Flourishing Vinyl Builders

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Many factors figure into the equation of whether a vinyl-liner pool business will sink or swim. You have to be able to build quality pools, but a lot of people can do that. And great customer service is essential, as well, but what exactly does that entail. Following, three thriving builders share their insights on the keys to success as a vinyl pool builder.

Anchor Spa & Pool Huntley, Ill.

Unlike many pool builders, Anchor Spa & Pool does not advertise in newspapers or on TV, but, says Larry Hayes, president of Anchor, "We're very religious about job-site signs. And our jobs signs are not those little plastic ones. They're 30-by-36 inches and have our name on it very visible and our phone number. They go in the front yard, and if the home backs up to a busy road, we'll give them some extra deal on service to keep that sign out there as long as we can. We've had signs stay on properties as long as a year, until the county told us to take it down."

Hayes adds that a few signs in one area can have a great impact. "I've had people say to me, 'We see your signs everywhere.' Well, they don't see them everywhere, they just happen to see three of them every day because they go the same way to work every day."

The signs also help Anchor capitalize on the "keeping up with the Joneses" effect. Hayes asks, "What's the impact of seeing your name in print in a phone book or newspaper or hearing a radio or TV spot versus seeing that we're actually building a pool near your house? Much larger impact."

In addition to the signs, Hayes drums up business by "networking like crazy" with homebuilders and architects. "For instance," he says, "I met an architect and he hooked me up with two builders, and through them I went to social events they have and I met other builders. And, then, when I go to a client's house, I ask: 'How long have you been here. Who built your house.' You have to look for connecting points and many people just don't."

Networking and word of mouth brings Anchor quite a few clients — Hayes says 80 percent of his business comes from referrals, and these referrals are rewarded. Customers who successfully refer another client to Anchor get a $100 gift certificate to an upscale restaurant. "But we don't pay unless the homeowner actually uses the gift certificate, and then the restaurant bills us," says Hayes. "It builds a lot of goodwill, but according to market research, 80 percent of gift certificates are never used. They are the most profitable element in retail because people don't use them."

Sales With Guidance

Anchor takes an educational approach to sales. Says Hayes, "When a new customer calls, we say, 'We're here to help you through the process of buying an in-ground pool. Here are some things you need to have: Someone needs to plot a survey of your yard that shows property lines and the house. You need to have a septic plan if you're not in town. You need to get your yard marked for power lines so you don't find out after the fact you've got a power line running right through where you want the pool to go.'"

Then Anchor has the prospective customer call previous customers. "But we don't call them references," says Hayes. "We say call these pool customers and they can really help you in your decision-making process. Because one thing that's different about our list is that it has the homeowner's name, their phone number, what kind of pool they have, and what kind of deck they have, so that people can call others who have features they're interested in. We really believe that if our prospects talk to our customers, the sale is 60 to 70 percent done."

Before an in-home sales call, Anchor also sends the prospective client a packet of information, a video and a pool brochure. Anchor salespeople do bring a portfolio of photos with them on the sales calls, but it's not a typical portfolio. It has photos of swimming pools, but it also has many close-up shots of specific features. Hayes says, "We might get asked, 'What's a cantilevered concrete deck.' So we show them a photo, not of a whole pool, but just a shot of the side of the pool that shows them the face of a concrete cantilevered edge. Those types of photos are really helpful tools in the sales process."

Hayes knows his salespeople have the necessary product knowledge to do their jobs well because they've usually been working at Anchor for a few years. "I'm a firm believer in promoting from within," says Hayes. "And what I'm looking for when I move a guy into sales — other than his ability to talk with people and be somewhat outgoing — is to find somebody in the service part of the company. It's pretty easy to teach a guy to talk about the construction of a pool, and there are not a lot of questions related to that. A lot of people just want to know about how to take care of it, servicing it. Our top salesman right now was a service tech for us for several years."

Building Process

In terms of the building process, Hayes believes it's important to set appropriate expectations. "So a couple days before excavation our field operations manager and the foreman of the crew go out to the house, do the final layout of the pool, set the grades, locate the filter pad, locate the access, and check that with the homeowner.

So we set the expectation level right out of the box — what's going to happen to their yard and where everything is going to go and where we can park trucks."

For three reasons, Hayes keeps the same construction crew on a particular job. "One is the familiarity with the homeowner — it just breeds confidence. The homeowner knows the foreman who laid out the pool, and that's the guy that shows up the next day. So the homeowner doesn't feel like he's got to be watching the whole thing with a magnifying glass. Another thing is quality control. That crew is responsible and if there's a problem, there's no finger pointing. It's also a productivity issue. Those guys are familiar with that project so each day they can get started faster because they know where they left off."

While it takes Anchor only about a week to get most of the pool completed, the whole project ends up taking about three to four weeks, mostly because projects often come to a halt when customers can't decide what type of decking they want around the pool, says Hayes. "This year, one of our goals is to try as much as possible to get those decisions made up front."

A couple weeks after a finishing crew from Anchor gets the pool up and running, Anchor sends a representative to the home to do a twohour in-depth orientation with the homeowner. "He's going to show them how to test the water and what kind of chemicals and products to use," says Hayes. He also covers Anchor's service program, including openings, closings and weekly maintenance, all of which are quite popular. "The percentage of customers that have us do their openings and closings is 100 percent. And as far as customers that sign up for weekly service, that's about 50 percent."

The Survey Says

To be sure customers are happy with all the services Anchor provides, clients are asked to fill out a survey once their pool is completed. The surveys, which get sent directly to Hayes, are one page long and have about 10 questions. Says Hayes, "We want to know: Are our guys keeping your yard clean? Did we complete the project in a timely manner? How is the communication specifically with sales, field personnel and our office? Where we're not meeting expectations, our policy is to follow up."

If 50 percent or more of the survey responses indicate expectations were exceeded, then the crew that built the pool gets a bonus. "New pool owners also have an opportunity for a special citation," says Hayes. "They can write in somebody's name at the bottom and explain why they want special recognition for that person, and that guy gets a double bonus."

The survey also asks if the homeowner would recommend Anchor. Hayes believes asking this question plants a seed in a homeowner's mind. "If you ask people, 'Will you refer us with enthusiasm.' and they say yes, it's going to be in their mind to refer us. It's almost like a commitment."

Finally, the surveys are used as a marketing tool. "We put them in a binder notebook with a complementing picture of the finished project and we have prospective buyers flip through the surveys, even if there is a bad one."

Flohr Pools Chambersburg, Pa.

Mark Flohr, president of Flohr Pools, says he and his staff work to establish appropriate expectations. Because customers don't like to see the price of their pool go up once they've signed on the dotted line, Flohr Pools always does a site inspection before offering a bid. And because showing clients a portfolio of completed pool projects often helps close sales, Flohr Pools has one and uses it, but Flohr says they also always show clients pictures of projects in progress so they have realistic expectations of what their yards will look like.

"If I go out to a house and I see the grass is immaculate, I say, 'You do realize that we're going to have a dump truck in your backyard and a large area of the yard will be all torn up.' If we show them what their yard will look like during construction, it's not as hard for them to take."

Long before their yards get torn up, new pool customers usually visit one of Flohr Pools' three showrooms, which all have at least one installed vinyl-liner pool (one location has two). "The pools are kind of deluxe," says Flohr, "but we try not to get them too far out of the ordinary, because what you have on display is what people are going to buy, so that's why we have them there."

Though 50 percent of Flohr's business comes from referrals, Flohr says the stores definitely help generate sales, too. "People can see the product at the store, so a lot of times, if you're in the market for a pool in this area, you'll probably at least come see us," he says.

To keep the stores fresh and inviting, Flohr remodels them about every five years and re-merchandises annually. Flohr says he often incorporates merchandising ideas he picks up at trade shows, including the AQUA Show, which he says the company took seven people to last fall. "I went to seminars about management, numbers and growth, so we can make decisions and know how they truly impact the business," says Flohr. "When I came back, I started digging out numbers differently, and did some different reports to evaluate things in a new way."


In terms of building pools, Flohr uses only in-house employees to control quality. And because experienced employees also improve the quality of the product Flohr installs, the company keeps as many employees on staff year-round as it can. "We're able to retain our foreman in construction and our service technicians because we've diversified to be a construction company in the late fall and winter so that we don't have to lay off employees," says Flohr.

In addition, Flohr employees have an extra incentive to get jobs done right the first time — Flohr has a profit-sharing plan. Lower costs mean more profit sharing, says Flohr, and the company has never failed to make a yearly dividend to its employees since the plan's inception date.

Got A Question?

Once pools are in the ground, Flohr does not leave customers to figure them out on their own. "We do a start-up with them," says Flohr. "We have a checklist and the salesperson is required to go over the explanations, check them off and then the customer has to sign it."

Plus, if customers ever have questions or encounter problems, they can always call one of the stores or bring in a water sample. Then, twice a year, Flohr Pools hosts pool schools — six in the spring and six in the fall to cover winterizing procedures. All Flohr customers are invited to the schools, but new pool owners get a special invite, and the schools have become quite popular. Flohr says 45 to 50 people usually attend each seminar, which are about 45 minutes long. "We have two goals," says Flohr. "No. 1 is taking care of your pool, so it lasts as long as it possibly can because it's an investment. And No. 2, if it's winterizing, we want them to know what they have to do so they don't have a cracked pump and filter in the spring."

Flohr Pools started doing the seminars because it found not all of its customers were taking care of their investments. "Unfortunately, people buy the pool and sometimes ignore it."

Premier Pools Port Jefferson Station, N.Y.

Even though half of its business comes from referrals, Premier Pools does quite a bit of advertising. From Feb. 1 to Nov. 1 the company has ads in a few local newspapers, and has found this to be effective. "Customers do tell us, 'We feel confident going with you. We see your ad in the paper every week, you're visually out there,'" says Premier president Anthony Boglino.

Premier also tracks the effectiveness of the ads. Customers who call in are asked where they heard about Premier, and each ad has a code on it. "Then we put that information on an Excel spreadsheet so we'll know where leads came from, and if we closed sales that came from newspaper ads," says Boglino. "If we're spending money, it better be working."

Prospective clients who visit the Premier showroom are greeted by a fully featured lagoon-shaped vinylliner pool, and just about everything else they might want to complete their backyard living room: hot tubs, grills, fireplaces and furniture. "It's one-stop shopping from design to completion, right to everything they might want after the pool is built. And people like that," says Boglino.

But Boglino has not always had this setup. "When I started out, I worked out of my home. But from a customer's standpoint, it certainly helps when they can come to a store and they see somebody has invested a lot in a showroom because that shows they're in it to do business. Plus, our sales definitely increased once we had a pool on display. We went from being a smaller company to one of the players on Long Island."

When it comes time for customers to decide exactly what pool they want, Premier has a portfolio with photos of a selection of pre-priced packages to help clients narrow down their choices. "We're not afraid to put the whole project number on the piece of paper," says Boglino. "Many times people only get half the story. They go down to the local pool store and they get a price on a pool, yeah it's $19,995 for the pool, so they move forward and then they find now that the pool is in the ground, it's plus the electrician and plus the plumber and plus the mason and now the project is $60,000 when they were only prepared to spend $25,000."

Once clients have picked a pool, Premier offers a couple of different financing choices. "We offer home equity lines at a local bank. Plus, we're a GE finance dealer and they really do 100 percent no-equity financing, which is a great thing because they spread the payments out over 20 or 30 years. So if someone was thinking they would spend $35,000, but ended up spending $55,000, they can spread their payments out and still have payments that are less than a car payment."

Plans For Every Stage

Premier also takes the time to prepare customers for what their yard will look like during construction. "We've got those nice, big, ugly pictures in the photo album, showing excavation and the concrete truck in the backyard pouring the footing. We've got it all," says Boglino. "We explain where our trucks or machinery might damage their lawn or cobblestone because we don't want them calling on day one all upset that their front lawn is wrecked."

To keep each project moving along at a steady clip, Boglino insists on having a structured payment schedule that is strictly adhered to. "To run a successful vinyl-liner pool business, you can't just wait to finish the pool whenever the customer decides to give you money. Our jobs are two weeks start to finish, as long as customers have the checks in hand at each stage when they're due."

Once the pool is done, Premier does a thorough orientation with customers so they know how to dose chemicals and how to use everything on their pool. "We also give them a $100 gift certificate to our retail store. So they bring in a water sample and get the water all balanced and the retail staff goes over proper water chemistry," says Boglino. "They get accustomed to working with someone to get their water balanced, so there's a program there after the sale. We also include one opening and one closing in the price of the pool."

If customers choose to have Premier continue opening and closing their pool after this, Premier extends the warranties on certain items, like the pump, filter and heater. Boglino says about two-thirds of his customers choose this plan, called the Premier Pool Protection Plan, and when they do, they also get additional coupons to use in the retail store. "So we make it economical for them to stay with us."

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