Imagine, if you will, your worst nightmare, when everything that could go wrong actually happens. There’s nothing you can do, and you feel a tremendous sense of frustration, anger and even depression. That will give you some idea of how victims of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy must have felt, andas a flooring dealer, you can help homeowners get back on their feet if you’re prepared.

Working in this area willtake an emotional toll on you and your associates, so you might as well prepare for that up front. Potential clients may be distraught, upset, have a short fuse, and be very impatient with any delay in response or performance. You’ll be dealing with significant challenges and nothing will be simple. For those attuned to this business,  you’ll likely be working with insurance companies or other loss mitigation experts. Expect to have several sets of eyes looking over your shoulder. So you need to get it right the first time.

In my own personal experience, I suffered damage at a house due to a freakish weather event described as a microburst. High winds and quarter-sized hail severely damaged the roof, accessory trim and painted surfaces. When I contacted my insurance carrier, I was impressed that the first question I was asked was whether “there needs to be any immediate protection to the house.” If so, they were willing to dispatch someone immediately.

However, that was not the case, so their claims handler walked me through the process and scheduled a specific time for an on-site inspection to review the damage with me. I now felt a lot better about paying those insurance premiums over the years.

On the appointed day a thorough inspection was done by the senior claims adjuster, notes were made and pictures were taken. He explained, “After a cursory review there is certainly damage to the point that a complete [roof] replacement is warranted. I’ll have the detailed estimate out to you tomorrow. Are there any questions?” He went on to review my policy coverage, deductibles and probable depreciation. He was a real pro and gave me his cell number in case I thought of any other questions.

You need this same professional attitude when working with distraught and displaced people who just want to get their lives back on track. Sales and project team members must be impressive. Select several individuals with the right temperament and attitude to handle the sales effort for your company. They’ll need a caring attitude, patience, be willing to listen and be extremely detailed in their approach.

They’ll be pulled between what their clients want and what an insurance company will approve for payment. There will always be some gulf between the two. One must walk that fine line of what is included in policy coverage, or result in an extra item.

It is prudent to be able to provide some estimate of out-of-pocket costs. “Ms. Clark, this particular flooring is certainly available, but will likely result in extra cost to you, perhaps several hundred dollars.” Any time you can package several related services, you increase your chance to closing the deal. However, watch your markups. Unless you are doing a LOT of extra scheduling, a “10 & 10” might be seen as excessive. If you are tooaggressive, then you’ll be seen to be “gouging.”

After receiving the insurance company estimate,I contacted an insurance company-approved provider to handle all the details of replacement. “Jack” showed up on time, was very efficient, looked over the estimate of damage and said, “This shouldn’t be a problem so I’ll have you a written estimate out by tomorrow.” I thought, “Wow, this wasn’t so bad after all.”

After three days and no estimate, I called Jack. “Our computer server has been down and I couldn’t get anything out to you. I should be able to send this out by Monday afternoon.” I still had high hopes for an easy solution to my claim, at least until I received his estimate.

Jack’s estimate was 22% over the insurance company’s, not including depreciation! When reading the fine print, I noticed that Jack had figured an additional markup for overhead and profit on allcomponents and labor for the job. He justified this since there were accessory items. I pointed out to him that any qualified installer should be able to install the accessory items. To put this in perspective, it would be like a flooring retailer selling and installing a floor and thenbringing in another installer to furnish and install wall base and reducer strips.

I was nothappy. So, I ended up finding a contractor willing to work with me to minimize myout-of-pocket costs, be realistic about what the job was worth and eager to make things easy for me. I was candid about what I expected and “Albert” was specific about the time needed to get the job done. For instance, he said he planned to use a smaller crew over two days rather than try to complete the project in one day.

During the process, when I had questions, they were promptly answered. Crew members educated me on what they were doing and why. Happily, everything was completed, I paid the contractor and have since recommended him to others. I also complained about Jack to the insurance companyfor two reasons: Slow response with inaccurate information, and his attempt to gouge me on price.

Spend time and money to develop this niche because you won’t be successful overnight. A spur-of-the-moment approach will almost certainly guarantee failure. Plan for it. Sales, project and supervisory personnel should all have some training about what to expect and how to deliver satisfaction. You need to have a consistent approach. Appointments, proposals, orders, delivery, and installation should all be handledas a priority. If something else has to wait, then so be it. Sell the idea that you provide a priority service.

Marketing yourdisaster relief niche can take various avenues. Prominent signage in your company location is simple to do and might include a handout or flyers that explain your service. This is especially effective when you have a strong retail business segment. Television commercials that are timely can be used in some markets.

One company took the time to develop a superb television commercial with the theme that “We’ve been in business over 40 years, work with the largest insurance companies; we understand, we care, and we’re here to help you.” Of course they wanted to promote their business, but the underlying effect was to show empathy. Other print media or website pages that focus on your priority services can be effective. Referrals and recommendations by previous clients can be a wonderful source.

Property management companies, homeowner associations and certain remodeling contractors may be a great source of leads. Insurance companies that feature property and casualty coverage can be a million dollar source of business; however, it may take quite a while to break into this business and most already have a cadre of service providers. If you are a co-op member, they may already have a program that will allow you quicker entry. If you are interested in this business, be patient and take the long view.

Tips in making this niche a success: Distribute an internal plan of action when a disaster is imminentor has just occurred. This can include written procedures for priority handling of customer calls, appointments, proposals or quotes, orders, purchasing, warehousing, delivery and installation. You might feature special hours of operationto handle phone calls and mobilization of personnel to support this niche. Sometimes, in-stock carpet, padding, laminate, LVT or hardwood that is available cash-and-carrycan be especially attractive to someone that “needs something by tomorrow.” Be flexible and look for quick-ship items.

Have an arrangement with other service providers/subcontractors that are willing to provide ancillary services for you. Water restoration and debris cleanup is particularly important. Your working relationship with them is crucial to avoid any delays.

In the final analysis, your mindsetand tolerance for dealing quickly with the problems of others will determine your success and profitability. Don’t be greedy, provide prompt, high-value service with a smile, and you’ll have a great niche and be well-rewarded. IF you are going to dabble in this area, though, keep it small until you gear up to handle the volume. You may decide it’s not for you, either because of available personnel or impact on your other business.

A plan always looks great on paper but may fall apart during execution; the last situation you want is to over-promise and under-deliver in this critical disaster relief segment. It will destroy your reputation. If you need a sobering reminder, think back to FEMA after Hurricane Katrina.