Back To School

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If there was a way for dealers to show customers how much they appreciate their business, to build their client base, and make a good deal of money all in one night, would you want to know about it. Good news — there is such a way. And many dealers are already taking advantage of it.

Hosting annual pool chemistry schools is a great public relations tool, and so much more. Read on to learn other reasons dealers host these schools, what benefits they offer dealers and pool owners, how dealers promote and run them, and what gets covered.

Trouble-Free Seasons

The main reason to host these schools is quite obvious. Deanna Holl, co-owner of Jack's Pool & Spa in Madison, Ohio, says she has the schools "to educate our customers, because the more educated our customers are, the fewer problems and calls we're going to get. Customers will be able to take care of their own problems."

The seminars also help to create loyal customers. Says Holl, "They're glad you're teaching them how to take care of their pool. When they have a pool built by some other pool place and they're not getting any help or education, then those customers tend to have a lot more problems. Our customers know what they're doing with their pools, so they have trouble-free seasons. And they also have more time to enjoy their pool versus working on it."

Mary Ann McCullough, manager of Palmer Pool Sales, an AQUA 100 dealer in Mercer, Pa., knows that customers can go to the Internet for the information, "but the seminars are a more personal way to greet your customers, meet them, thank them and tell them you appreciate their business."

Besides, letting customers depend solely on information found on the Internet or in manufacturers' literature can result in confusion and dirty pools. "You can't rely on the literature you provide customers because customers often don't pay enough attention to it, and because of the integrated nature of chemicals and the filter system," says Jayme Gruen, national sales manager for S. Kearny, N.J.-based Alden Leeds. "We can kill things with chemistry very easily, but the water can still look hazy or cloudy if they're not operating the filter properly.

"In the literature, their full base of information is separated into a few parts, but at the seminars we can tie the system together and this forces them to think about the pool as a system. Even if their filter is working right, we have to repeatedly stress that they need to clean it, use it properly and use it long enough each day."

When customers understand and perform preventative maintenance, both with chemicals and equipment, this can save dealers a lot of time and headaches. "If you educate them, then they know how to properly maintain the water balance in their pool, which in turn does cut down on service problems with the filters, pumps and motors. If they properly maintain things, everything works better, so it's all interrelated," says McCullough.

Adds Gruen, "You're nipping problems before they occur, especially with filters, but also with stains, vinyl liners and keeping them from getting bleached — everything we talk about in terms of problems."

More Reasons To Host

Hosting pool chemistry schools also helps position those dealers as the pool expert in the area, and as a result, customers "will be hesitant to go somewhere else because they look to us for the answers," says Holl. "We're the experts, the professionals. They can't get that going to the mass merchant or wholesale club. There they're not going to get any kind of training or water testing."

Because there may not be many other educational opportunities for pool owners, seminars can be a great way to lure customers away from other dealerships. "Word gets around about our seminars and people who may not have even bought a pool from us ask if they can come," says Holl. "And we're open to that. We don't care where people bought their pool, we'll help them with chemicals because we know they'll then become a customer."

Last, but certainly not least, these seminars are a great forum for introducing, promoting and selling chemicals — though it's generally recommended to steer clear of turning the event into a high-pressure sales pitch. "We are doing a little bit of sales, but it's a soft sell," says Randy Darby, a dealer development specialist with BioGuard Pool & Spa Products, Lawrenceville, Ga. "The whole goal of these schools is to make sure that dealers have got happy customers out there that know what they're doing, that know how to take care of their pool or spa and that are going to keep coming back."

Getting A Good Turnout

To market and promote a pool school, most dealers send out a direct mail piece a couple of weeks before the seminar and some also advertise. Dealers who already have a significant customer database may not need to advertise, but for those who don't, advertising is essential. The good news is the ads usually work. "As far as I've seen," says Jeff Smith, a sales representative for Advantis Technologies, Alpharetta, Ga., "newspaper ads really increase the turnout."

Some dealers who send a direct mail piece opt to send it only to new pool owners, while others send it to their whole customer database. Either way, the postcard or letter should be focused on the school and the incentives to attend. "A lot of times we'll say, 'If you bring your newsletter, then you'll get a $10 coupon for the BioGuard chemicals,'" says McCullough. "And then we always have door prizes. We've had grand prizes like a $100 gift certificate for BioGuard chemicals and another time it was a $125 floating chair lounge. And then we have smaller prizes like thermometers, masks, goggles, toys, games, things like that. It's stuff that comes out of the pool store that's fun. We try to make it worth their while to come."

Most dealers hosting pool schools also offer a discount on chemicals valid that night only or that night and for a few days afterward, especially if the school is not held in the dealer's showroom because a large turnout is expected. And the most successful dealers have a plan. "We package our chemical kits and the night of the seminar, we hand out sheets of what the packages and prices are going to be," says Holl. "If they buy the chemicals as a kit, it's cheaper than just buying them individually."

Because Holl's company encourages pool owners to bring in a sample of their water before adding chemicals in the spring, its discount on chemicals is good for a couple of weeks. Jack's Pools & Spas also has a major spring sale two weeks after its seminar, and since many customers like to stop in during the sale and stock up, the discount runs through the sale.

Yet another way to attract customers to your school is food. Light refreshments and cookies are common, but something different may boost attendance. "A lot of years we've done doughnuts and coffee and pop and cookies," says McCullough, "But last year our theme was "The Power of Cheese" and we had cheese cubes and iced tea punch and it went over really well."

Some dealers turn their schools into huge events, with multiple manufacturer reps on hand, product demonstrations and other special features like a magician or local celebrity. But no matter the size or scope of the event, it's important to keep in mind what people came for: education and sale prices.

To ensure the event is productive and worthwhile for everyone, it's wise to have customers R.S.V.P. Returned invitations can be tossed into a bin for door prizes. And if, by chance, a low turnout is expected, the school can be cancelled. Says Darby, "I've had some cases where the dealers didn't do R.S.V.P. and we only ended up with five people, and it's almost embarrassing for those five people who did show, because it seems like it's not a big deal then and they think, 'Why did I come?'"

Even when a good turnout is expected (and this is more often the case), a reminder call is a good idea. In addition to announcing her company's schools with a direct mail piece, and in a newsletter and advertisements, McCullough calls everyone who is scheduled to attend a day or two before the seminar. "A lot of people forget because they've got so much going on, but the calling has worked really well throughout the years."

Darby also finds that "talking up" the seminar in the store is critical. "They key is to have all the staff on board and excited about it and to try to relay that to customers."

The Curriculum

Though manufacturer representatives most often lead the instruction at pool chemistry schools, dealers also help out and sometimes offer tips specific to the region or address equipment maintenance. Either way, it's important for dealers and their employees to be familiar with what's presented since customers will have questions that evening and beyond.

BioGuard's Darby says he runs through the five keys to pool care: circulation, filtration, cleaning, testing and water chemistry. "We really push the fact that the chemicals by themselves won't do everything. Because two major problems we run into nationwide are consumers not keeping enough sanitizer in the water and not paying enough attention to their circulation and filtration system.

"I also go over new products and spend some time on troubleshooting, where I'll go over the most common problems like cloudy water and staining of pool surfaces and algae. We also emphasize keeping the pool clean, as far as vacuuming and keeping the waterline clean. The bulk of the time is spent on water chemistry because that's really where most consumers fall down and get a little confused about exactly what they need to do."

Smith covers similar topics, but also addresses how to open a pool and performs simple yet very effective demonstrations. "With some plastic cups, I'll show how some of the chemicals work. For example, with the clarifier, you can put some water in there, mix in dirt and put a couple drops of clarifier in, stir it up and you'll see all the dirt clump together. Then you pass it around the room so people can see that, yeah, that clarifier does work. When they actually see a chemical working, they feel better about it."

To encourage participation, Smith also tosses small door prizes to those who ask good questions during his presentation.

Gruen covers the basics and mentions how to safely store and handle chemicals. He also urges pool owners to be perceptive: "Adjust according to the temperature and bather load. If you have parties, be prepared to add some more chemical because it gets depleted at a rate that you can't check quick enough. It could be as much as a 50 percent increase or more just if you have a Fourth of July party. In general, you want to be flexible during peak seasons."

McCullough hopes all her customers leave knowing they should bring in water samples at the beginning of the season, or if they encounter a problem, "they can come in and we can explain things on an individual basis. They're not on their own."

Everyone AQUA spoke with emphasized that the seminars should not get too technical and should not run over two hours (if that).

One On One

Steve White, president of Underwater Pool Masters, a service company in West Boylston, Mass., takes a somewhat different approach to educating customers. Instead of hosting large-scale affairs for 50 people or more, White goes to pool owners' homes and does a one-on-one orientation there.

"Many homeowners buy a house with a pool, but they may not know how to operate the pool," says White, a CPO instructor and an NSPI Level II Tech. "So we teach the homeowner on their property the complete functioning of their new pool.

"It costs around $100 and it's about an hour or two and we walk though everything, including understanding the hydraulics of the pool, how the pump and filter are set up, the type of filter and what requirements it has. The first priority on any on-site class is to talk about safety. We're concerned about proper heights for fences and self-closing gates. We're very conscious of main drain attachments and the proper main drain protective devices. We try to get the homeowner to feel relaxed with the pool and then we teach about water chemistry, how to do maintenance and how to troubleshoot some of their own problems.

"Most people want to have us on their property to teach them about their pool," continues White, "because as much as pools are generic, a gunite pool is very different than a vinyl liner is very different than a fiberglass pool. And the requirements for the water chemistry are the same in most cases, although we know that for example, the total calcium hardness required of a calcium-based pool like a gunite or shotcrete pool is generally more stringent than fiberglass or vinyl liner."

White always leaves homeowners with a few handouts "that deal with the basics of pool operation, such as if they were to open or close the pool themselves or if they ran into chemistry questions."

It's All Good

However you approach instruction for pool owners, it makes a difference. "I swear, so many people thank us as they're leaving the seminars," says Holl. "They're just so appreciative that you take the time out to do that for them."

When homeowners know how to take care of their pools from Day One, the chances of them encountering problems diminishes significantly. And happy customers lead to good referrals, good business and a better reputation for the whole industry.

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