Doing More with Less

Window and door specialty retailers look to invest in efficiencies
Christina Lewellen
May 15, 2012
FEATURE ARTICLE | Operations
The degree to which window and door companies were impacted by the economic downturn may vary significantly, but it’s a safe bet to assume that every single one was affected in some way, shape or form. Today—looking to brighter days ahead—many companies are still trying to do more with less, fighting the necessity to pass price increases on to their customers and trying to take customer service to a whole new level of competitive differentiation.
Window and door specialty retailers have adapted to the new economic paradigm by seeking operational efficiencies that deliver the most return for the smartest investment. From technology to training, marketing to hiring practices, making the time and effort to improve operations can separate the pack in terms of which dealers succeed in today’s market, company executives report. And although operational enhancements often require a financial investment, targeting the right problem to address is often more impactful than the amount of money the company has to spend.
Here is a look at the top operational efficiencies window and door dealers have tackled in the last year or so.
1. Going paperless. Moving away from the paper shuffle of days-gone-by continues to be among the most common operational improvements made by window and door dealers. The shift not only saves time, but eliminates costly mistakes, notes Jim Lett, president of A.B.E. Doors & Windows, Allentown, Pa., whose company recently purchased a high-speed scanner. “We email proposals to customers rather than waiting for pick-up and delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. Both scanning and email have also reduced mounds of paper clutter.” Lett reports that his office manager not only saves time in filing, but can also locate documents much faster when they’re just a mouse click away.
“Because home improvement professionals are busy juggling so much, they need tools that help them save time and become more organized,” says Jason Barr, COO of Improveit! 360, a supplier of business applications for home improvement dealers. New mobile apps from his company are designed to help executives and sales personnel access to important sales and customer information while on the road or on a job site.
2. Hire key people. Having properly-trained employees in key positions within a company can also deliver operational bang for the buck. Windows & Doors by Brownell, a New England-based Marvin dealer with several locations, undertook a project recently to overhaul its installed sales division. The company’s former business model had reached capacity and executives recognized that reworking the installed sales process to allow for increased volume would be the key to growth moving into the future. The company began with an extensive evaluation of its former process, says April Bolin. “During this time, it became apparent that there were some inefficiencies,” she explains. “Mainly, we were missing key staff in the installed sales division, including an installed sales manager and an installation project manager. The addition of these staff members has allowed both our salespeople and our installation technicians to operate more efficiently.”
Troy Jenkins of Walker Windows, an Anaheim, Calif.-based dealer, agrees that additional, qualified staff can often make a notable impact on the operations in a growing company. “What we have been working on this year to improve our operations is hiring additional and more qualified team members,” he notes. “With the opportunities for more work increasing, we are making preparations to handle this additional workload with more and better team members.”
3. Invest in training. Beyond hiring qualified employees, window and door retailers are also finding that investments in training programs can help leverage the skills of the employees they already have on the payroll. As industry regulations and best practices continue to evolve, so too must the training dealers provide their employees. John Nelson of Austin Retrofit, an Austin, Texas-based window and door company, reports that his company has invested in several installation training programs to make sure the company’s crews are operating at a highly-efficient and accurate level in the field. “[We have been] taking advantage of all available educational resources available, including InstallationMasters, several window and door manufacturers’ certified installation programs and various apps that can educate our employees on different installation methods that can improve energy efficiency,” he notes.
This type of training is important, Nelson adds, as energy codes and marketplace demand concerning energy efficiency continues to evolve at a rapid pace. “It helps all our employees’ self esteem—any of them can converse with the homeowner about any subject and it gives an overall impression of our company as being well educated in our field.”
4. Adopting new technologies. The explosion in smart phone and tablet use and the development and adoption of apps are a hot topic at most  window and door companies, with executives looking at new tools designed for marketing, sales, managing orders and personnel and a variety of other tasks. Many dealers are moving to adopt mobile technologies, but they also note the learning curve and investment threshold must make sense for the return.
“We are looking into other forms of technology, such as iPads for sales presentations, credit card processing on the job site, etc., but have not yet found anything that would be easy to implement and cost effective,” says Lett. “We have purchased a couple of iPads to improve on communication and scheduling amongst our management team,” says Walker Windows’ Jenkins.
Other companies have been quick to embrace iPad and tablet technology to assist in streamlining operations and educating consumers. "The iPad is one of the greatest educational tools we have ever seen as people learn more by 'touching' rather than 'telling,'" notes Michael Foit, president of Apex Energy Solutions. "We actually used 'touch tablets' back in 2008—two years before iPad was released—so we had already learned what worked and what didn't and so when iPad came out we poured 10 years of work into it. Once you create a visual—an expectation for what a product does or doesn't do—you generally can add value as now you have empowered the customer. They will pay more if you eliminate the guessing game."
 
  
 Hansons Windows, a Michigan dealer, has introduced interactive kiosks in shopping malls to engage consumers and enhance operations.

Tech-savvy marketing is being explored by many dealers. Hansons Windows, a  Michigan-based dealer, has recently introduced interactive kiosks in several shopping malls, giving consumers a chance to sample roofing, window and siding projects and ideas. Virtual animation enables kiosk visitors to open and close windows and visualize even the smallest of product details. “Along with our very successful marketing efforts and state-of-the-art online presence, we have added kiosks at the area’s busiest malls, making the selection process easier for our customers,” notes Brian Elias, owner and president of the company.

Using app-based technology helps consumers focus on the "tangible" of what they're buying, notes Foit, which helps Apex make the most of every lead. "It helps separate us from competitors who are less concerned with value-added products and more concerned with just selling windows," he says.

Apex also enjoys another benefit from its efforts to embrace the latest technology, Foit adds. "As it turns out, helped us attract a younger, more educated workforce."

5. Study operational performance. Identifying the operational speed bumps in a business is the first step down the path to greater efficiencies and opportunities for improvements. Before Windows & Doors by Brownell went out and hired additional team members for its installed sales operations, officials had to first conduct a thorough operational review to identify the true nature of the company’s performance. “The need for an improved business model in the installed sales division was brought to light when a new CRM system, Core, was put in place in 2010,” recalls Bolin. “With the addition of Core, we were able to effectively track and analyze data in the installed sales division. Once we had input enough data into Core to get statistically-significant information back out of it, we were able to highlight the areas that needed our focus.”

Holding a mirror up to business operations can come in the form of software tracking and measuring results, but operational challenges can also be identified through good old fashioned customer and employee feedback as well.
“Most of our operational improvements come from within the company and customer feedback," says Lett. "Every December, we send a survey to our employees asking what they like about working at A.B.E. Doors & Windows, what they don't like, what they would do differently if they owned the company and any suggestions they might have for improvement. Our management team reviews the responses and uses this information for prioritizing the next year's business plan."
Finding the challenges in operations can sometimes be as easy as paying attention to the books, says Jenkins. "What helps me the most in recognizing areas within my organization that need improvements is the monthly [profit and loss] statements from my accounting software and reviewing my payroll," he says. "I have structured these to sources of information in a way that, when I review, I can recognize areas within my operation where mistakes are being made or where improvements are needed."
 

 

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.