Between the moment customers understand the need for a new winter safety cover and the time they see that ester-based fabric stretched across their pools, neat and taut as a marine barracks bedspread, a dealer or builder will perform a number of vital tasks.

The purchase agreement, the measurement and ordering of a cover and its installation are all challenges on the road to a satisfied cover customer. But that's what makes it interesting.

It all begins with a sale. Nothing happens in any business without that. And most pool cover pros agree it's best to sell this important piece of equipment as one element of a comprehensive pool package.

Three thousand dollars sounds like a lot when it sits alone at the bottom of a cover price estimate. But nestled between line items on a $70,000 pool quote, it's not as big a deal.

"New pool construction is probably the best and easiest time to make a sale," affirms LeeAnn Donaton-Pesta, president of LOOP-LOC, Ltd., Hauppauge, N.Y. "Many pool contractors have begun to add safety swimming pool covers to their overall pool pricing packages, thus eliminating the need to try and sell the cover at a later time."

It just makes sense to roll the whole figure together, adds Roshan Patel, The Cover Company, Branchburg, N.J., and sell the cover while customers have their checkbooks or loan applications in front of them. Because in part, a winter cover is about safety, which many people only begin to consider after a purchase.

"It's the best time to get them," she says. "When they're selling the package, they try and work everything in and stress the importance of a safety cover, because people forget that it's not about keeping leaves or twigs out of the pool, it's about safety."

Despite the logic that might suggest it was ever thus, John Ciniglio, president, Meyco Products, Melville, N.Y., notes the upfront sale of a pool cover is a growing trend. "Pool covers are sold with the entire pool package more these days than in the past," he says.

Back in the dark ages of the pool business, there was a stigma attached to a safety cover because it implied that pools weren't safe. Few builders wanted to bring up the safety aspect of pool ownership in the midst of a sale.

In the modern, enlightened pool world, of course, safety standards are a primary topic of discussion, and consumers are usually well aware of hazards involved with water-based recreation.

"The reality now," says Ciniglio, "is that a pool builder that doesn't mention safety is thought of as being less trustworthy. As a pool builder, a safety cover should be part of your arsenal, along with fences and so forth."

Spring And Fall

The remaining cover sales opportunities are aftermarket, and these are split neatly between opening and closing. When a pool owner opens up the pool in the spring, there's a mess of winter debris. At that moment, he or she is in the perfect frame of mind to listen to a solution for next year.

"At that point," says Patel, "a dealer can tell them, 'Hey, there are products out there that will make your pool safer and look a lot better, and they'll keep it from filling up with anything and everything.'

"Sometimes people already have one," she adds, "but during opening they'll remind the homeowner, 'You know, your cover has a lot of holes, maybe it's time to replace it?'"

Conversely, pool closings in the fall may be an even better time to sell a cover. It's the busiest cover-making time at some manufacturers, perhaps due to the compulsion for winter preparation instinctive in peoples of northern climes.

Regardless of the time of year or customer motivation, the key to a cover sale is faith in your product and the company that stands behind it, says Donaton-Pesta. "Believing in the products you are trying to sell is key to making a sale. If you truly trust, believe and have knowledge in the brands your company is representing then you will make the sale. Customers have a keen sense and can tell instantly if you are just trying to 'sell' them, or if you truly know that a product will benefit them and will give them value."

Missed Opportunities

Of the big three selling seasons, fall, spring, and new construction, spring presents the biggest challenge in terms of realizing its full sales potential. Individual pool owners are looking to their pools for the first time in months, many of them considering the benefits of a cover. Whether this turns from consideration to remuneration is often left up to the dealer.

The spring, especially, is a crazy time for pool pros, manufacturers note, and it's easy to allow a sales lead to slip by. The scenario may look like this: As the cover is pulled off the pool, and the ravages of a half-dozen winters are revealed in the strong sunlight of May, a customer calls to inquire about a replacement. Meanwhile, back at the pool store, there are long lines of customers with water samples snaking around the aisles. In the midst of the bustle and roar, the phone rings. A message is taken, with the sincere intention of a follow-up call when the clamor dies down. By the time the return call is made, the lead has grown stale.

Unfortunately, the replacement customer doesn't see the busy employees trying to serve the needs of dozens of customers, and although the situation is understandable, what might have been a sale turns into a missed opportunity.

"Missed opportunities," says Donaton-Pesta, "unfortunately happen when dealers do not take a customer's interest seriously. There are times, and we have all encountered them, when you are looking for information and are either given a rushed explanation of a product, or worse yet, told you will get a call back. Most customers today have done their research online. They basically know what they want and are looking for instant gratification, and are now trying to get someone to sell it to them."

The Right Dimension

As difficult as it is to juggle the demands of the spring rush, dealers with an early season cover sales order in hand are presented with a new mission - conveying to the manufacturer the dimensions of the pool. This may be fairly straightforward if the pool is rectangular with few obstructions. Complex shapes, however, often require the ingenious AB method of pool measure.

It's not unique to the pool industry. In the modern world, organizations as diverse as the U.S. military and the police use the same simple concept to locate objects or points they can't actually see.

On the modern battlefield, for example, targets are pinpointed by measuring their distance to two fixed locations, perhaps a command post and an aircraft overhead. Police use a similar method to find the location of a cell phone. By measuring the distance its signal travels to two or more transmission towers, the cell phone can be located on a map.

Pool cover manufacturers use this same procedure to map out a set of points which, when connected dot-to-dot, form the outline of a free-form pool.

Two points, A and B, are laid out a fixed distance apart, and then measurements are taken from both A and B to points along the edge of the pool.

"It's basically a process of triangulation," explains Patel. "And each company has their own particular way of doing it - we tell people, 'Make sure the AB line is in front of you, and the pool is in front of the AB line.' And we want the AB line a certain distance back from the pool's edge. But regardless of what company is making the cover, the information that they report should work in anybody's system."

There are, however, a fair number of chances for getting something wrong in the AB process. For instance, a simple and easy mistake is to take measurement points around the pool in the wrong direction.

Without a sketch or picture of the pool, if the manufacturer thinks the pool cover crew is measuring clockwise, and they measure counterclockwise, the manufacturer will end up with a perfect mirror image of the pool. Which, needless to say, the resulting cover will not fit.

A safeguard against this type of mistake is a computer program many manufacturers offer, which allows dealers to enter measurements and check their work. "This helps the dealer see if there were any mistakes made in measuring and if there are areas that they may have to remeasure," says Donaton-Pesta.

With the points entered in the computer, the dealer can then take a measurement at the actual pool. If the actual measure matches the computer model measure, the points are good.

Another easy safeguard, but one that is often overlooked, is a photo of the pool. "A photo is worth a thousand words," says Ciniglio, "and a photo will protect against a mistake. Even if you have messed up the measurements, a good manufacturer will look at that photo, and say, 'You know what, they messed the measurement up, and we've got to correct this.' The photo acts as a safety net for the dealer.

"We are constantly getting orders without photos. And in today's digital age, it's so easy to add that safety net."

"Especially if they're already there at the at the pool," adds Patel, "I'll tell them, 'Just take a picture with your cell phone, right now, and send it over. We can talk about it while you're still there. It doesn't have to be a fancy Nikon camera, just take a picture with your cell, and that will give me a good idea.' Then maybe I'll ask them to take a close-up here or there of some of the details."

"It's very hard to make a mistake once we have a photo," Ciniglio says, "because we can see that something's not right."

Delivery

With the pool measurements and photo dispatched to the manufacturer, the dealer can turn to other matters while the cover is being made.

The measurements will be fed into a CNC system, which feeds instructions to industrial cutting machines, and these turn long bolts of fabric into pieces to be sewn together. The webbing and straps are then stitched on, and everything is rolled up and delivered, along with the associated hardware, back to the place from whence the order came.

At LOOP-LOC, says Donaton-Pesta, that process will take a maximum of three weeks, regardless of the time of year. It's important to make sure the cover is not damaged upon opening the package, she adds. "Once on the job site, a dealer should always carefully open the box, never using a box cutter. The cover should then be placed by the area of the pool where you are beginning the installation and never dragged across the deck, which can damage the cover."

The installer secures anchors around the deck using a hammer drill and then attaches the cover to the anchors with stainless-steel springs included in the package.

Patel recommends laying the cover out over the pool, initially focusing on obstructions, such as raised walls or any element that obviates the normal spring-anchor system. The installer attaches the cover at these points first, then works around the pool with the springs, alternating from side to side, "like a clock. You start at 12:00, then 6:00, 3:00 then 9:00, and so on. If you try to install the difficult area last, you will have problems."

With the cover neatly stretched across the pool, all that remains is a periodic follow-up with the customer to make sure everything remains copasetic.

Checking the spring tension can provide a good reason to keep tabs on the customer. "After the initial installation it is recommended that the spring tension be checked and re-tightened if necessary, as covers may stretch a bit," says Donaton-Pesta.

"This is a good time to follow up with your customer and make sure that they have no other questions. If you cannot get back to the job site then a follow-up phone call works great, also. A customer realizes that you care about their sale and will happily recommend you to anyone who asks."

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.