Strictly Commercial: Tips for Installers and Dealers Considering Making the Leap to Commercial
April 14, 2009
Residential installers and dealers often make the move to commercial sales and installation as a way to expand their business or take advantage when residential sales slow down and commercial is strong. I experienced this myself and it is not as easy as you think. I grew up mostly on the residential side of the business, and spent my first 14 “full time” years running a retail store before I moved over to the commercial side in 1992 as a manufacturer’s rep and eventually to owning my own company in sales, technical support and consulting. I have been fascinated how the two sides of the business are different from each other, not only in business practices but in the products that get installed and specialized installation techniques that are needed on one side but not the other.
Since this is “Let’s Talk Resilient,” I’ll talk about unique complications for commercial resilient, but regardless of the type of flooring you specialize in, there are things that are different from the residential business, including estimating, pricing, and substrate preparation.
A retailer can easily make more of a push into “Main Street Commercial,” a term used for the small commercial jobs that a lot of dealers get involved in with for local businesses or existing residential customers that prefer to “keep it local” and/or have their work done by someone they trust. This negotiated work tends to be profitable because it usually does not go out to bid, so this is a good place to start to try to build your business. Resilient flooring work usually involves VCT or other resilient tile, and an occasional sheet vinyl or stair tread job. The more different products you are familiar with and can install successfully, the more high ticket resilient flooring sales you can offer your customer. For example, instead of assuming the resilient has to be VCT, offer a nice wood look or stone look solid vinyl – you may be surprised that your customer is willing to spend a few more dollars for a better look. The same goes for stairways. We have discussed the details of how to install resilient stair treads and both the dealer and installer can make a good sale on these jobs, while offering the customer a durable, safe and good looking option for the stairs in their building.
Growing your “Main Street” business into a larger volume negotiated commercial requires adjustments to be made by installers and dealers together in order to stay competitive for those times when your good customer gets another price. Square foot pricing for the labor part of the job needs to be adjusted downward, as do the dealer margins. You can “make it up on volume” as they say – you can’t make as much per square foot doing commercial but you will have more square feet. Additional time needs to be kept in mind as the jobs get larger also. From cutting and delivering the job to moisture testing and floor preparation, to just managing the job and making sure everyone that is on it is doing the right thing, there is a lot more that goes into larger commercial jobs.
For the dealer, growing your commercial business is also about marketing, which does not necessarily mean spending a lot of money, but it does mean spending some time. Get to know architects and design firms in your area, and encourage them to contact you when they start to work on projects that include floor covering. Start networking by joining the chamber of commerce, the local American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapter, the Rotary Club or other business groups where you will meet other business people who surely will need floors at some point in time. A lot of those members go out of their way to support fellow members. Maybe most important for marketing is to make sure your website is up to date. You don’t have a website and think you don’t need one? As you are saying that business is passing you by because the majority of consumers for residential and commercial floor coverings do a lot of research on the internet. They may not buy floors on the web but they certainly will look for information and if you are there they will check you out! But, I digress – this is all about installation after all.
For the residential installer that wants to do more commercial resilient, training is going to be necessary to learn new products and techniques. Resilient products like natural linoleum and cork flooring are making a comeback because of the trend towards more “green” flooring choices and these products are often misunderstood. They are different from vinyl from an installation and maintenance point of view so it pays to learn about their unique characteristics so you become the specialist who can handle these products when your competitor cannot. Installers and dealers who can handle more specialized commercial products such as heat welded and flash coved sheet products, safety flooring, athletic flooring, raised access floors and other products in the specialty resilient flooring category will be in a good place because in many markets there is shortage of companies who understand these products, not to mention skilled installers to do this type of work. If you can do it, you have a good shot at getting the work. We have covered these products in great detail here in this column and many of the manufacturers offer training seminars to help you learn how these floors need to be installed.
I devoted my entire July 2007 column to commercial floor preparation because substrate preparation is another area that often has different requirements for commercial jobs. Self-leveling underlayment is a rapidly growing category, especially for renovation projects. Even though the products cost more, they save so much time over multiple layers of troweled patching compound that many owners and general contractors are willing to pay more for a faster job. In addition, colored underlayments are growing in use as a finished floor covering so that is another growth area, but that is a competitor to resilient so we won’t discuss that any further. The major manufacturers of underlayment offer excellent training classes to help you learn, so take advantage of it!
Concrete moisture testing is a subject you should have been paying attention to in residential work, but if you weren’t now is the time to start to learn about it if you go commercial. The jobs are larger so moisture related failures can cost installers and retailers a lot of money. The floor covering industry prefers independent testing, as per the Floor Covering Industry White Paper Position Statement on Moisture Emission Testing (available for free download at www.FCICA.com or www.WFCA-pro.com.) However, we really are not there yet so it is important that installers learn how to do the tests that are referenced in published guidelines by Floor Covering and adhesive manufacturers, and ASTM Standards. ASTM F 1869, known as the Calcium Chloride test, measures Moisture Vapor Emission rate (MVER) from the top of the concrete slab at a depth of approximately 0.8”. ASTM F 2170, known as the Relative Humidity test, measures moisture at a depth of 40% of the slab. ASTM F 710 specifies pH testing at the surface of the slab. You need to learn and understand these tests because awareness is growing and more and more people in the design and construction industry are looking for this information.
These are just a few tips for getting into the commercial business. Assuming you are successful in growing your business you may decide to dip your toes in the water of larger jobs that are bid to general contractors. Estimating and pricing large commercial jobs is challenge because the quantities are so large and the stakes are high if you make an error. Add to this the time crunch to get your quote in on time and get the job in on time and this makes estimating one of the most important parts of the job. As soon as it is affordable, make the investment to hire an experienced estimator, who can really help the sales team grow their business and can be a valuable resource to installers too because of their knowledge of the commercial market.
There are a lot of companies and organizations that can help you with training for installers, store owners and salespeople in products and installation details for commercial resilient flooring. For example, there are excellent manufacturer-run training programs in linoleum, commercial vinyl flooring, self leveling underlayment, and more so ask your manufacturers what they have available. Many times they are anxious to run some local training programs and just waiting for you to ask them.
To learn about substrates and moisture testing, IICRC (Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification) offers “Introduction to Substrate/Subfloor Inspections” which is taught through IICRC Accredited schools. You can learn more at www.iicrc.org. In addition, there are trade associations that you can join that will be a big help. FCICA is the Flooring Contractor’s Association, a great organization geared to the commercial floor covering sector, whether you are already deep into commercial work or just starting out in the commercial side. FCICA membership is an opportunity to learn from some experienced and successful people who are generous with what they know. Find them at www.fcica.com
At the very least, keep reading! Read some of the many articles that have been published here in FCI, which are available on the FCI website, www.fcimag.com. I also archive all of the columns I have written on my website, www.flooringanswers.com.