Learning to Listen Between the Lines

It's that time of year again, as I deck the halls and prowl the malls, trying to find the perfect gift for a too-long list of people. In an effort to be more efficient in my shopping (and avoid lapsing into a state of overwhelmed "I don't know what to buy for anyone, but boy are those blue topaz earrings cute, maybe I should get a pair for myself" shopping stress), I take an informal poll of friends asking them what they would like for the holidays.

Laura would like more free time, a lower-stress job and a magic potion to make her kids shut up on command.

Marcia would like a rich husband who loves her dog.

And Steve would just like me to stop calling him during Monday Night Football to ask stupid questions about shopping (unless my house is burning down, in which case it's okay if I call during the commercial break and keep it to 30 seconds or less).

At the end of my impromptu survey, I'm thinking I'll be seeing blue topaz earrings in my future, since no one has given me the answers I was looking for. But then, I consider what I've learned and realize my friends' non-materialistic needs might still provide me with some good clues for finding just the right gifts (even if no one has yet invented an e-gifts version of "RichHusbandsWhoLovetheDog.com").

Surveys, I've found, are a great way to acquire interesting information though not always the information you were originally seeking. But sometimes, if you're open to listening to things you didn't necessarily ask to hear, you can learn as much from what people don't say as what they do.

I discovered this first hand when I looked at the results of two recent K&BDN surveys. The first, conducted for our November 2004 issue, asked dealers about the most critical issues facing the industry today. And while the number one issue improving profit margins was no surprise, what dealers did not list atop their critical issues list was equally fascinating. For instance, "home center competition" and "finding new customers" long viewed as key issues among kitchen and bath dealers were cited by only a minority of dealers, ranking all the way down the bottom on the list of critical issues, in fifth and sixth place, respectively.

Likewise, "finding quality personnel" 'cited as a top concern in a similar survey just two years ago barely made the list.

What does this tell us about our industry? Plenty if we're willing to listen to what isn't being said. For instance, does dealers' lack of concern with finding quality personnel imply that employee shortages are a thing of the past or that talented staffers are no longer essential to the runnings of their business? Probably not. But what it may be telling us is that dealers have stopped trying to find the "perfect" employee, and have, instead, committed to investing in training their existing employees, in order to build a stronger workforce.

What dealers and designers didn't put on their critical issues list clearly is every bit as enlightening as what they did list.

Oh, sure, there were dealers who said they'd like to see improvements in design software, in online ordering and in the speed of loading Web sites. But what wasn't evident was the fear of technology that just a few short years ago seemed to be as paralyzing to many dealers as the fear of home centers used to be which has since become just another reality of our industry, something dealers have come to accept and address with increasing savvy.

All of us at K&BDN wish you a joyous holiday season and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2005!