How to Give Renovation Estimates While Sheltering in Place

Learn how contractors have pivoted to virtual estimates and consultations, and even continued performing on-site work while social distancing.

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The social distancing required to slow the spread of the coronavirus creates challenges for an industry accustomed to on-site consultations and face-to-face appointments. The difficult conditions are changing operations in the building and remodeling trades. But as these contractors demonstrate, the game can still go on.

Benefits of a Virtual World

At Nick Slavik Painting and Restoration in New Prague, Minn., several years ago Slavik saw the potential to make virtual estimates a time-saving part of his business. So when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, he never missed a beat.

“I do hundreds of them a year,” says Slavik. “We’ve got the process down; it’s super easy. Within hours, I can get people an estimate, and if I’m in the office, it can be just twenty minutes.” Estimating without being on site rarely leads to errors, he says. “Honestly, I do 250 a year,” he says. “I have one job a year that I mis-estimate because the people sent me some wonky images, where you get to the house and say, ‘This isn’t the same house.’ ”

Slavik figures one or two misses a year are acceptable because virtual consultations improve his productivity. “Every virtual estimate I do saves me two-and-a-half to four hours,” he says. “I used to do on-site estimates three afternoons and evenings a week. Basically, all those have been freed up for me. I get a day-and-a-half of time back every week.” He spends that time doing billable work.

How It’s Done

“You have to keep it simple for the homeowner,” Slavik says. “You can’t say, ‘I need you to measure every cabinet door.’ ” He asks potential clients to provide the widest shot they can. “Get as much of it in there as you can,” he directs. “With iPhones and such nowadays, you get some pretty good stuff back.”

Minor mistakes are easily fixable. “If people just leave out half the kitchen, I just tell them, `You didn’t send me pictures of these, so here’s the revised estimate,’ ” he says. Slavik also warns new tradespeople to be careful. Slavik’s experience — 27 years in the trade at about 400 jobs a year —  means he’s encountered almost every quirk and nuance. Contractors with limited experience may struggle with in-person and virtual estimates until they’ve done it awhile.

Let the Customer Lead

Whether trying to land new business or moving forward with a client who’s in mid-build or remodeling, contractors need to listen to their clients and meet them at their comfort level. That’s according to Tom Sweeney, founder of Content Craftsmen, which provides lead-generation and customer satisfaction services to contractors.

“[Remodeling contractors] have lost some projects that were scheduled to start production because we would have been remodeling kitchens and baths, right in people’s homes,” Sweeney says. “There are some services people will not buy right now, but there are other projects that they may be open to.” In current conditions, he advises contractors to focus on projects that avoid a family’s living space, such as building/replacing decks, remodeling basements and additions.

From initial consultations to design meetings and estimates, Sweeney suggests taking advantage of the many digital tools to accomplish these tasks virtually. “One challenge right now is that showrooms are not open, which is a part of the design process,” he says. “Designers working on floor plans are using 3-D modeling and screen sharing.” Other tools include homeowner photos, Zoom meetings and hubs.

He compares to Instagram, but focused on design. Designers can share images of ideas and product installations with the homeowner to keep progress on track.

Making Minor Adjustments

For some contractors, the current situation requires little adjustment. As weather warms, outdoor contractors may need only to provide masks and observe distancing norms in on-site consultations and work.

“A lot of people are very receptive to just meeting with us in their yards and add an appropriate distance [between us] during the walkthrough,” says Jeffrey Rossen of Rossen Landscape in Great Falls, Va. “After we prepare a proposal, we can send it over, or we can meet with them and just sell it in the yard at a distance.”

Rossen says it’s best to ask what the client is comfortable with when setting up meetings. “For clients that prefer not to meet with us at all, we’re just doing a Zoom meeting or FaceTime,” he says. “It’s a lot less personable. Some salespeople thrive on building a relationship of trust. Some clients are just focused on the cost and the reputation of the company and the online reviews. Everybody’s different.”

Closing the Deal … Eventually

Overall, Rossen says that the worrisome economic conditions surrounding stay-at-home policies cost him more business than social distancing. “Clients are afraid to spend money right now with the economic downturn and all the uncertainty,” he says. Rossen advises contractors going into virtual meetings to “be prepared with your best price the first time, because it might be your only chance.” And take additional care that proposals are complete and clear, because you may not be with the client to answer questions. “Use pictures and a very detailed plan, so they know exactly what they are getting and what to expect,” he says.

Sweeney advises his clients to do everything possible make the client comfortable with the project. “If they expect you to put up zip walls and plastic to separate the work space from the living space, or if they are uncertain about their finances, you have to respect and go with that,” he says. “If you try to push a client right now, that will backfire, because at the end of the day, people are most concerned about the health of their family or their finances — not whether they’re going to complete a discretionary project over the next month.”