Tom McNall

Floor Restoration Consultant

ONE of the advantages of being a small business owner over the years is getting to know my customers. It helps you to develop strong bonds of loyalty and trust – but most importantly, it also helps ensure that you get paid.

And if you’ve ever read anything written by me, you’ll know that I like to ensure that the little greenish Benjamin Franklins and I have a great relationship. But even more key to knowing your customer is also being able to see who isn’t your customer!

Now, what in the Sam Hill do I mean by knowing who isn’t my customer and why would I want to know about them? It’s simple really – sort of. You see, in the stone restoration business, obviously we want to work for people who actually have stone. Therefore, it’s a wise move to not advertise in the low rent neighborhoods. However, pre-qualifying is also a good step in guaranteeing that you don’t waste a good golf afternoon driving across town for someone who moves into a new trailer and thinks that their “faux-marble” sink is just a fancy way of saying real stone.

Another way to safeguard against losing good time and expensive gas money is by charging for an estimate. “Oh, no!” you all say, “You don’t understand this market, Tom! No one charges for estimates here. You’re crazy! We won’t get any customers.” To that I say, phooey! I still have customers. But let me qualify just how we charge.

#1) We credit the estimate cost back to the job (if approved within a reasonable time frame). So, it’s really not a cost unless the caller is a price shopper (see #4 below). A customer who owns stone, is most likely a business person (or business-minded), and understands that whether we tell you a cost upfront or not, it is going to be hidden in the cost, anyway.

#2) We do not charge repeat customers. Enough said.

#3) If a person is referred by a regular contact or previous customer, we don’t charge. Hey, if their friend or trusted colleague referred us, we have a higher closing percentage, anyway.

And finally, #4) If they got our name out of the yellow pages or a Google search (I know everyone pays big bucks to be number 1 on Google), chances are that they are a price shopper and honestly, they aren’t our customers – unless they pay the estimate fee.

My last point on charging for estimates is this – TV Repairman (yes, they still exist) will not turn a screw on the back of your set just to let you know what is wrong with it without a deposit. And this is in addition to you dropping it off. Why? Because they know that the cost of repair could outweigh the price of a newer television. It’s a gamble and they are putting the odds in their favor. Otherwise, you would just shell out the 2,500 clams and buy a brand new 50˝ LED screen.

You are hoping that the repair comes in around $500-$1,000 to keep the old one that matches the rest of your décor in that room (and save yourself 1,500+ bucks). It is no different with stone. But with stone, we have to do the schlepping to give them the estimate. And last I checked, stone is not cheap to rip out and re-install.

Another point of knowing a good customer is that, my best customers never bicker about price. Contrary to popular belief, my best and most affluent customers are not trying to stay rich by cheating those who work for them. Of course, while we are not the cheapest, we do pride ourselves on extreme quality and are priced accordingly. Anytime someone starts trying to get me to lower my price usually starts me asking them questions I already know the answer to. Answers that reveal more than the prospective customer knows.

Case in point: Last Thursday my sales guy was a little busy so he had me go price a job across town. It was a poor travertine installation with lippage on a new home. First thing he did when I walked in was lower his sq. ft. estimate from what he told my sales guy earlier. Red flag #1. When prospective customers do that, it means they are baiting you into coming to look, thinking you will make so much, but then hope you will price it at the lower figure. I told him we don’t price by sq. ft. because – we don’t.

Now, we were referred by a reputable local company, so I asked him where he bought his stone. He told me that no one local had what he needed so he bought it from the Big City (2 hrs away). Red flag #2. Travertine is every where; the local guys don’t sell cheap travertine, though – which is what he wanted. This means that there will be lots of holes to fill. And that if he was too cheap for a reputable local tile store, he is going to be cheap with me. So when I give him my price, sure enough he says, “That’s more than I paid for the floor!” to which I told him that it was still less per sq. ft. than what a good installer charges to lay travertine, and that doesn’t even include the price of the stone.

He then tells me that he has another company that says they will do it for about 2/3s of the cost, and asks me if I will match it. I’ve already figured out that this guy is not my customer so I say, “Good luck with that.”

On Friday, my sales guy asks me about the call and I filled him in. He asks if we can do it for the competitors price, to which I reply, “Of course we can, but there is a reason that everyone isn’t driving a Mercedes, now, isn’t there? This guy already cheaped out on the tile and installation. If he chooses a lower price company to restore his floor, he will get an expensive mess. With us he gets an investment.”

So, my guy calls him back to see if he can explain the difference and save the sale. He then calls me about 5 minutes later and says “You’re right, he’s not our customer, he wouldn’t budge.”

So take a guess who called me Monday afternoon and told me he lost confidence in the cheaper company and asked sheepishly if I would still honor the price quoted on Thursday? He is now a customer (of course, he may not be one of our best customers, but we will make sure he signs a contract, so we guarantee he is a paying customer) and at the price quoted.

Until next month, keep your stick on the ice.

Tom McNall is founder and owner of Great Northern Stone, an Ontario-based stone cleaning and restoration company servicing Ontario and Chicago, IL. Tom also offers corporate and private consultations as well as speaking at conventions. He can be reached at .