Choosing a contractor for any major home improvement project is a project in itself. First you've got to figure out who to call. You can find a few names in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet, or maybe ask your neighbors who they like to use. Then you've got to contact the contractors and meet with them. And then, finally, make a decision. How do you as a vinyl-liner pool builder make sure you're the company chosen when homeowners sit at the kitchen table, examine bids and pick one. At various stages of the aforementioned process, there are opportunities to demonstrate why your company should be chosen.

Points Of Entry

To keep your phones ringing, marketing is key. "We encourage our dealers to display at home shows, county fairs, and home and garden shows," says Tim Fowler, general manager for Kafko Manufacturing."You can use your vehicle because it's a free ad and it's rolling. Of course, there's notifying newspapers regarding awards or accomplishments, and many builders don't notify the local newspapers, even though they're looking for stories of local interest, like a local businessperson receiving national recognition."

Fowler also advises dealers to make a media contact "so you can be recognized as an expert in the pool industry, and then they'll contact you on matters that relate to the industry." In addition, he suggests getting involved in local clubs, supporting swimming-related activities like largescale swim meets and networking with local homebuilders and realtors. "It's all about making yourself visible and creating sales opportunities," adds Fowler. To win clients who want pools like this one by Rising Sun Pools, builders need to demonstrate their commitment to excellence during the sales process.

One place every dealer needs to be visible nowadays is the Web. "You have to have something to show your company on the Internet," says Fowler.

Builders are finding this to be true, as well. "For us, having a Web site is huge," says Michael Vassallo, coowner of Rising Sun Pools in Raleigh, N.C. "We redid the site about six months ago, and every month we have a company monitor the metatags to make sure we're on the first page of results when someone searches for swimming pools in Raleigh."

Vassallo acknowledges that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how customers hear of his business these days — they might get a word-ofmouth referral and then check out the site or they might find the builder on the Web first — but he believes between 40 and 50 percent of his clients check out the Rising Sun site at some point in their buying process. "Until we updated our Web site and really made it look a lot more modern, I never realized how many people actually looked for a builder that way," says Vassallo.

Chuck Browning, vice president of Browning Pools & Spas in Germantown, Md., says at least a third of his company's leads come from its Web site. Browning has also invested in a high-quality site that doesn't just let customers know they exist, but really exposes clients to the pools and products they have to offer. "We have 80 pools up on the site," says Browning, "and we've broken the pool part of the site into three categories: 'Dreams Realized' are shots of finished pools, 'Dreams in Detail' are detail shots of, for example, vinyl-covered steps, and 'Dreams in Progress' are pools under construction and what your yard might look like. The 'Dreams Realized' part, our pool gallery, definitely gets the most hits."

This online tour of Browning's projects helps the company's prospective clients get a sense of what they have to offer, as does Browning's in-person pool tour, which it does every Saturday from mid April to mid October. "We usually have about five couples for each tour, and we look at five to 10 pools," says Browning. "For each of our two locations, we have about 15 pools we can visit on Saturdays. We've basically set up a contract with those homeowners." Browning provides service at a discounted rate for the summer the pools are on the tour.

"We take care of those pools as if they are our own and in our yard for the summer they're on the tour. And we try to rotate those names each year," says Browning. "So that works out and we find that it really does help the client in that they see a number of pools and they begin to make the decision on their own. It's no longer a biased scenario where the pool salesman is picking the product for them."

Handling Calls

Once clients choose to call you, you've got to be ready. When customers call Knickerbocker Pools & Spas, Nancy Knickerbocker says they appreciate that the company is upfront about the costs involved. "Whether it's electrical work they need to hire or a plumber to run a gas line or finding a fence contractor, we let them know what's involved so that they are not surprised and unhappy at the end." The Dayton, Ohio, builder also acquires necessary permits for its clients, and Knickerbocker believes this helps the company win customers, as well. "We obviously price the permits into our package, but it's just another thing we do for customers to make the whole construction process easier for them," she says.

One thing Knickerbocker doesn't do that many other builders do is give clients a sheet of references to call. "I feel we don't need to bother our customers by having strange people call them, because any company that hands out references is only going to give out the good ones," she says. We get in neighborhoods where they don't shop around — if it's good enough for their neighbors, it's good enough for them. Nancy Knickerbocker Knickerbocker Pools & Spas

This is rarely an issue, notes Knickerbocker, because the company has been around for more than 30 years and has built so many pools in the Dayton area that when someone asks for a reference, she can often just indicate a few of the prospective client's neighbors that have a Knickerbocker pool, and that's usually the only reference needed. "We get in neighborhoods where they don't shop around — if it's good enough for their neighbors, it's good enough for them. And that is a reference."

To handle the increased volume of inquiries his company has experienced over the last few years, Vassallo hired a full-time employee to handle calls and e-mails. "We want to get back to them while the iron is hot," says Vassallo. "Nothing is more frustrating for a customer who calls or sends their information in through the Web site and doesn't hear back from someone for three or four days. We get back to them that day, or worst case, the following morning."

After prospective Rising Sun clients contact the builder, they are sent a CD-ROM, along with brochures. "The CD has a 10-minute video in it that goes through everything from us coming out, to the pool construction to showing underwater video shots of automatic cleaning systems and how they work. But it's not so detailed that people turn it off and don't pay attention. There are also customer testimonials in it that are scattered throughout, and it has lots of pictures of lots of pools. As techno savvy as most people have gotten these days, it's something most people have a tendency to at least pop in and look at."

All customers appreciate the opportunity to check out products before purchasing, and so Rising Sun has a showroom with a vinyl-liner pool and three above-ground pools on display. "Having a retail location does help us out tremendously because you can push yourself as not just the guy that's going to build the pool, but also the people that can service it and help you take care of it for the next 20 years. It seems to help us out a bunch," Vassallo says.

In addition to its main showroom, Rising Sun has started opening satellite "express locations" that sell chemicals and accessories and provide information about the pools the company offers. "It would take eight to 10 employees to run another full-size location," says Vassallo, "but I can staff the express locations with one person or two in-season. So it's more cost effective, I think, to do some satellite stores and I can open them one at a time, every two years roughly, and kind of saturate the market that way. And with the express locations, I can have all the inventory come right to one location, and then we'll get a box truck that will pop into different locations and drop off what's needed."

So far, Vassallo's idea is working. "With the one satellite location we have so far, we turned a profit in the first year. They often say you have to give retail locations a couple of years before you turn a profit, but we did it in the first eight months.

"My theory is that people are going to go to the closest pool store to their house and they're going to hopefully call us as well since we're the biggest guys in town," says Vassallo. "So then if we happen to have a location near their house, and we're the biggest guys in town, it'll make it so many people don't even call anybody else."

Knickerbocker also believes having a showroom helps her company win clients. "It makes a big difference," she says. "A lot of people are leery of having a salesperson out to their house because everybody has had the carpet cleaner guy who tries to oversell them. Nobody wants to be high pressured in their own home, and so this way, they can shop us and talk to our salespeople and get a feel for our business and look at our pictures.

"Sometimes they are just looking and I think they get a very comfortable feeling in our store," adds Knickerbocker. "Of course, our salespeople are trained that their goal is to get the information for an on-site pool appointment. We don't want to just hand out literature and let them walk out the door. But this way, the customer at their leisure can come in, look at our liner samples and other stuff, look at our pictures, talk to our salespeople, get a feel for our company and then decide if they want us out to their house."

Showtime

For many builders, the in-home sales call is really when they win or lose a client, so it's critical to have a polished, top-notch presentation. Using a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop looks impressive to clients, and, says Fowler, "it helps prompt you when you forget to talk about a certain subject."

Fowler also suggests knowing your competition so you can indicate why your company would be the best choice. "I don't like to sell negative," he says, "but you can always turn it into a positive comment."

For example, if your competition doesn't offer certain products, especially newer, more innovative ones, you may want to emphasize that you do. Vassallo is always sure to mention his company offers Pacific Industries' Tru-Tile system. "We're actually the No. 1 vinyl-liner pool builder in the country doing Tru-Tile, which is where you can actually do a real 6inch inlaid tile, and then there's a special tracking system for the liner to lock in place — it's below the waterline. We did about 20 of them in 2006.

"Being able to do the Tru-Tile systems helped us grab about 15 sales last year we wouldn't have gotten otherwise," says Vassallo. "They definitely would have gone over to concrete if we didn't have that available."

Telling clients about all that's available is so important because they might not know the products exist if you don't mention them, notes Browning. However, if clients can't afford bells and whistles, you need to note that and shape your presentation a bit for each customer. You determine how you'll tweak the presentation when you first listen carefully to what the customer wants. "You've got to ask questions to find out what the homeowner is looking for, and sell up to the point they're willing to spend, but don't price yourself out of the market," says Fowler.

During their first in-home visit, Browning salespeople listen to what clients want, and then present a pool plan on the second visit. "We need to listen well enough to gather what the client's concerns are so that we can be sure to tackle those areas in our design," says Browning. For example, if a client is concerned about safety, the plan they present will emphasize safety measures like pool alarms, or an automatic cover that can only be opened by accessing a locked key.

Since it's also important to sell your company in addition to your products, Browning salespeople always mention that the company uses inhouse crews and that the third-generation, family-owned business is really still run by the family. "We have had the same core family as the ownership for the last 60 years, and with that, there's a certain amount of experience that's hard to come by, so there's a lot of depth in our company," says Browning. "And, at this point, the family still does a lot of site management and management oversight, so if you're there when your pool is being built, you'll most likely run into one of the owners at some point."

Follow Up

Many clients do not hire a builder immediately after the sales presentation. A pool is a major purchase and many people need time to mull it over — sometimes they even need months to digest the costs involved and line up financing. So keep in touch.

"I've had several clients say, 'We selected you because you didn't forget us,'" says Browning. "Often we'll talk to someone in the spring and not sell the job until the fall strictly because they needed time to put together their finances."

In fact, says Browning, "About 25 percent of our sales are folks we talked with in prior years or earlier that year."

Keeping in touch isn't too hard and it shouldn't be too often. Says Browning, "It might be a call once a month to say: 'How are you doing. It was a pleasure talking with you. I felt like you were interested in a pool, but I understand you're not quite ready. I want you to know we're interested and when you do decide this is something you want to do, we're here.'"