A Little Knowledge

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but when it comes to kitchen remodeling, it pays to begin each project with a little consumer education.

Although today’s consumers have research tools at their disposal far beyond those of previous generations – from Internet sites to HGTV – that doesn’t mean they know the real truth about remodeling. In fact, while many know products (and have even done price comparisons online), and most know some of the lingo (thanks to the proliferation of design shows and shelter magazines), far fewer really understand the process of remodeling.

What’s going to happen? How long will it take? What will it really cost? Even consumers who have done their homework struggle with the enormous trust issues that go with letting a stranger tear up their home to create something new and different. Just because you, as a design professional, can look at elevations and CAD drawings, a door sample and a square of countertop material and visualize how it’s all going to come together doesn’t mean the average consumer can. And even if your clients can do this, it doesn’t mean they can imagine working and living in that space.

For that reason, educating your clients to help them better understand the process, from the preliminary drawings to the finished project – and educating yourself to your client’s unique needs, fears and desires – ­is key to having a successful remodeling experience.

The Time Factor

In a society full of fast food places that promise your order in 60 seconds or less, it’s important to make sure your clients understand that remodeling is an inexact science, and many factors can impact the time frame. These can include:

  • Delays caused by weather. Sure, your clients probably understand that tearing out a window during a rainstorm is not a good idea, but even poor weather conditions hundreds of miles away can cause shipping delays that can impact a job.
  • Delays caused by hidden problems. One of the most difficult parts of a kitchen remodel is tearing out existing products without knowing what’s behind them. Warped or damaged floor boards underneath an appliance, rusted out pipes under the sink or termite damage hidden behind old cabinets can add time and money to a job – and, unfortunately, there’s often no way to know about these until the tear out begins and the problems are exposed.
  • Delays caused by unexpected accidents. Someone trips, and a piece of moulding breaks. Or the countertop has a little crack and must be refabricated. Or the client orders a cabinet door style which the manufacturer discontinues in the interim. In any remodeling project, there are multiple moving parts, and that means there’s plenty of potential for unexpected delays.
  • Delays caused by real life. A designer’s mother passes away, and she needs time off to make arrangements. An installer gets the flu. The client leaves the key for the installer, but forgets to provide the security code, and a full day of work is lost. In real life, everything doesn’t run perfectly. Building in some “cushion” time can help things flow smoothly even when real life does intervene.
  • Delays caused by client changes. If the client suddenly decides, for instance, that she’d like a double-bowl sink instead of the single-bowl one she picked out, that may mean fabricating a whole new top. This not only causes immediate delays, it can also “bump” other tradespeople, causing a snowball effect of delays. Your customers need to know that any changes they make to the project after everyone has okayed the plan will cause delays – and they should be asked to sign off on such delays to avoid later conflicts.
  • Delays caused by non-payment. Clients need to understand the payment schedule, and recognize that delaying payment will delay the job getting done. Ongoing communication throughout the project, a clear understanding of how problems will be resolved and an easy-to-understand contract spelling out the terms of the agreement will help prevent clients from withholding payment over he said/she said issues.

One last tip: Don’t just take your clients’ word for it when they say they understand about the time factor – spell it out in detail. Many a client has been known to say “I’m not in a rush with this,” when they really meant, “I’ve already promised my extended family of 35 that I’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner in my new kitchen four weeks from today, so it better be done on time!” Clients need to know that it is never a good idea to remodel the kitchen for a specific occasion – Thanksgiving, someone’s graduation, grandma’s birthday – ­any more than they would buy a new car on the spur of the moment for a road trip. Rather, clients should remodel a kitchen because they want to enjoy the long-term benefits of a beautiful, functional space that will enhance their lives for years to come. A new kitchen is an investment, and like any good investment, should be made wisely, with time, thought and careful planning.

Financial Planning
Everyone knows the importance of qualifying clients early in the sales process. But that’s only a small part of the financial education process.

While high-end clients may not be concerned about price, they still need to understand what they are getting for their money, and why it will add value to their homes and their lives. If your consumer base is not exclusively the luxury market, they will need to know about financing options, whether you offer financing or not.

And all clients, regardless of their financial situation, need to know what price estimates mean, what they cover and don’t cover, and how changes made after the fact will change those estimates.

They need to know how they will be billed for your products and services, and when. Particularly if you’re not a turnkey operation, they need to know what services you will be providing as part of your estimate, and what they will have to pay outside tradespeople or contractors for – and they need to know what to expect, cost-wise, from these outside workers so they can budget accordingly.

Be as specific as possible; “hidden” costs are one of the biggest causes of client complaints later on. And it’s not necessarily about the money – even upscale clients to whom money is not an issue can become difficult if they feel something has been “pulled over” on them.

Independent designers, especially, should be careful to outline what their services include. Consumers tend to forget that a designer’s time is worth money, and it’s not uncommon to have clients blithely drag their designers to outside venues to look at lighting fixtures, flooring or appliances, only to be stunned later when they are billed for this time. Be specific about what your fees are and what they include, and what services will incur extra fees.

One of the biggest complaints from both consumers and designers is a perceived lack of honesty when it comes to costs. Clients will often “lowball” their stated budget, dealers say, making it impossible to come up with a realistic plan, while consumers say they downgrade their initial stated budget because they believe dealers will deliberately go over it.

Don’t make assumptions about clients’ financial situation, but rather, try to get a clear picture of what they’re comfortable spending, and do your best to work within that budget.

If budget is a concern, or you’re having trouble getting a fix on what your clients are comfortable spending, offering “good,” “better,” “best” options can also help them get a better grasp on what their dollars will buy.

Design for Life

While clients may not readily admit, “If wine spills on the countertop, it may stay there for the better part of the day until someone gets around to cleaning it here,” these same clients are not going to be happy with a porous stone countertop that stains easily – and permanently.

And, if this happens six months after the job is completed, they’re likely to badmouth the designer for it.

Likewise, rarely will a client say, “My children are maniacs who entertain themselves by chasing the dog through the kitchen at top speed,” yet if this same family chooses those pretty etched glass inserts for the cabinet doors on the island, it could be disastrous.

For that reason, it’s critical that designers educate clients to the reality of the products they are choosing, including functional aspects (yes, that shiny surface will show fingerprints), safety aspects (no, sharp corners or glass doors at child height are not a good idea for those with small kids, no matter how pretty they look), cost aspects (yes, that beautiful double-ogee edge costs extra – though well worth it), and maintenance aspects (sure, natural stone looks great if you’re willing to seal it regularly, but if you still haven’t sent in that camera warranty from last May, perhaps you’d be better with a lower-maintenance surface like solid surface or quartzite).

Remember, when you educate yourself to how they live, you’re also educating them how to choose products that they will be happy with –­ not just the day the kitchen is done, but for years to come.

Installation Preparation
Whether you use staff installers or subs – or even if your clients choose to use their own installers – the installation process is the one phase that can make or break a job in terms of client satisfaction. After all, this is usually where clients experience the most discomfort.

Think about it: There’s the noise. The mess. The constant influx of people coming and going until the client’s private sanctuary begins to resemble Grand Central Station. And, of course, the lack of access to the central room of the home often leaves clients feeling like refugees in their own houses, unable to walk freely without tripping over wires, boxes or people.

Water or electricity being shut off can also translate into cranky, stressed out homeowners, as can lack of access to such basic essentials as morning coffee, refrigerator, oven, etc. And there’s no question that stressed out clients are more likely to find fault with everything and anything.

But it’s not just the discomfort that makes this such a crucial time – it’s also perhaps the most critical stage of a project in terms of the potential for things going wrong.

Everyone has experienced (or has heard) a horror story of mouldings being forgotten, appliance panels not fitting, countertops that should be flush leaving big gaps because someone mismeasured, even cabinets being installed upside down.

Or perhaps the cabinets were supposed to be white but came in eggshell instead, and the installers didn’t check this carefully and started putting them up anyway. Now half the kitchen is torn out, the client is furious and the expenses are piling up – and re-ordering the correct cabinets will take weeks.

Equally frightening for consumers can be such unexpected dangers as children getting into sharp tools, pets escaping through open doors or electrical or fire hazards resulting from clients temporarily relocating appliances to unsuitable places.

So, how do you prepare clients for this very important phase? Here are some tips:

  • Explain what, exactly, clients can expect during the installation period, including who will be in their home and when, what will be done, how long it will take, and what kind of clean up they can expect at the end of the day. Be sure to explain what happens if something breaks or is damaged, so there’s no question of “he said/she said” after the fact.
  • Discuss with clients what functions will be “out of commission,” and work with them to find temporary solutions. Perhaps the laundry room can serve as a makeshift kitchen, or a coffee pot and microwave can be set up in another room to facilitate light meals and snacking.
  • If possible, arrange for the clients to meet the installers prior to the start of the job. A short “getting to know you” meeting where the installers can address any immediate questions or concerns will help allay client fears, and will reduce their unease at having “strangers” in their home.
  • Be absolutely honest about the time frame to the best of your ability. Clients need to know how long they will not have access to their sink, oven, etc. While some small jobs are easy to estimate, others are more complicated, so if you’re not sure, don’t give clients the “best case scenario” estimate. It’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver, rather than having to make excuses after the fact.
  • If possible, arrange to be at the client’s house the first day of the installation to double check products, finishes, etc., and to facilitate the client-installer relationship. Remember, you are their go-to person, you are the person they hired, and they trust you to make sure they end up with their dream kitchen. Live up to that trust, and your referral business will never dry up.
  • Make sure everyone has each other’s phone numbers, including home, work and cell. If the client will be out of the house while work is being done, it’s important that the installer has access, including any security codes.
  • Be sure your clients make appropriate plans for their pets. Cats and dogs should be confined to a separate area of the home during the work day to avoid pets escaping through open doors or getting into trouble. Even friendly dogs can become overly protective of the home when strangers are constantly traipsing in and out, or react negatively to strange noises, food dishes being moved, etc. To avoid accidents, you might want to suggest that the client board or daycare dogs during this phase (perhaps you can work with a local boarding facility to offer discounts to your clients?).
  • Likewise, bird and reptile cages and aquariums should be relocated away from noise and dust, and all should be covered to protect against toxic fumes, cold drafts from open doors, dust, etc.
  • Talk to clients about their normal schedules. Some people are up at six; others don’t get up until much later. Your clients should know what “normal” installation hours are, and whether there is any flexibility in this schedule. Since installers generally start in the early a.m. to maximize daylight hours, you can help clients on a later schedule handle this inconvenience by suggesting that they start to adjust their sleep schedule a week before the work begins to avoid adding “overtired” to an already difficult time.
  • Just as clients expect installers to be polite and courteous, clients need to understand that installers deserve the same respect. That means children cannot be playing chase through the work area, the family rottweiler should not be chained up two feet away, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity, and wannabe handymen should not be giving advice that they saw on last week’s “This Old House.”

Be a Resource
Of course you can’t do all the hand holding your clients might like, but you can certainly provide them with some tools to help them better prepare for the remodeling process. Offering free monthly or quarterly seminars is a great way to educate potential clients while making yourself known as a design and remodeling expert.

Likewise, if your showroom doesn’t already have it, consider adding a library that clients can take advantage of to educate themselves. Include design and remodeling books, magazines, product information, lists of frequently asked questions, lists of Web sites that provide useful information (perhaps with a computer station so they can surf these “favorite sites), even tapes of TV and radio shows that you feel might be valuable to them.

Advertise your “resource room” to the community at large, so even those just thinking about remodeling will know they can visit you and have access to this valuable resource.

This will pay double dividends – it will bring potential clients to you while they’re still in the early (research) stages, before they’ve considered shopping around at other firms, and it will provide you with better educated clients who have realistic expectations, and who are therefore more likely to end up as satisfied customers.

Janice Costa is editor of KBDN and co-author of, Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Remodel Your Kitchen Without Losing Your Mind, published by Andrews McMeel. Information for the above story has been excerpted from the book. Click here to purchase a copy, or for discounted pricing on showroom orders, contact Judi Marshall at Andrews McMeel Publishing: phone: 816-360-6823; email: jmarshall@amuniversal.com.