Tips from the Top

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Bill Renter knows vinyl. Owner of the Deck and Patio Company, a landscape design/build firm as well as a custom vinyl-liner pool business, in Huntington Station, N.Y., his pool and landscaping projects grace the backyards of many Long Island residents, as well as the pages of the AQUA Choice Awards winner's issue; his own backyard pool won the vinyl-liner category for 2006. The phrases "vinyl-liner" and "high-end" may not occupy the same sentence very often, but maybe they should β€” Renter certainly thinks so, and the quality of his installations provide the proof. As a vinyl-liner pool builder, there are a handful of things you can do to set yourself apart from your competition, if you'd like to try more custom jobs, and Renter has graciously shared some of the crucial things he's learned along the way.

Know Yourself β€” And Your Clients

Many of the details that set apart a custom job begin well before even a shovelful of dirt has been dug. When you're working on a job that can cost $50,000 to $60,000 to start, according to Renter, selling yourself begins long before you even meet a potential client. "We are looking for that highend client, and so it really starts first with marketing yourself," he says. "It starts with photographing your jobs, marketing yourself, applying for awards, winning awards, and then once you have all that stuff, do full-page color ads in local magazines. Once you meet a client, you have to be able to show them some things that you've done."

After successfully selling yourself and the body of your work, the early overtures you make toward interested parties offer another opportunity to do something different. Renter does something very unusual for this industry β€” he charges a fee for the initial estimate.

"We do something that we call a design consultation, and we charge a small amount of money to do that, usually less than $100." It may seem counterintuitive to charge potential clients for something the other guy is offering for free, but Renter finds that it works to his advantage by separating the people who are serious about hiring him from the casual lookers.

"My time is valuable, and I want to make sure I'm seeing the right clients, so we take the time to explain to the client the reason for the design consultation fee, and some people are caught off guard a little bit; they're like 'I've got seven other estimates, and how come you charge to come out and see me.' And the reason is, because you have seven other estimates, and I don't want to be number eight. I don't have time just to throw paper at you, and so if you want a design professional to come to your home to spend time with you, to photograph your backyard, to measure your backyard, to listen to what you're looking to do, show you professional photographs of things they've done in the past to make sure that we're heading in the right direction β€” all of those things take time and cost money.

"Professionals charge money," continues Renter. "If you went to a doctor, he doesn't give a free estimate for how much it costs to fix your cold. He's a professional, he's educated, he's been doing this for years, and you pay him for his service β€” it's the same thing with us. We're not doing it to make money; we're doing it really to just get rid of tire kickers. If they're willing to pay the $75 that we charge for design consultation, we're willing to spend an hour or two with them and see what they'd like to do."

Renter has been charging the fee for the last four or five years, and says it works well to attract the kinds of clients who want a high-end installation. "I strongly recommend it," he says. "Quality clients are willing to pay to have an expert come to their house and talk to them about their project."

After a meeting has been set up, Renter comes to the client's home armed with what he calls a critical piece of equipment β€” his laptop.

"We bring a laptop with presorted photographs of different types of projects that we do, and different categories of things that we do. I have pictures of decks and patios, swimming pools, a category just for fire. So that when a client says, 'I'm thinking of having a campfire,' you have some photographs prepared to show them."

The laptop is key, he says because then clients can see completed projects, without having to conceptualize what their backyard may look like.

"You don't have to talk in general terms; you can actually show them a photograph of something that you've done that you think looks great, and that's why a laptop is so powerful."

As he's scrolling through images at the client's home, Renter says another key to a successful meeting is reading the clients. "You have to look for reactions. You let them flip through the slideshow on your laptop, you get their reaction, and as they come to something and they point it out to you, you make notes of it and then the idea is when you create a plan, you give back the things that they liked."

After the design consultation, Renter tries to set up a meeting at his office for the next available Saturday, so as to keep the ideas fresh in his clients' minds. "We try and do it in less than a week, because if I've got a customer who is excited about a project, the last thing I want to do is let him meet other people and let him linger." In the meantime, his fulltime drafting person has put together a plan for clients to look at when they arrive.

"We use auto-CAD, and it makes a very impressive presentation. We print it on a piece of paper that's 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide, so it's a real blueprint of the plan. For people that have smaller offices and things like that, they can still design on their laptop, and there are companies that make a printout. You can just e-mail them the file; they'll print it out for you on large-format paper, and that's what you use to present the plan. But you have to be able to not sketch it on the back of a napkin or just have a sketch pad or just write down the words. You have to be able to graphically present to your client what you're going to do."

At his office, Renter also has deck treatments and other landscaping touches set up so that his clients can see them before they choose. "All of our sidewalks have been paved with the types of materials that we use around pools, and we can show them what a waterfall will look like, because we've got a working pond and waterfall in front of the office. We also have deck displays showing different types of materials, so they don't just have to conceptualize; they can actually touch and feel some of the materials."

Though this is not an option for people with smaller offices, Renter also has a dedicated space in his office for presenting plans. "We have a design center that's made specifically for presenting plans, where there's a large plasma TV, so we can show photographs of their yard, and of things that are similar to what we're proposing to do."

After the presentation, Renter keeps the plans. "I don't want anybody else to have them and be able to bid against me. Those are our creative ideas and we don't give them away, so we'll show it to you, and I'll give you a proposal, but the plan stays with us. I don't want to be in a position where people take my plans and are bidding against me."

Getting The Job Done

So far, Renter has set himself apart in the consultation and planning phase, but that wouldn't matter if he were offering the same features as everybody else, so what exactly does he offer that's so high end. The most unique things the company offers are probably the blue fittings for the pool. "We like them to be blue to match the color of the liner," he says. "We went to one of our manufacturers, and told them what we wanted, and they came up with dark-blue fittings, which we use on all of our jobs now. So when you look at the pool, all you see is blue.

"Only a handful of people in my market even know that blue fittings exist, let alone would mention it to a client. Even if a client says to another pool builder, 'I met somebody else and they say they can put blue fittings in,' the other builder probably doesn't know about it. For us, it's standard operating procedure."

Renter also offers features like a deep-end staircase instead of a ladder. "It's nicer to walk out of a deep end rather than to climb out of a deep end. Plus, it's another nice place where people can congregate," he says. Deep-end staircases are poured concrete covered in vinyl, as opposed to acrylic staircases.

In addition to the deep-end staircase, Renter offers features like diving rocks, boulders, waterfalls, benches and tanning shelves, which have become pretty standard in his pools.The most high-end features, like swim-up bars and bar stools, generate a lot of oohs and ahhs, but only a handful of his clients opt for them due to the expense.

As for the construction, Renter also does a few things that could be considered high-end. Rather than sand, the floor of the pool is a semi-hard bottom. "The alternative to sand is to use a mix of vermiculite and Portland cement, which is what we do," he says. "It prevents foot imprints in the floor of the pool; it also helps for other things like bad soil conditions and the possibility of washouts in the deep end."

Vinyl-liner pool walls are mostly constructed of steel, polymer or concrete. Renter has chosen concrete. "We choose it because it's stronger, it will last longer, and we also choose it because of our approach to working around the pool as a total package, not just as a swimming pool. By choosing a concrete-wall pool, we have a wall that will not bend or break under extreme weather conditions, and I have an area where I can backfill and compact around my pool and make sure my patio doesn't settle."

Concrete walls require builders to buy aluminum forms, though β€” a significant upfront investment. "You have to spend over $100,000 to buy your own forms, so it's like a mortgage payment. Once you own the forms, then the only cost is the steel rebar and the concrete, which is significantly less expensive than a steelwall kit that you would buy, so it costs less money to pour a concrete wall than it does to buy a steel kit." After the walls are poured, measuring for the liner is the most critical step in a custom installation. "This is different in a concrete pool vinyl-liner pool than in a steel-wall pool, because steel wall pools are designed on a computer, and have exact measurements. Many or most times, our pool walls are a different shape than any other pool. Because we have a unique-shaped wall and unique features, measuring it accurately to make sure the liner is cut the right way is critical."

Because of the freeze/thaw cycle in the Northeast, and his clients' desire to use their pools the same year they're built, Renter speeds up the ground settling process around the pool by compacting the soil he's backfilled. "Because of the way vinyl-liner pools are built, when the ground gets backfilled around the pool, it can either be compacted, which is what we do, to make it so that you can build a patio immediately, or it can just be backfilled and you'll wait for the ground to settle and let Mother Nature take its course, but that can take as much as a year."

The final step to giving clients a stand-out installation is the landscaping around the pool, according to Renter. "What really makes the pool beautiful is what you've done around it," he says. "In my world, 75 percent of the people who we do work for are looking for a total experience, not just the ability to swim and cool off, and so it's a place to entertain; it's a backyard resort, sometimes it's a status symbol. Whatever it is, it's something other than a place to swim."

If you want to jump into high-end vinyl-liner installations, you have to know who to market to and what to offer them. Use some of Renter's techniques and tips, and you may just find yourself among the winners of the AQUA Choice awards next year.

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