Handling 'More Involved' Customers

Driving up to a show in Connecticut last weekend, hitting enough road closures, detours and construction sites to hopelessly confuse even my super smart GPS, I found myself wondering if we were ever going to get there.
It occurs to me that most of us feel the same way about the economy.
Slow and steady may win the race, but “slow and unsteady” seems to better describe today’s economic landscape, with a seemingly endless slew of ups, downs, hopeful signs and false starts.
Yet, despite the rocky ride, more and more signs are pointing toward the positive – not just with the economy at large, but among kitchen and bath professionals. In fact, a recent KBDN survey of kitchen and bath dealers and designers showed that nearly 60% said market conditions this year were “significantly better” or “somewhat better” than in 2010 (see related story, Page 42). And, some 29% said they are already seeing “significant improvement” in their own businesses.
The majority of those polled noted they are getting more traffic this year, and expect to do more kitchen and bath projects overall in 2011 compared to 2010.
So, it is getting better out there. That’s the
good news.
The bad news is that it’s a whole different ball game out there.
It’s not just that consumers are still doing fewer (and frequently less expensive) projects than a few years back, or that they’re taking more time to commit to a project, or that they are quite likely price shopping on their iPhones even as they shop in your showroom.
It’s that consumers themselves appear to have been changed dramatically by the recession. They seem to believe that the economy hasn’t just changed the shopping landscape, but changed their role as a customer. And as a result, being a kitchen and bath dealer comes with a whole new set of challenges.
Today, you have consumers who want to buy some of their own products on the Internet…never mind that they still want the designer to “make it work” when they decide to buy the 36" range instead of the previously agreed upon 42" model around which the project was designed (see related story, Page 34). And if there’s a problem with the product, they still expect the designer to be responsible for it.
You have consumers who download software so they can “help” design their own spaces. Yet far too many of these consumers are unaware of the limitations intrinsic to designs done by those who don’t possess a true understanding of the principles of design – no matter how good the software itself might be.
You have consumers who want to vet every design or product decision by getting a consensus of their family, coworkers and Facebook friends.
Basically, you have consumers who want more of a say in the design of their spaces and the design process as a whole. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have a client who’s willing to listen, learn and become a true partner in the process.
What is a bad thing is when consumers begin to believe that they are equal partners; that they know as much about design as a professional because of what they’ve read online, or because they downloaded a software program, or because they think they’ve found “great deals” on the Internet.
So, how do you help today’s consumers feel like they are part of the process – without getting in the way of the process? Just as with any good partnership, it’s critical to define everyone’s role up front.
Communication, respect, honesty and tact will all go a long way toward ensuring everyone works together as a team. Educate your clients to the intricacies of the process – and explain what they can do to help. Explain, too, what they can’t do, helping them to understand everyone’s role in the process.
Recognize that keeping the client on the outside is no longer an option. Rather, it’s essential to welcome the client as part of your team.
It may be a new world out there, but good relationships never go out of style.