailed scope of work that includes a specific
- price and quick response when they need to ask questions or get clarification on some aspect of the project;
- cleanliness and accountability in their home environment; and
- getting the work done right the first time, on time.
While most homeowners consider the quality of craftsmanship, many of them are not aware of the standards set by our trade association, and they’re not familiar with the NWFA. Here’s the thing: our company feeds our family, and I take my work very seriously. You may consider it a ridiculous waste of time to educate homeowners about the NWFA, but I disagree. If our aim is to elevate this industry and maintain our value in an indifferent marketplace, we must do our part to share the relevance of the trade association to which we belong, as well as how we differentiate our offer in the marketplace. The two are not mutually exclusive.
This year’s Expo theme was “Make Your Mark,” and brand fits right into that. Your personal and professional identity, or brand, is not who you think you are, but rather, who your customers consider you to be. How do you make your mark so others remember you, appreciate you, and become a referral source for you?
A valuable brand foundation is not a logo or a tagline, but it usually includes those elements. Branding begins with accurate thinking about the big picture: what are your resources (human, tangible, and intangible) and how can you employ those resources to be of value to your customer? It helps to get outside of your head and consider the minds of your customers, your vendors, and your employees.
We use words like “value” without careful consideration of what that intangible concept means, and it is incredibly important to the well-being of our personal and professional offers. This might sound overdramatic, but more often than not, small businesses fail. What if their owners and employees knew how their offer was different from other offers in the marketplace and how to articulate and demonstrate that to their specific customers? Identity matters. If you are not offering a clear demonstration of your brand’s value, it’s probably a good time to start to prepare for a bidding war in a race to the bottom.
Find the Right Resources
Joe and I do not do this work on our own, and I strongly recommend getting help. Business is not our genius, so we began taking courses through Influence Ecology, the leading business education teaching transactional competence. According to Influence Ecology, the most fundamental behavior in which human beings engage is exchange.
Think about it: how many of us live an enriching life all on our own, with no one else’s help? “I go out to the forest on foot, chop down the tree, drag the wood away, mill it into flooring, sell it to a client, and install, sand, and finish it all on my own with machines and products I created,” said no one ever. The most-common tool we use in our modern exchanges is money, which is a heck of a lot more convenient than half a cow or a dozen chickens. There are some other tools we can employ in exchange as well, but they’re not as common as currency. Value is one of those. According to Influence Ecology, value is made up of two specific, fundamental elements: utility (how useful a thing is) and scarcity (how difficult it is to obtain a thing). An important aspect of value is the judgment itself of relative worth: how much is someone willing to sacrifice to hire you or your business?
A homeowner or builder might ask: Is the product/service worth this sacrifice? How much should I give up to hire this contractor?
A contractor might ask: How much should I give up to purchase this finish or these materials? Maybe they’re manufactured better, but does my customer understand that? Does the manufacturer help me articulate this product’s value?
And everyone should be asking: How do I help my customer understand the value of the product and service I offer over others? This isn’t just a question for a contractor; this is a question for everyone in the supply chain.
Know the Facts for a Strong Foundation
Tom Reber, the host of the Contractor Fight podcast, is an advocate for construction contractors, and he consistently recommends ways to leverage marketing and sales by taking control of your business, particularly regarding your pricing. One of his favorite things to say is that the key to pricing is knowing your numbers.
The same is true with building a valuable brand, as we have done through our work with Influence Ecology. You must know the facts before you start the work, including inventorying your resources (human, tangible, and intangible) to become very specific about your customer and the help you offer to that customer. It’s fine if you want to work in a bunch of geographic locations and for different demographics, but the more specific you are with your customer, the more specifically and powerfully you can demonstrate your value. The popular athletic brand Lululemon has gone so far as to name their target customer and clearly define her demographics and psychographics, and that brand of athletic wear is valued at more than $20 billion as of June 2019.
We work for remodeling homeowners. Why? Because our resources direct us to do so. We have subcontracted crews for large commercial projects previously, and we hated the work. It was soul crushing and miserable, and we were constantly concerned with cash flow. We chose to move in another direction and hire employees, then put them on a path to become NWFA Certified Professionals. Yes, it takes time and money to do so, but when considering what we wanted to do, it made more sense.
You might love the adventure that commercial work provides, and that’s great. Go do it! Look at Eric Herman, founder of State of the Art Wood Floors. If you don’t know him, follow him on social media and learn from him. His work is beautiful, and he’s doing what we chose not to do. It makes him happy, and he’s built the networks and systems he needs to demonstrate his company’s valuable identity in his New York City marketplace.
We know that our resources do not allow for large-scale production work. Artistic Floors by Design is made up of a handful of highly skilled people doing award-winning work, a few beautifully wrapped vehicles, and two sets of clean and well-maintained, precision-built equipment, and because of that, our margins are too high to be of interest to most builders. Well, this was a conundrum to me early on. Doesn’t everyone want the high-volume, big-quantity customer? Not us, because we aren’t built for success in that environment.
Remodeling homeowners are another story. We know their age, gender, home value, specific areas in which they live, and some psychographics as well. We build (and continually enhance) our brand narrative around that person’s unique interests. The opportunity here is that we get to educate them. Because we are a customer-intimate company that provides a solution through an experience unlike any others, our customer appreciates our work product and processes. We carefully manage expectations, put everything in writing, and educate, educate, educate. We are the expert in what we do, how we do it, and how to hire and transact with us to make this the best experience for all parties.
If you are all things to all people and chasing every prospective customer, be prepared. Kirkland Tibbels, my favorite philosopher, says, “If you do not value your own offer, no one else will.” You’ll be asked to be fast, good, and cheap. The only people harmed in the price and timeframe war are you and your family.
Tactical Tips to Consider
Create a brand foundation document and review it daily. It should include your purpose, vision, mission, values, differentiator(s), positioning statement, and character. To help me communicate clearly with our customers and prospects, I review our brand foundation daily.
One of the best ways to ensure you are safe with a prospective customer is to create your transaction and educate your prospective customer about how to hire and work with you. At a grocery store, you don’t open a cereal box and taste it before you buy. There are rules for being a customer at Target, a car dealership, a bank. You can set your rules as well, and one of the best tactics to help is the use of a terms sheet. It’s not a commitment or a contract, but a meeting of the minds between both parties.
During the estimate, I describe in writing what Artistic Floors by Design does and does not do, as well as some performance notes about wood flooring. Before providing an official price to our homeowners, they must initial the terms sheet. Although we’ve had a discovery call to determine whether we’re a good fit, the terms sheet is the best identifier of fit as well as ease of working with a customer and also is an indicator of the decision-making party.
Measuring your brand value can be done in several ways. Think outside of the box with this concept. Perhaps you measure lead generation and closing rates, but what about how many of your customers accept your terms and review your work online, and which of your crews have the best reviews and why.
These are just a few tactics, but they won’t work by themselves. The key is to determine your value and plan your brand based on your resources and your target customer. If you have questions for me or would like to see what I mean by brand foundation or terms sheet or measures, please reach out. I’m just a phone call or email away.
Joni Rocco is an NWFA Certified Professional, Wood Floor Sales Advisor, and Co-Owner of Artistic Floors by Design, Inc. in Parker, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.