Growing in Tough Times

John G. Swanson
October 20, 2008
COLUMN : Opening Remarks

People have called me a cynic. And given today's economic environment, I am certainly a realist. A recent panel presentation held in conjunction with the Remodeling Show in Baltimore, however, gave me pause, and suggested to me that perhaps I should improve my attitude.

The session, hosted by Ply-Gem Windows, featured window dealers enjoying increased sales despite the tough times. One key ingredient they seemed to agree on was keeping a positive attitude. "We decided we were not going to participate in the current economy," said Vaughn McCourt of Penguin Windows, a replacement window specialist based in Mukilteo, Wash. (His company also happens to be one of our Dealers of the Year, featured on page 34 of this issue.) Success and sales are all about "attitude," he noted. Poor expectations can be "self-fulfilling." If a salesperson gets a lead and thinks it's bad, he won't be successful, he explained. With today's economy, some homeowners are struggling, he continued, while adding that there are still plenty of potential buyers out there; if they are pursued aggressively, they will buy.

Doug Dousseau of Midwest Home Design of Fort Wayne, Ind., shared that perspective. "We don't try to sell windows to people who don't have jobs," he said, "but there's plenty of opportunities out there in the market still."

Of course, there was more to the current success of these firms than a good attitude. It was also clear they were all investing significant time into working smarter and really meeting-and hopefully exceeding-customer expectations. His firm started growing, Dousseau added, when "I stopped working in my business, and started working on it." Rather than getting involved in day-to-day activities, he explained, he now focuses on "systems and culture." That has led to the creation of true selling systems that work. "We're able to do more with less."

"We've put the focus on efficiency," said Keith Smallwood of Creative Energy Exteriors in Richmond, Va. The company keeps close tabs on all its activities. "We have metrics in marketing. If we get poor results, we cut something out. Same for our salespeople," he added. That has led to increased turnover in sales, but it has also meant the company is "attracting more talent and keeping it."

"It's not one thing, but we're trying to work smarter," reported Peter Fitzpatrick, president of P.J. Fitzpatrick in New Castle, Del. A major goal of those efforts, he added, was to "elevate the customer experience." Almena Faux, who directs marketing and events for the firm, agreed with other panelists on the importance of attitude, but also stressed "training, training, training." The company spends hours and hours on regular training for all employees, whether they are involved in sales, installation or any other activity. Employees understand how important everything they do is when it comes to pleasing the customer, and in the end that translates to more referrals, which are by far the best leads.

That sentiment was echoed by Smallwood, who noted, "We have to make sure we fulfill the promise made at the table." While the company uses numerous lead generation methods, satisfying existing customers and earning their referrals is key.

Most of us understand the need to work smarter. I bet there's more than a few of you out there like me who wishes he or she could, like Dousseau suggested, work on their business rather than in it. I'd also like to find new ways to "elevate the customer experience."

I don't want to be too hasty to dismiss the "power of positive thinking" message shared by these dealers, however. I would not try to tell manufacturers, distributors and dealers to "buck up" and things will improve. I know that overall window and door sales are down significantly. If you've been selling new construction windows to tract builders for the past 10 years, it's harder to turn that ship around than it is to re-target efforts at a specialty retail operation.

In this issue, we feature an article by Rick Davis, an industry sales consultant with Building Leaders Inc. Offering advice on "selling through the tough times," he makes the very simple point that complaining about the current market won't help. Time spent developing new strategies is much more likely to produce results.

Personally, I consider myself an optimist, but I admit I don't maintain a positive attitude all the time. Perhaps an attitude adjustment would do me good. How about you? Rather than focusing on the unemployment numbers and the latest report of declining new home sales, let's remember the vast majority of Americans are still employed and that homes are still being built and fixed up. The challenges are there, but the can-do entrepreneurial spirit shared by many in this industry can take us a long way, particularly if we focus on working smarter.