From adversity comes opportunity, but that’s only if you are prepared to expand your horizons. Unfortunately for many retailers these days, adversity has arrived in the form of lighter store traffic, fewer leads, and customers who are suddenly hunting for bargains or choosing lower profit items. Yes, the residential market has cooled, but keep in mind there are other options available.
One way to deal with the challenges we’re seeing is to explore commercial opportunities. Whether it’s Main Street commercial or regular commercial, there is a good chance it is business you may have not pursued because you were too busy with your core retail business. So, rather than have your top salespeople sitting around waiting for business to pick up, why not do some strategic planning? Start looking for business replacement or map out your expansion into the commercial sector. Challenge your staff to learn some new products and encourage them to incorporate new sales techniques. Do it right and ultimately you’ll increase their earnings.
Your foray into the commercial side of flooring should start with a simple evaluation of your core business. Ask: What are we particularly good at? Or to put it another way: What are we best known for in our market area? If you had to describe your business in 20 seconds, what would you say? If you were up against five competitors with similar products, how would you win the job? This self-analysis does not have to be complicated. It can be done with the help of the key members of your sales, service and operations team. Set a time limit and ask them some of the questions above. Stress to them that there are no wrong answers. You can get the discussion going by mentioning that you feel there are additional business opportunities. To pick the right ones you need their feedback.
If your core business has been strictly retail residential, especially high-end residential, you may want to initially target some Main Street commercial business. This includes small residential builders and contractors who work on restaurants, churches or synagogues, doctor’s offices, smaller commercial offices, and small property management.
If you are already doing some Main Street business and want to take a more aggressive step into commercial, look at opportunities in larger property management companies, healthcare facilities, private schools and universities. Get to know the general contractors in your areas who may sub-contract flooring work. Also, find out how you can bid on government work. Many millions are spent on flooring for schools, hospitals and other public facilities. Typically the process of awarding the work begins with Request for Proposals (RFPs) for smaller work, or an Invitation for Bid (IFB) for large dollar volume projects. These can be complicated documents that require a fair amount of research and paperwork, but keep in mind that companies that respond to RFPs or IFBs to land government work are hoping you will conclude it is too much of a headache. Many companies have someone whose sole responsibility is seeking out government work and bidding on it directly to the government or through general contractors.
But if you are new to the commercial side of floor covering, I strongly suggest you start by picking no more than two or three target areas to explore. Then devise a plan that is simple for your people and enables you to follow up with a minimum of effort. Determine approximately how many targets are in close proximity of your location and assign a set number of contacts to each participant. Prepare your team by creating a 20-second introduction to your company that stresses your unique strengths as well as your track record of successes. Have them learn this 20-second introduction verbatim to ensure consistency among the team. Yes, I know; everyone hates scripts, but this is a necessary step.
You also need to include an introductory sentence explaining why they are calling the client. A sample: “Hello. My name is Dave, and my company specializes in professional, certified installation of high-value floor coverings. We’re located nearby, and I wanted to see if there may be an opportunity for us to work with you. May I ask you a few questions?” Develop a simple form that allows your sales team to jot notes during the call or drop-in to visit with the prospect. I have found it valuable to standardize a list of questions (no more than 10). Make the form look official and professional, list the questions, and then leave space for the answers. You absolutely have got to get specific feedback to determine if your target areas are going to be worthwhile.
If you have decided to target some small residential builders or residential remodeling contractors, nothing beats a quick phone call to find out if there is any interest. Things are very tight right now for many residential builders, but that does not mean opportunities have dried up. Some are using the slowdown as an opportunity to renegotiate either price or service levels with their subcontractors. If they are interested in talking to you, be prepared with your list of qualification questions for them after your introduction. One of your questions should seek to understand the customer’s priorities. Ask what is most important to them in delivery of their projects. Also, find out how they typically pay their bill and on what schedule. I know you have already thought of this, but let me go ahead and say it, “If something looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” When selling to this group, make sure you either get a significant deposit (which the builder should be able to get from his client or his bank) or run a credit check. Don’t take any chances.
Another place to seek direction may be a house of worship. The flooring replacement cycle in churches, synagogues and similar buildings is usually about eight to 15 years. If you were to contact 20 such facilities, the odds are that at least one or two will be in the process of replacing their flooring. There are those who will tell you that every church has at least one member who is in the flooring business. Yes, that may be true, but I have found that there is considerable pressure to spend their available dollars wisely. They don’t want to be seen favoring a member unless the price is particularly advantageous. One question to ask, with a smile on your face is, “Do you have a member that is planning to do the carpet or other flooring for your project?” Listen to what is said and not said and be guided accordingly. Selling to a religious organization is not a simple process, and you may be saddled with some specific technical issues that are unusual, but the sales potential can be relatively large. Usually, they will have already set money aside, unless they are in the preliminary stage, and they should be quite willing to give you a significant deposit.
Identify the principals in a local management company that has properties in your area. Use the phone or make a personal visit to find out what potential exists for flooring replacement and how they handle tenant build-outs. Does the company do it in conjunction with a local general contractor or are tenants permitted to do this work themselves and award contracts independently? How many units does the company have under management? How often do the tenants turn over? What is the typical length of the lease? Does this lease length make sense in terms of generally expected flooring life? Is there a flooring standard for the buildings OR do they allow just about anything the tenant wants? Are they open to working with you, i.e., “Would you give me a chance on your very next unit to show you what I can do?”
Refine your targets and determine what makes sense for your company. Start small where there is less competition and where you can really shine. You have to make your commercial reputation. For smaller projects, use your influence with regular residential suppliers to get some training on high value, competitively priced commercial products, and find out what is selling in your target market. Gross profit on commercial jobs will not be nearly as high as on regular residential jobs, so price appropriately. Make a commitment to expanding your business and give it some time to develop. If you do it right, you will be pleased with the results.