Setting Their Sales

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Editor’s Note: The research for this article is based on interviews with the principals of several major kitchen and bath “whotailers,” as well as on information gleaned from a recent series of “Whotailer Roundtable Conferences,” moderated and facilitated by Morton Block Associates. It is the second of several features, exclusive to Kitchen & Bath Design News, exploring the key business challenges facing today’s “whotailers.”

Whotailers, the kitchen and bath wholesale distributors who gave a new face to two-step distribution when they expanded into retailing, have mixed opinions about what is the most effective way to operate the sales/design and support staffs at their retail locations.

According to several of the industry’s leading whotailers, they use two distinctly different approaches to service and support their retailing segments: a one-person-does-it-all approach and a “team” approach. Some whotailers are adamant that the team approach is best because it gets more people involved in a project, resulting in greater coverage and backup. In contrast, others laud the results they get by having one person perform all aspects of a project, because it enables the delivery of personalized service.

In truth, however, no one seems to have a lock on the best method.

In fact, when you analyze each system, it’s clear that both have strengths and weaknesses – but neither offers clear-cut advantages. It all boils down to personal preference, what fits best into a company’s organizational structure, and the impact of the approach on the company’s bottom line, according to leading whotailers.

One Client, One Designer

The one-person-does-it-all approach is what’s practiced by most non-whotailer kitchen and bath retail firms, other than home centers. Under this setup, each sales/designer is responsible for a project from start to finish. This could include qualifying customers, measuring jobs, creating designs, pricing materials, closing sales, writing and placing orders, supervising deliveries and installation, and, in most cases obtaining the final payment.

With this approach, the designers know all there is to know about a project, making them fluent in all aspects of the project. They have interviewed the client, identifying their basic preferences and needs, and have established an all-important trust and rapport. They have also measured the project, seeing first-hand all the little intricacies and hidden pitfalls that plague many projects. The designer is in a position to create a customized design for the client.

One advantage of the one- person-does-it-all approach is that clients need to speak to only one individual about their project. Critics of this approach might argue, of course, that if the project designer is unavailable – is out on vacation or ill, for example – client questions may go unanswered, resulting in delays and perhaps an unhappy client. They probably have a point. While companies that employ this approach generally implement backup systems to avoid these situations, the fact is it’s difficult for someone else to pick up another person’s work and be able to step in and answer questions—particularly those regarding prior dialogue of the designer and client.

Another advantage of the one-person-does-it-all approach is that it lends itself to more effective communication between vendors and contractors. Vendors send order confirmations to their dealers. The confirmation is usually verified by the designer who wrote the order, and who better to check for potentially costly errors than the person who wrote the order?

The one-person approach also enhances interactions between installers and contractors. Once a project is underway, there’s nothing more vital than being able to promptly answer queries, especially those involving job-site conditions.

Lastly, the one-person approach usually sees the designer make progress visits during the installation portion of the project. This promotes good will, since it shows concern that the project is running smoothly. On these visits, a skilled designer can do some hand-holding and provide reassurance that everything will go according to plan. And, when all is finished, and punch-lists completed, the designer will usually collect the final payment – bringing to conclusion a finished project and a satisfied client.

The ‘Team’ Approach

The team approach offers an entirely different way to offer kitchen and bath design services. This approach is based on having individuals with specific skills in key positions.

For example, there are people who meet and greet clients. These people handle initial qualifying and will try to determine if the prospect should move to the next step: a meeting with a designer. The meet-and-greet role for whotailers is usually handled by a receptionist who not only greets prospects, but also answers phones and does light clerical work.

The designer is a person with specific kitchen and bath design skills who takes prospects through the interview process, further qualifying them to determine the breadth and scope of a project. If the designer concludes that a prospect has the potential of truly becoming a client, an appointment is scheduled for the measuring team to visit the job site, measure the job and bring the information back to the designer, who will prepare all the drawings.

Next, the designer hands off the design to a project manager or other support staff member for layout and documentation preparation. The package is then given back to the designer for presentation to the client and the closing of the sale. The entire project is finally passed along to the project manager, who coordinates the critical elements for a successful project completion.

There are several advantages to this kind of team approach. The main advantage is that the tasks needed to complete a project can be handled by skilled professionals who’ve been hired and trained in a particular specialty.

Another advantage of the team approach is it can free up designers to handle several clients at a time – and generate more sales – because they are not bogged down with documentation and other tasks.

However, the argument can be made regarding the team approach that “there are too many fingers in the pie.” In other words, there’s no one person who handles all of the inquiries about a project.

Clients may also not get their questions answered as quickly as they want, leading to discontent.

Differing Approaches

Interviews with whotailer principals in different parts of the country illustrate the two different approaches to sales design and support. The interviews also illustrate that most whotailers offer unique blends of the one-person-does-it-all and the team approach. What they all agree upon, however, is the need to provide the best service possible to their customers.

Morris Black Designs is a family-owned kitchen and bath dealership, operated by Morris Black and Sons, Inc., a building industry services company founded in 1908. Morris Black Designs provides professional design services and products for new and remodeled kitchens, baths and custom interiors. Showrooms in the Lehigh Valley, Pocono Mountains and mainline Philadelphia areas serve clients throughout eastern Pennsylvania. The company’s complete turn-key services include design, sales, installation and complete customer service.

Morris Black and Sons has two approaches to offering design services. One is targeted at builder customers; the other is aimed at remodeling customers.

The builder market is serviced by outside salespeople, who call on builders and set up the process for buying cabinets from the Morris Black inventory and, in some cases, custom products. The builder is assigned to a specific designer who meets with the builder’s customers to make selections regarding styles and finishes, and to sell upgrades. The designer then closes the sale and has the builder “sign off” on the order. The designer then enters the order and gives the package to a project manager who coordinates the completion of the project.

Bob Black, v.p. of Morris Black and Sons, explains that this system “enables the organization to cover the full spectrum of builder needs, ranging from simple ‘cookie-cutters’ to custom kitchens.

“By understanding the specific needs and operating styles of their builders, the designers are able to offer a strong added-value to both the builders and their customers,” Black observes.

The remodeling side of Morris Black’s business is handled by senior designers who are typically CKDs, CBDs or CMKBDs. The senior designers meet with prospects and qualify them. The customer is then asked to sign a design agreement (which carries a fee that varies by the project or location), which results in a site visit to begin the design process.

“The senior designer then does the conceptual planning and hands it off to an associate designer who does the final drawings (except for one senior designer who likes to do his own color renderings), pricing and generation of purchase orders,” explains Bob Black.

The process continues when the senior designer meets with the remodeling customer and closes the sale. Next, the senior designer introduces the installer to the customer on the job site. Then, the package is given to a project manager for execution.

According to Black, this approach enables senior designers to close more sales.

“Senior designers and associate designers have different skill sets,” Black points out. “The seniors can concentrate on designing and selling and not have to worry about writing orders or doing fundamental drafting.

“Volume is key to this system,” Black adds. “Having an assistant for a senior with low sales volume creates higher overhead.”

A similar tactic is used by Reese Kitchen Distributors, which operates four kitchen showrooms in the Indianapolis, IN area.

Company president David Reese grew up in cabinet distribution, managing a multi-product specialty wholesale business founded in 1945 by his father and grandfather. In 1989 he and his wife Suzie, a landscape architect, started Reese Kitchens, Inc., a company specializing in cabinets and appliances that primarily sold to builders and later evolved into selling to dealers and lumber yards. Today, its strategy is to maintain builder sales and grow remodeling and retail sales. The firm is planning to add a showroom in the metro Indianapolis area.

Reese Kitchens offers two kinds of design services – limited service and full service. The firm’s limited service addresses the needs of the production builder. This is where the firm fills orders from their warehouse – in essence, repeating the same design over and over.

“A builder walks in with 10 plans and we never have to meet with the end user,” David Reese comments. “We use blended pricing to achieve ‘good,’ ‘better’ and ‘best’ for a given unit. If a builder wants his customer to meet with a designer, then we use full service.”

Full service, as explained by Reese, has customers meeting with a senior designer – a process that results in a greater profit margin than the limited service.

Here, the senior designer does the intake work, such as measuring and planning. Design assistants are offered to senior designers when their annual sales reach $1.2 million and greater. The design assistants check orders, do the ordering and check factory acknowledgements. When a package is ready, the senior designer meets with the installation manager, who prices the installation portion of the project. It then reverts to the senior designer, who makes the final presentation and closes the sale.

“By providing assistance to the senior designers, we avoid the problems associated with ‘burn-out’,” Reese explains. “The production details are left to others, while the senior designers concentrate on creative designs and sales. The benefit is that they can handle more volume.”

When comparing the two services offered by his company, Reese notes that limited service is easy to manage, whereas full service requires higher margins to cover the greater overhead created by additional staff.

Another whotailer, Fair Lawn, NJ-based Kuiken Brothers, is a leading provider of building materials, including lumber, millwork, windows, interior and exterior doors, trim, hardware and kitchens. Founded in 1912, the firm is owned and operated by the Kuiken family, and employs more than 295 people in eight locations in New Jersey and New York.

Mike Chipman is manager of the kitchen department for Kuiken, which uses the one-person-does-it-all approach almost exclusively.

According to Chipman, Kuiken Brothers is surrounded by home centers that use the team selling approach. By using a one-person-does-it-all approach, Kuiken can differentiate itself from those competitors in a positive way. He says that mid-price buyers shop the home centers, but don’t buy there because the home centers lack staff continuity, and because it is hard to find the same salesperson they began the process with there.

With his business, Chipman says, “customer see the same person when they first say hello, when they do the site survey, occasionally when they do countertop templating and generally throughout the project.”

Chipman says that designers are given support by expediters who arrange deliveries and collect balances. He adds that builders are assigned to specific designers who are more comfortable working with builders than they are in working with retail customers. If a builder is working on a development, he helps the homeowner make selections from his own models, and orders directly from Kuiken Brothers.

Then, the customer goes to one of Kuiken’s showrooms and makes selections. A budget is pre-established with a builder and contains escalation clauses that are reviewable with 60 days’ notice. Once selections have been made, designers present upgrades, with customers paying the difference when they purchase their home.

“Customers are always quoted with list price from designers, and builders sell for whatever price they choose,” Chipman explains.

He notes that Kuiken’s design specialists are comfortable dealing with homeowners and are “truly customer focused.” The company mandate, he adds, is that “they be available to answer questions about a project they started, including the installation process.”