Throughout my columns this year I’ve talked about the common mistakes made by hardwood flooring installers, retailers, distributors, manufacturers and inspectors. Anytime we have a failure it costs everybody involved money and cuts into our bottom line. However, when failure strikes, everyone gets defensive and starts the blame game of “who’s responsible?” Ask the following questions.

Installers. Did the installer follow the required guidelines, whether industry or manufacturer? Did he/she complete appropriate moisture testing and was it completed to ASTM standards? Did the installer inspect the product prior to installation?

Retailers. Did the retailer oversell a product to get the buyer to write the $15,000 check for their new home? Was the customer told the wood floor was “hard as nails,” and that is what they based their wood floor purchase decision on? Did the retailer fail to provide the proper warranty or floor care instructions, or subcontract the installation to the lowest bidder?

Distributors. Did the distributor sit on old inventory and then blend new stock into the order?  Did they purchase low-end products and market them as higher quality? Did they educate the retailer on the quality of the products they were buying?

Manufacturers. In many cases manufacturers are faced with claims to the quality of flooring such as grade, the possibility of delamination and noise issues. Was the grade/color as promised? Is the manufacturer responsible for a noisy floor?

Inspectors. Inspectors cost the involved parties money if they use improper standards for their report. Did they fail to test properly, fail to support their conclusions, or provide subjective reports?

You can’t win a bike race if you’re missing spokes in the wheel. To get optimum speed, both wheels need all their spokes, each tightened precisely to the required tension to achieve the best performance. Likewise, if we want our customers to have the best flooring experience, it takes all the involved parties to complete their part. Then everybody involved becomes a winner.  The buyer gets their expectations fulfilled and the claim ratio is dropped by at least a third. I call this system the 4D Process: Discover, Diagnose, Design and Deliver.

Discover Stage. In many cases the sales professional is like your family doctor. The doctor cannot prescribe or diagnose without asking you questions of your current health condition, how you are feeling, any aches and pains, etc.  After listening to you describe what your concerns are, your physician will make the determination to which tests are appropriate to aid you.

The sales professional must do something similar. When a buyer walks onto the showroom floor, ask questions. The sales professional must discover as much as possible about the buyer such as lifestyle, housing type, members of the family including pets, areas where the flooring is going, etc.  In many cases it will be the size or color of the floor that makes for a quick sale, but in the end it may come back as a poorly specified floor.

Diagnose Stage. Once the sales professional has discovered the buyer’s lifestyle, housing type, etc., they can direct them into the selection process. This is where a sales professional has to understand their role in providing a solution to the buyer’s needs. For example, if told “I want a solid 6” wide floor installed in my basement,” the sales professional should not only understand the vision but be educated to what can and cannot go below grade, along with any other limitations. What are the industry/manufacturer guidelines? What are the warranty requirements and exclusions? After diagnosing all the key points and acceptable requirements, it is time to bring the buyer into the Design Stage.

Design Stage. Once the sales professional has asked the right questions he/she can take the information they obtained to help the buyer select the style/type of floor that will work for them. Placing a 6” solid below grade without proper humidification control will be headed for inspection within 12 months. The solution in this case is to find a floor covering that will meet the buyer’s vision while also being suited to the home’s conditions. The 6” solid will gap in the winter with no humidification control, and there may be cupping which is undesirable to the buyer. The solution may be to move to a 3” engineered glue-down with a moisture control system. This will be easier to sell because the buyer was educated and included as part of the solution process.

Deliver Stage: Installer’s Role. The Deliver Stage  is where the retailer turns the process over to the installer. The installer has to be familiar with each of the products he/she installs. For wood flooring that would include colors, gloss levels and grade variations. The installer is also responsible to ensure the project is ready. Is the HVAC system in operation? Are the environmental readings in check? This involves moisture testing of the wood floor and substrate, temperature and humidity readings and proper documentation.

The industry standard names the installer as the final inspector of product quality prior to installation and responsible for site conditions along with proper installation procedure. If the installer fails any of these requirements the floor stands a high risk of failure and/or floor inspection. This is why it’s vitally important for the retailer to select a highly qualified installer who is trained/certified to complete the installation.

Retailer’s Role. Once the product has been delivered and installed the retailer must complete their portion of the delivery process with closeout documents including floor care and warranty.

Distributor’s Role. Distributors often get caught in the commodity market trying to provide a product at a great price, yet the lower-priced products can bring the highest sale-to-claim ratio. The distributor gets stuck in the middle of retaining the business relationships with their clients or let them wander to the buy-direct programs where customer service may be minimal to none. This is where the distributor must educate their customers of the product’s performance capabilities.

Manufacturer’s Role. The manufacturer produces the products to meet the trends in today’s market, with a wide range in pricing and quality. Along with the lower-priced products, the highest sale-to-claim ratio can also apply to grade. Rustic grades tend to bring more claims not due to the nature of material, but the lack of proper education to the buyer. Rustic grades contain character marks such as checks, knots, splits, etc. and when improper interior conditions are not supported, these characteristics most likely will change in shape or size. For example, a stone chip in your windshield will remain stable as long as conditions are stable. Hot or cold temperatures, along with vibration with vehicle in motion, will cause the chip to possibly start to crack full length. The stone chip is like the character of a knot or check. If conditions change, so will the character. Is this the fault of the grade?  No. It’s a failure of the seller not explaining these changes to the buyer.

Inspector’s Role. Inspectors are involved in the success or failure of the floor. There are good and bad inspectors just as there are good and bad installers. The hardest thing for a manufacturer, distributor, retailer or installer to unwind is a poorly written report. In many cases the inspector is in the position of “make it or break it” for the involved parties and looking to apply blame. I have seen inspectors apply improper use of standards, fail to support their conclusions or fail to test properly, only to create hardships. On the other hand I have seen good inspectors network with the retailer/installers and provide third-party concrete testing services or consulting services to create a winning result for all involved parties.

No matter how you cut it, education and certification is the key to any successful project. The other is to create a positive relationship of all the associated partners in the floor process. The distributors can provide general contractor education courses to encourage better flooring environments prior to, during and post-installation. Retailers can send their sales professionals to certification courses to promote better solutions to their buyers. Installers are in many cases the last people to represent the company’s presence in the field.  Through certification courses and understanding professionalism, they can improve their financial position in the industry.

The saying goes that “higher education means better living.” Increasing your bottom line and decreasing claims can only be achieved through making sure all the spokes in the wheel are in sync with each other to provide balance. This holds true of the flooring circle as well. All parties must be on the same page, and that starts with education and certification.