Now that deck season is getting into full swing, you are bound to find more customers coming in for decking estimates. Some are of course contractors or handy DIYers looking for materials to build or complete their own projects, and others are looking to you for deck construction services and advice. For either customer, the key to turning their visit into a sale and successful relationship is to have a strong understanding of deck design.
When a customer comes in to The Deck Store here in Apple Valley, Minn. we always make sure that they understand that not only are we selling materials, but we’re also experts in deck design. Without an understanding of deck design, we simply become order-takers and have little impact on a customer’s project and therefore our ability to maximize the relationship with the customer. Demonstrating that we are deck design experts, and that we can be a utility for the customer begins early in the estimate process. Often times a customer will come in with a drawing of the deck they have in mind. There are two reasons why I don’t want to see that drawing.
First, there’s a good chance that the drawing is from a competitor. If a customer is about to show me a competitor’s drawing, I politely tell them I don’t want to see it. I want to do my own work and I want my competitors to do their own work as well.
Secondly, if the customer already has their own drawing I may ask not to see it right away and instead offer to visit the site of their project and present them with a design of my own and see how they match up. As an expert with years of experience, I don’t want to lose a customer or create a sub-par project just because the customer’s design didn’t take into account all the great things that were possible with the space.
In the customer’s mind, they already have an image of the deck project that they want. By getting to know the customer, there are opportunities to get them to clearly explain it to you. They may see their neighbor’s deck, but they’re probably not seeing the code compliance issues or the problems that deck may have in the future. You need to get them to explain just enough about what they want so that you can show them why it can or can’t work for them at their location.
So many times I’ve seen plans where you couldn’t even build a deck on a house as the customer had described. If I hadn’t looked at the actual site, I would have missed basic requirements. Sometimes customers aren’t aware that a casement window won’t operate because a railing is too close, for example. When you are on site and point out that the window wouldn’t open, then that makes you an immediate expert.
In doing design work, I try to have all interested parties present as we design the deck. This allows me to create a design that serves the functionality and expectations of all the stakeholders, and ensures that the design fits the needs the end users so all will truly appreciate it.
One thing to keep in mind about visiting a project site is that it is unlikely that a customer is going to get just one estimate. If you’re the first one in and do a thorough job, you’re giving them all the information they’ll need to get others to bid against you. If you’re the last one in, they may have had some other estimates that are not so good. It’s your product and your information that you want to protect. To provide a deck estimate, or an estimate on any project, can be walking a fine line. You need to feel around if they are getting other estimates. If they are, never ask to see them. You need to be the expert, not your competitor who may have cut a lot of corners in his estimate.
Once you’ve spent some time with the customer and done a complete deck design, you’re ready to put the numbers together on this estimate. That takes experience. What I like to tell people is that the best way to know how much a deck is going to cost you is to add up all the receipts when you’re finished. With that in mind, I often times draw up two deck designs in two different price ranges. An estimate is simply an educated guess. It’s your best guess as to what it’s going to cost, but you don’t know for absolute certainty until the project is completed.
Which brings us to the real meat and potatoes part of the estimating process…pricing your estimate. We’ll get to that in next month’s column.