A builder friend of mine, Ron Cassella, commented on what it takes to "know the customer." Most of his work is concentrated in downtown Albany, which is the historic area of the city. Period homes with strict historical renovation guidelines from the color of your house to the placement of an outside air conditioner.
By the way, most of Ronnie’s customers are female. Ronnie has seen this change over the past 10 years—prior to that time Ronnie was used to working with men and most of his work was supervising large roofing crews. When the market changed, so did Ronnie.
Lis: What makes a good customer?
Ronnie: A customer that is educated on the process. I spend considerable time educating my customers on the process. What it takes to renovate a house and what costs. For instance customers want you to shop with them and help them pick out the right things—especially women. They want to build a relationship with you and sometimes jobs take years to complete so you have that relationship. But I have to charge for shopping! One hour is precious to me. So first I educate customers on the process of renovation.
Lis: Have the home shows hurt or helped your business?
Ronnie: They have done both. Sometimes I think they watch too much Bob Villa and programs like this. It looks so simple to move walls, build closets and make changes to an existing structure that customers don’t understand the costs. It’s helped give customers knowledge about what they might want. I don’t have to do all of the thinking for them. Often times the customer can be very creative which makes for more interesting work as well a increasing the scope of the project—they get these ideas from the television shows.
Lis: What’s been your biggest influence in your business?
Ronnie: I grew up with 10 sisters, and I was the youngest child. They taught me how to dress, to pay attention to detail and to understand color and cooking; in order to survive I had to learn skills that I would have never learned. All of these things are skills and interests that most women have; it’s helped me build rapport and trust with my customer.
Lis: What was the hardest thing for you to learn through the years?
Ronnie: I think it was understanding that when it comes to rehab it’s never simple and once you take down a wall you never know what’s behind it or what you’ll need to do when you get there. 25 years ago I bought an 1856 shell of a house on Pearl Street in Albany and it’s been my labor of love as well as my school. I fell in love with the detail of the house; not having a lot of money, I began to work on “recreating” the look. I realized that my eye for detail and patience paid off. Those long hours I spent with my sisters proved to be valuable.
Lis: Ronnie, can you give me 10 lessons you’ve learned though the years that have helped you be a better business person.
Ronnie: Yes and most of them I learned the hard way but they’ve paid off.
Always take your customer’s phone calls. Some people send everything to voice mail; I always pick up the phone no matter what. They are always very surprised but I’ve been able to troubleshoot and prevent bigger things from occurring.
Write everything down. I get talking to customers and it’s easy to forget what you said you would do, how much time it would take or even what you talked about. Particularly if you’re doing several jobs.
Explain in detail what the customer should expect on a job. How long it should take if nothing happens after you tear the wall down.
Take photos of the job as you go along; if you rip a wall down, take a photo of it before you took it down and what it looked like after it was down. Customers can’t always remember what it looked like or how much work it took to remove the wall.
Give customers options as you go along with the work; get the customer involved with the process—give them ownership. Always remember it’s their home not yours and they should get what they want.
Never forget that you’re the expert. If it can’t be done or you think it shouldn’t be done it’s your responsibility to tell the customer and stick by your guns. Of course you have to follow your building codes and sometimes the outcome can’t be what the customer wants. Maybe it’s a transition molding that you need on the floor but the step is too high; you may be asking for a lawsuit from someone who trips on the molding. It’s not desirable to have the customer “sign off” on a procedure that you really don’t think should be done even if it falls within codes.
Get plenty of written references and photos of jobs that you’ve done. Your great customers will be happy to talk with new customers; referrals are the best business you can get and most of your business will come from referrals—I stopped advertising years ago.
Get to know your customer’s lifestyle, look at where they live and what they’ve put in their homes; what do they value? Many times I’ve had customers say they want to save money and then I remind them of how they like to live and where they invested their money in their last house. Renovating a home is an investment not an expense—it should be what you love and want and support your lifestyle. If a customer really likes to cook and entertain they shouldn’t skimp on their kitchen.
Help customers understand that changes cost money and it’s wise to think things through before they ask you to go ahead. One of my customers had three doors in this tiny room; the question was which ones should be closed and which one should be the entrance door. Believe it or not, she had me change the entrance three times. After the first one I told her that every time we changed it there would be a charge; she said keep changing it until I like it—and so we did. The best way is not always evident.
Remember the customer’s home is extremely important to them; it maybe the only home they ever renovate. You must treat each customer and each home as if it’s special—to you. Get excited, take an interest and be genuine.
"I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome while trying to succeed." - Booker T. Washington