For all of the convenience and dazzle of 21st century communication, the process of convincing homeowners to sign on the proverbial dotted line still comes down to direct interpersonal communication both on the phone and in person. Success requires knowing what to say — and just as important, what not to say.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on the initial phone call and our first in-person meeting. We’ll assume those meeting are on site, which is the only way I recommend. Let’s also assume we’re charging a design fee; I know pool builders do it both ways when it comes to charging for design, as have I in the past, but I believe being paid for design work is by far the better path for reasons that will become clear.

Throughout these initial discussions, regardless of your sales approach, experience has taught me that you always want to project quiet confidence. It’s one of the most attractive human traits and reinforces we’re someone who knows what we’re doing and are fully prepared and able to help the clients achieve their goals.

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That’s why I always work to steer the discussion so I’m the one doing the listening most of the time; it projects confidence and it creates a comfort level. By listening, you not only gain invaluable clues that can drive the design, you also demonstrate you are interested in what they have to say and don’t need to push the process. Listening builds rapport and makes people comfortable with you.

CALLS INCOMING

The process all starts with the initial call from a prospective client. The lead might have come from a website form, an email or a direct phone call based on a referral. After your hellos and introductions, the first order of business is asking how it was they came to know about the company, which will determine the amount of basic information you need to give them.

These calls tend to fall into one of two categories: first, there are those looking for a bid. Oftentimes, they mention they’re in the process of getting three or four bids for their project. Usually, they’ve seen our website or found us on social media.

The other type of calls are the classic referrals, where the caller loved what we did for a family member or friend and would like something similar for their own home.

Either way, the first thing I want to know is what they already know about my company. When we hear information we already know, we tend to quit listening. So, if someone already has the basic information about our company by looking at our website or some other means, I don’t bore them by repeating it.

On the other hand, people who come to us by way of referral are often going strictly on word of mouth with very little specific information. If it turns out they don’t really know anything about us, then I’ll go into a very brief description of our history and overall approach.

Right from the start, I work to reinforce our credibility without overstating anything or going on at length. You can lose someone’s attention very quickly by carrying on about how great you are or sharing unnecessary information. Sometimes, the less you have to say, the better you sound.

JUSTIFIED DESIGN

Establishing our credibility early on is crucial because as mentioned above, we charge for designs. I explain to the caller that we charge a design fee because we act as a consultant in the planning stage, a collaborative partner who helps the client determine the design and features they really want. Then, should they decide they like our proposal and want to move forward with the project, we’ll change gears and work as a builder.

I tell him/her we work this way because every project is going to be different; we’re not a cookie-cutter builder, but rather one that tailors each design to the clients’ needs and the environment.

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I also explain that before we develop the design, we’re going to carefully measure the property and analyze the site right down to the smallest changes in elevation, and that we’ll do all the research with HOAs and local codes to make sure what we propose can be built. I explain we don’t want there to be change orders because we didn’t properly measure the site up front. In other words, we’re going to take the time to get it right.

I tell them that we render our designs in a 3-D program (we use Pool Studio) and that they will be able to visually walk around their property and experience the design as it would be built. Keep in mind that 3-D presentations may not sound all that new to those of us in the industry, but for many clients the experience is quite new and exciting.

I also take time to foreshadow later discussions we’ll have about the construction process, in which their home is going to be torn up for a period of weeks or even months. I’ll go into more detail later about project timelines and impact on their lives, but early on it’s important that prospective clients appreciate the investment in design will only serve to reduce the agony of the installation process.

I explain that we’re most likely not going to be the least expensive, but we will come to them with every option they can imagine — or many they can’t — and through our collaborative process we’ll together determine the exact design and set of features that fits their needs and desires.

When the call is over, they’ll also know that once they have our proposal and all the numbers for all the various options, they own the design and can take it to other builders if they’d like. Or they can decide to take the next step with us and build the project. They’re left thinking that this process leads to their ability to choose what’s right for them and that by paying for the design they gain control over what happens next.

As for the amount of the design fee, in our business, I’ll say we’ll charge between one to five thousand dollars, but we’ll determine the price for design after the first visit, for which we do not charge a fee.

Once they have the facts about who we are, what we do and the way we go about our business, they decide if they want to continue. I never press the issue. By giving them options and being completely transparent in my approach, oftentimes clients will immediately dismiss the idea of working with other builders. Roughly three quarters of first calls result in a meeting.

IN PERSON, IN PLACE

The first meeting both reinforces messages from the initial call and moves the process forward to the next step. By sharing the basics about our company and the process on the phone, I usually don’t have to repeat that information because typically the husband or wife I spoke to will have already shared that information with the other. If that’s not the case, I will briefly go through the basic again.

I always want to meet with both the husband and wife or both significant others so that I can understand what they both want. These meeting always take place at the home because there is no point if I can’t analyze the site.

When I walk through the door, I thank them for having me over and compliment their home. I dress casually because that’s how most people dress when at home. I never take myself too seriously and even wear shorts and flip flops if it’s a hot day. After all, consider what we’re doing: we’re creating something fun and outdoorsy, providing a place for recreation that’s beautiful. Being overly serious can disrupt the homeowners’ upbeat attitude about owning a pool and a beautiful landscape.

I pay attention to the dog if there is one and if there’s a kid around, I always make a point of talking to them and listening to what they have to say. While some people find kids a distraction in these meetings, I think it’s great when they’re hanging around. Kids tend to be genuinely excited about having a pool and while their ideas can be outrageous, paying attention to the entire family always helps build rapport and trust.

From the moment I walk in, I’m actively taking in everything I can about the clients and their home. Sometimes, the home has a distinct architectural style and is filled with furnishings that further reflect the clients’ tastes. Other times, the home is mostly devoid of any specific style and it’s up to me to ask them what preferences are. I even ask what style they believe they have.

I take note whether the home is neat and clean or cluttered and dirty. I look for pictures of travel, family activities and evidence of hobbies. I look at the type of furnishings, the way the kitchen is appointed, the colors, the materials, knickknacks, paintings, and pretty much anything that helps me more fully grasp what these people are all about. The fact is, there’s no way to fully anticipate what you’ll discover so you have to be open to the moment and learn to read the clients. If they love talking about travel, let them talk about it and ask questions that keep them talking. If they give short answers to questions and seem uninterested, move on to something else.

UNFOLDING OBSERVATIONS

Early on in the meeting I ask if we can step outside and take a look at the yard. In a sense, this is really where the design process begins. I’ve found that when you sit down at the table first, there’s a tendency to get ahead of the process. After all, you don’t want to start discussing ideas that aren’t going to work on their property.

The size of the space, slopes, sun exposure, surrounding views or lack thereof, large trees that may or may not have to be removed — you need to take note of as much as you can about the setting. At this point, I don’t ask them what they envision because I want to stay focused on the site and the parameters, opportunities and limitations it presents. I look at the easements; I ask the homeowners if they have a copy of the property survey, I look at the placement of utilities, site access and key focal points within the yard and views from the house itself.

If I see potentially problematic issues, such as limited site access or some other condition that could be challenging, I never say it will be difficult to build their project. Some builders I know talk about challenges as a way to justify their price; I go in the opposite direction and never portray the idea that the project will be hard to build.

Once I’ve made my notes and I’m satisfied I have a firm grasp on the site, then we sit down and start talking about the project. At this point, I’ll continue asking leading questions. What are your favorite recreational activities? What do you like to do outside? What do you like about your house and what you don’t like?

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Interestingly, I’ve found that it’s actually more important to find out what clients don’t like as discovering what they do. A big part of a successful design is avoiding elements clients don’t appreciate. If a client says they don’t like highly structured and formal garden design but instead prefer more natural settings, you’ll know to avoid rigid lines and formal styling. When you eliminate such items from the design, the clients will be far more open to what you bring them.

Also, it helps to avoid using “pool builder” language. Some builders will try to impress by using language that reflects their expertise. That can backfire because when you use words and phrases that are unfamiliar to the homeowners, it works like a speed bump in their thought processes. Don’t ask them if they like freeform or rectilinear designs — ask them if they like straight lines or curvy lines.

At this point, I’ve established credibility, made them feel that we’re collaborating and we’re all vested in the best possible outcome, justified and explained the advantages of paying for the design, done my first walk through on the site and gathered clues that are already pointing me in a direction.

COST AND CLOSING

One of the biggest issues, naturally, is budget. After all, we can only provide what clients are willing and able to pay for. Therefore, many if not most builders believe that learning the clients’ budget is crucial. Over the years, however, I’ve learned to resist pressing that issue.

The problem with divining the budget is that when they give you a number, then you’re more or less only negotiating up or down from that point, and in a sense, you’ve already lost. In truth, most homeowners don’t really know what they want because they haven’t yet been exposed to it. How can they possibly gauge what they’re willing to pay until they’ve had a chance to consider all their options?

That’s why my proposals are basically menus that have multiple line items for different features and materials with the price for each. Sure, I’ll
calibrate the range I’m working in based on the clients’ apparent economic level. If it’s a middle class home I’m not going to propose a seven figure pool, but I will give them the option of considering a range of luxurious features. Again, by approaching project scope and price in a more open-ended way, they feel empowered and comfortable because they have options.

Finally, I will quote them a design fee somewhere in the range I cited above. However, contrary to what many sales gurus preach and teach, I don’t press them for a decision right then and there. Quite often they are, in fact, ready to move forward with the design, but if they need time to mull it over, I leave it with them and make my exit.

Roughly 70 percent of those I leave without a commitment call back and move forward. I believe we enjoy that strong response because at no point was I selling, per se, but instead engaging them in an enjoyable and exciting process that they want to continue.