Moving forward, customer service will be increasingly critical in the kitchen and bath industry. With instant access to information about products and prices, there are few surprises left for today’s consumer when he or she walks into a showroom. Therefore, it will most likely be the level of customer service that will differentiate one showroom from another – today, and in the future.
In this area, the role of the designer becomes more critical than ever, as the designer is often the biggest differentiator for a showroom or firm when it comes to customer service, and the remodeling experience as a whole.
Granted, the definition of customer service may differ from one customer to another – and even from one showroom operator to another. Customer service might refer to how quickly or efficiently a service representative attends to a customer’s needs. It could refer to a service representative’s knowledge of his or her product and his or her ability to answer a customer’s questions about the products.
Or, customer service may refer to an overall attitude of the showroom staff. Is the showroom environment upbeat and friendly? Do customers feel welcome, or do they feel that they are burdening the staff?
Remember that customers can choose where they shop, and the emotional connection they make with your showroom is likely to determine, in large part, whether they want to be your customer.
A KEY ASSET
Your design staff should be considered a key asset in your customer service efforts. Have you considered the additional value your designers can offer to your customers? Is it possible that a creative, talented and service-oriented designer may be the difference between losing potential customers and gaining repeat business?
Before the information revolution, a showroom was usually the first stop consumers made as they embarked on their kitchen or bathroom renovation journey. That was where they learned about what products and styles were available. Today, consumers are far more likely to have a good idea about what cabinets, countertops and appliances they want to install long before they enter the showroom.
Once they step inside, the level of service they receive is likely to determine whether they are going to buy from you or not. Service is why they are there. Without the expectation of service, the consumer can order many of the necessary products off the Internet, shopping strictly on price.
In a service-based market, you may want to think about whether you are using your design staff in the best way to create happy customers who will provide referrals for years to come.
“I think companies that make their designers a secondary part of their operation are really missing out on a lot of opportunities,” opines Tracy Rendina, owner of Harlequin Design Studio, a kitchen and bath showroom and design center outside Cleveland. “A designer is crucial. Very often, a customer is buying the designer more so than a specific product or brand. An experienced and knowledgeable designer connects with customers and makes the whole process go more smoothly. For a customer who is starting on a complicated, often stressful project, that connection can be invaluable.”
I agree that a designer can be crucial, especially a designer who also can sell – and close the deal – in addition to his or her designing skills.
People do buy from people. How you engage and connect to the consumer can be more important than your displays themselves. As an owner, it’s critical to remember that your people are your brand.
EMPHASIS ON DESIGN
Tracy's showroom goes against the norm because she was a designer first, then a seller of cabinets. Instead of adding the designing element to an existing showroom, she was an independent designer who recently decided to open a showroom.
Before going on her own, she worked as a designer for two retailers. One of them, she said, delighted its customers by offering start to finish designing that included home visits and in-depth consulting sessions. At the other, she says, she felt more like an order taker than a designer.
“I didn’t feel much like a part of the process,” she explains. “We sketched layouts based on the customers’ measurements and there wasn’t a lot of creativity involved. I felt like all I was doing was putting boxes on walls. I think it made a big difference in the quality of the final product. Down the road, that is something that may cost a showroom a lot of business. People will go where they are going to get more attentive service. An amazing number of people are surprised when I suggest something as simple as a trash pull-out. Trash pull-outs have been around for decades, yet nobody had even suggested it before.”
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you go to market, there are too many designers in our industry who have, for whatever reason, drifted into becoming more transactional in their selling. Before I get a bunch of letters that address this as a personal concern, consider that the trend of more quoting and cross bidding that has occurred during the last four to five year has, in many cases, worn designers down. It has, at times, caused some designers to lose sight of why they are in the kitchen and bath industry – sort of like having the fun kicked out of us due to the pressures of sustainability in such challenging markets.
Without question, recent years have put us in a game where the customer holds all the cards. So, as the market starts to improve, we will need to take a fresh breath and reengage with a positive outlook. We need to ensure that opportunities are not missed because we have become more transactional vs. consultative in connecting with consumers. Consumers are more knowledgeable today and will continue to be so from now on with the wealth of information in the palm of their hands – literally, thanks to smart phones and Google searches.
TOUTING YOUR SERVICE
Design Surfaces Kitchen and Bath, with two showrooms outside of Cleveland, is a family-owned business that specializes in granite and other natural stone for home improvement projects. The firm’s recent marketing efforts have focused on its in-house design services.
“We want to get the word out that we have talented and experienced decorators and designers on staff who can help customers to make decisions and give them peace of mind when they are selecting materials,” explains David Coticchia, third generation co-owner. “We have learned that home remodeling is an emotional experience. People are nervous about making the right decisions because most of the time, they are decisions that they are going to have to live with for a long time. But also because kitchens and bathrooms are usually the two most expensive rooms in the house to remodel, so people have a financial interest in making the right decision.”
He continues, “We feel that our designers play an important role in offering direction to our customers. People come in and they see what products are available, but many of them immediately get overwhelmed by all the choices.
Having that expert with designing experience who can be a sounding board makes most customers feel that they are heading in the right direction.”
Notice that David specifies the designer acting as a “sounding board” – a partner in the process – instead of controlling what the customer decides.
THE DESIGNER DIFFERENCE
Your designer, depending on his or her role within the showroom, can make all the difference to your business and the reputation of your showroom.
Customer service, including consultative design, will be a critical part of the kitchen and bath firm going forward.
My most recent columns all have included Generation Y. That’s because the impact and influence of this new generation of consumer cannot be over-estimated. I sit back and study how Generation Y is changing our world. They are our largest generation ever, and probably the biggest generations to have service jobs as their first roles in business. With training in this area of how to treat the consumer, they will expect a quality service experience. They will reward those who stack up to what they expect as they age, increase their income and begin to make bigger ticket purchases.
Now is the time to consider your staffing plan. Be ready for our next wave of opportunity in selling kitchen and bath products to three generations of consumers. How will you value, position and define the person and the role in your business? Who is in the best position of influence with your customer?