Let’s face it. Times are tough right now in the flooring industry. But it is important to bear in mind that the industry is cyclical. There will be bad times as well as good. We’ve been through this before and we’ll have to endure it again. Unlike the early ‘80s, this has nothing to do with the economy. It doesn’t even have much to do with our flooring industry. Rather, much of it lies with the building industry, which, unfortunately, many flooring retailers are dependent upon.

This may be just the time to take a long look at continuing to do business with builders who can often be disorganized, costing us money in delayed installation and damages by other subs, as well as skinny margins and clients who can’t afford to pay until they sell their houses. Of course, that’s not a description of all builders. There are many builders who pride themselves on being professional, but it takes more than low price to sell them. Fortunately, there are also easy ways to sell the builder’s customers even if you aren’t their regular flooring source.

Protect Yourself

I learned a long time ago that if you lose the job, you lose nothing. But, if you install a job without payment, you’ve lost the job, the materials, plus the labor. Get your credit act together. No retailer should be extending credit. It is well worth it to explore avenues of in-store credit. Shaw, Mohawk and other manufacturers offer these services as well as numerous lenders outside the industry. Many of these same lenders offer commercial credit as well. If the professionals turn your clients down, how can you take the risk?

In-store credit also allows you to collect the money up front. So you won’t have to wait until completing the installation to get paid or worry about whether or not the homeowner is there to write the check. Or worse yet, not receiving payment because of an issue.

You can’t walk out of Macy’s with a suit unless you pay for it or put it on a charge account. I wrote an article a while ago called “Big Store, Little Store,” which listed the commonalities of each. An important distinction is that big stores collect their money upfront and have in-store charge accounts. There’s a lesson here. More importantly, during tough times, nothing is more alluring to consumers than “No payment until 2009!”

The Treasure Trove

Almost everyone in the industry is sitting on a vast treasure trove of business. Go back through your old files - office files and the files of salespeople. Call every single past customer and inquire about the performance of their flooring. If the salesperson is other than you, let them know you will be servicing the account. When you call each of customers, ask if there are any questions. Offer to take care of any problems and be sure to ask if they are thinking of purchasing new flooring in any area in the future.

Don’t forget to ask about flooring needs where they work and always ask whether they know of anyone who might be in need of flooring. It’s always a great idea to offer something special for returning customers-a discount card or a spot cleaning kit. Remember, no one likes a sales call, so when you inquire about the serviceability, the call is welcomed. You then have permission to end the call inquiring about future sales.

Take all this information down and file it according to future purchase dates or, if there aren’t any, alphabetically. If you haven’t already done this, now is the time to set up a customer card service system, whether by hand or electronically. One card contains the history of all transactions, whether they bought from you or not. File these by call date.

New customers should be called twice; once immediately after delivery or installation and in about two weeks to find out whether she is satisfied with every aspect of her purchase-delivery, installation, sales procedures and staff attitude. Again, file these by call dates. All customers should be contacted at least every two months.

Another card system is a personal file. Many professional salespeople scan the local papers for news of their customers in order to send greetings, congratulations and especially commiserations in times of tragedy. All personal notes belong here such as children’s name and ages, birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays so cards can be sent. These are filed alphabetically so when you are going to call them or they come into the store, you have something of common interest. Imagine a customer’s reaction if a child was sick the last time you spoke to them and you remembered to inquire about it.

Customer file cards are what separate the professionals from the amateurs. Constant attention to gathering the information and making the calls will build a customer base that will keep salespeople busy throughout their career. It’s the difference between a 300K salesperson and one selling $1 million and more. If salespeople were doing this all along, there would be no downturns. Heck, there would be no reason to advertise!

You Can’t Sit Around

For every 100 sales opportunities you have in good times, today you may only have 70-80. Although every dealer believes their people complete 80% of these sales, studies show an entirely different story. The figure is closer to 20%. Given this figure, to maintain business today you must raise your closing rate to 30 out of every 100 opportunities. This requires regular in-store sales education. Your manufacturer and distributor suppliers can partner with you on these readily available programs.

Beyond that, to take the place of the lost builder business, your people have to get out in the neighborhoods and on the telephone. They can’t afford downtime. Just cruising neighborhoods anyone can see signs of remodels. Stop by and make sure you leave a card for both homeowner and contractor. Get their information and follow up the initial call on the telephone.

The remodel market is hot. Read through the Yellow Pages, classifieds and bulletin boards and contact them. The rental market is on fire. Contact rental agents and property managers, both residential and commercial. Contact the HR departments of large corporations and institute an employee benefit plan which includes discounts for their employees. Run ads in their newsletters.

Leave a card at any empty home or store for the next owner or renter. Don’t forget to contact real estate brokers and agents. Arrange meetings and make sure that everyone has your business card. They all know houses sell better with new flooring. Arrange a special program through your credit supplier, such as “six months same as cash” for homeowners.

Promote your business through community bulletin boards. You can find them in post offices, some restaurants, supermarkets, convenience and general stores, building supply warehouses, hardware stores and many other businesses. Leave multiple business cards at these locations with a special offer.

In fact, promote yourself whenever you can. Let local businesses you frequent know you would appreciate their help. Have staffers write their names on your business cards and offer a reward to those who bring the card in. A small percentage of the sales (or even $5 to $10 dollars) would mean a lot to waitresses, retail employees, barbers, hairdressers and others who provide personal services.

Don’t forget the professionals in your community. Bankers, accountants, brokers and medical folks have a lot of influence with their clients. It’s important to sell yourself to everyone you meet. People will want to help you if they like you.

If you know one policeman, fireman or union official, you have a goldmine. They stick together. Where one eats or drinks the others go, and where one buys they all buy. Set up a special discount for people in these organizations, as well as the military.

Don’t forget service clubs. You can’t join too many. Elks buy from Elks, Eagles from Eagles, Rotarians from Rotarians, Vets from Vets, Lions from Lions, Kiwanis from Kiwanis. Offer to do presentations at their meetings.

Think about it. These few ideas should spawn dozens more. There are literally hundreds of sources for great leads, but they require you to get out of the store and mine the goldmine. You will not have enough time in the day to cover half of the possibilities. These activities will pay off now in increased sales. And they will really pay off when you’ve instituted these great new habits even after the market recovers.