We’ve all heard about ways to stay productive during our “down time” – you know what  I am talking about - those times last fall and winter when you might not have been as busy as usual due to the economic situation grasping the nation and, for that matter, the world.  I have a confession concerning “this time” I need to share before we go any further, too.  I had been listening to installers, retailers, and others in the industry talk about how slow things had been for some time, yet I had always managed to stay busy and had work – I usually even had a list of waiting customers.    Then, the economy caught up with me.  I had always sympathized with those looking for and not finding work and retailers who didn’t seem to be selling anything, but I can’t say as I really understood what many of you were going through – until it hit me, that is.  For a period, I was operating in nothing more than what could be termed “survival mode.”  The only thing that made this any easier was realizing that this wasn’t happening just to me, but across the industry.  I was merely part of a brotherhood – part of a very large group dealing with the same issues.

Thinking back, I realize that perhaps the reason I stayed busy longer than most was because I install not only carpet – I am diversified and install many other types of floor coverings as well.  I have taken advantage of just about every training opportunity available to me and through my affiliation with CFI, the opportunities have been numerous.  My suggestion to each of you would be to do the same, broaden your skills, and thus, expand your opportunities.  Take advantage of all the training the industry has to offer.

Today, I want to talk to you about coming out of the “down time.”  Now, I’m not saying the rough times are completely behind us, but things do seem to be loosening up a bit – although a little more slowly in some areas than others.  However, the main thing we need to realize is that our market and our customers have changed.  Given the economic state most of our nation finds itself in, people are still somewhat afraid to spend and more geared toward saving.  They are reevaluating how they spend their money. 

I recently heard an interview with Warren Buffet and his perspective, although positive, made a big impact on me.  Since he owns a big piece of the floor covering industry and is one of the richest men in the world, I figured he knew what he was talking about.  He said he just came to the realization that new floor covering is something that people don’t really have to have – they may want it, but they don’t have to have it.  It’s just not a necessity of life.  He said the reason he wasn’t worried though, is that he knew they were still going to buy it.  They could put it off for a while, but they were going to buy it.  

This is what I meant when I said our customers have changed – maybe not forever, but I believe for a very long time to come.  And frankly, it’s not just our customers but all consumers that have changed, which is clearly evidenced by some of the commercials now airing.  That is why those of us in this industry need each other now more than ever before.  It is now even more important for installers to provide retailers and manufacturers with the quality installation of their products, leading the industry to one ultimate goal – to provide the customer with added value.

This is when the professional installers’ goal of servicing the customer to the best of our ability becomes even more important.  We have to realize that the customer may be looking for something different.  Before, most customers equated what they wanted with what they needed.  Today’s customers, however, are more cost-conscious and want to be sure they are getting what they truly need, not just what they want.  Unfortunately though, they will often settle for less than what they need, based on what their budget allows.  Our job as quality installers is to make sure that the customer is getting the best job possible for the dollars they have to spend.  By way of example, let me offer a brief story.

Last week, I received a call from one of the local school principals regarding a problem with the direct-glued carpeting in the library building.  When I went to evaluate the job, the carpet in the room appeared to be in good shape considering that it had been down nine years, but severely wrinkled to the point that students and even he had tripped when walking across the room.  After further inspection, I determined that the proper amount of adhesive had not been used initially, causing the carpet not to adhere to the substrate in all areas.  I explained to the principal that over time with such heavy traffic, humidity, cleaning, etc., the carpet had simply expanded in those places and that is why the carpet was elevated, giving a wrinkled appearance. 

While I told him his best option was to replace the entire room of carpet, I believed my job was to service my customer to the best of my ability – not line my pockets.  I then provided several alternatives, each with different cost factors, knowing well the extent of the school district’s budgetary woes.  This puts the decision back on the school district – they are now fully informed and can make a choice based on which option would provide the best result for the money they have to spend. 

Although I may have taken money out of my pocket short-term, I believe that doing what was best for my customer and his dilemma, not taking advantage of the situation, will benefit me in the long run.  Word of mouth is a very strong factor, especially in a smaller community and I’d like to think that customers seek my advice because they know I have their best interests in mind.

In order for this entire industry to heal and once again thrive, customers must feel that each participant in the industry has no other goal than to satisfy the customers’ needs.  Actually, this should have been the objective all along, but for one reason or another, the customer has been allowed to focus on “wants” versus “needs.”  Even where cash appears plentiful, that is something a good many can no longer afford to do.