Whether or not your customer lives in a castle, the durability and enduring beauty of her ceramic floor installation depends upon your ability to sell tile as part of a comprehensive system.
Ceramic tile is a semi-manufactured product. Tile boxes should have a label on them that reads, "assembly required." Consequently, there is tremendous opportunity to sell the complete system to the consumer, and significant drawbacks to selling only one component of the system -- namely, the tile.

To properly sell the system, four customer expectations must be considered. The first is form -- the tile should have the aesthetic appearance that the purchaser intended. Next is function -- the product selection should meet or exceed the customer's performance expectations and requirements. Third is longevity, in terms of the overall durability of the installation. The final consumer expectation relates to external influences. These include environmental factors, actual usage and maintenance procedures.

If the final installation is to meet each of these four expectations, you must address four important components of the complete system. Specifically, you should:

  • Identify the suitability of the substrate.
  • Specify proper setting materials.
  • Verify that installation will be followed according to accepted industry standards and manufacturer instructions.
  • Clarify the maintenance requirements relative to the tile, the application and usage.

If any one of these four components doesn't pass muster, the resulting installation will be substandard. But this is true of just about any manufactured product. Say you bought the latest, state-of-the-art sport utility vehicle. It may have been built at a factory with an excellent reputation, top-notch labor and great parts but if it has certain problem-plagued tires on it, you may not necessarily have purchased an excellent vehicle. One bad component affects the other components and, inevitably, ruins the entire product. So, let's take a closer look at each component of a tile installation to better understand how they are interrelated.

Identify the suitability of the substrate. Why is the substrate important? The durability and dimensional stability of the substrate is directly related to the performance of the tile that will be bonded to it. So, if you have great tile and installation materials installed superbly over an inadequate substrate, you will have an inadequate installation. Your tile will be more prone to lippage, chipping and cracking. It may loosen or even fail altogether. For a list of acceptable substrates, consult the Tile Council of America's (TCA) "Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation."

Specify proper tile and setting materials. Tile has many performance ratings. For example, the PEI rating is an expression of the tile's ability to resist abrasion. The Mohs' scale is used to determine a tile's ability to resist scratching, and coefficient of friction (COF) ratings gauge the slip resistance of the tile. ANSI has specifications that detail each of the visual and structural characteristics of a first-quality tile. It is imperative to understand a tile's specific characteristics and use it only for its intended purpose. Remember, the price of a ceramic tile is not directly related to its durability. So, be an informed buyer.

If you want to save some money on an installation, DON'T do it by using cheap installation materials. Some thinset mortars can't even use the words "dry-set" or "thinset" on their packaging because they don't meet industry standards. That cheap latex-modified thinset for $4.95 a bag may not provide an adequate bond for porcelain tile.

Why? Well, you need to understand that thinset is basically comprised of three parts: sand, cement and "goop." The more goop it contains, the higher the price. The amount of goop is what makes premium thinsets and latex thinsets (and polymers) cost more. However, premium-quality thinsets, latex-modified thinsets and grouts only cost a few cents more per square foot than the cheap stuff. More goop means a better bond, increased durability, less chance for installer error, and better overall quality. So, don't skimp - go for the goop!

Verify that installation procedures will be followed according to accepted industry standards and manufacturer instructions. Quality products must be installed properly to meet performance expectations. Next time you're in Las Vegas, pay attention to some of the ceramic tile floors in the newer casinos. When you see tile that's chipped on the edges, it's usually because one tile is higher than another. That's called "lippage." When you see a big chip in the middle of the tile, tap on it. More than likely, it has a hollow sound - which results from inadequate thinset coverage. Proper installation is critical to how the tile will perform.

Clarify the maintenance requirements in relation to the tile, the application and usage. This final component to a complete installation is frequently overlooked, but it is vitally important. Every time I walk into my local Starbucks, I look down at the porcelain tile floor (don't all tile people walk looking downward?) and think how unhappy they must be with it. It is either the wrong tile or it is not maintained as intended, because it is filthy all the time. If tile is sold as a system, the buyer should understand all aspects of maintenance, including who maintains it, what products are used, how it is cleaned, and at what frequency.

If the buyer does not know how to maintain the tile, he will be unhappy with the installation at best, or jeopardize life and limb at worst. An exaggeration? Here's a test:

Question: A study commissioned by the Ceramic Tile Institute of America (CTIOA) found that 77% of slip-fall accidents were the result of what?

Answer: POOR MAINTENANCE! A whopping 77% of the time!

On the lighter side, one of my all-time favorite job complaints involved a customer who complained that the solid-white floor tile she had installed in her entryway showed footprints. I went to the store and bought a brand new mop, bucket and some neutral cleaner. I went to her house and mopped her floor to show her how easy it was to clean those nasty footprints off. I gave her the mop, bucket and cleaner as a gift. A few days later she called again and said that her tile was now showing more footprints. I'm not sure to this day it she wanted a new floor or for me to come back once a week to mop it.

Abundant opportunities exist to sell the complete system. I always encouraged my dealer customers to sell the quality of tile that they have in their showrooms, the quality of the latex thinsets and grouts that they use, the excellence of their installation crews, and how to maintain the tile after it is installed. By selling each component of the system, their customers are more informed and more likely to be satisfied with the final installation because they feel that they've purchased quality products from a knowledgeable source. Even if you don't do the installation, be sure to explain the importance of proper installation in relation to the performance of the entire system.

By selling the whole system, your customer is less inclined to shop around. And even if they do opt to shop, they'll be comparing the whole system instead of just a single component of the system, such as the tile by itself.

System selling is a win-win proposition. The retailer wins by increasing his sales and overall ticket average. The consumer wins by understanding the importance of purchasing all four components of a ceramic tile installation. Sell the system!