12 Ways for your company to show its professional side

By Lola Rain, for the HBA

Successful businesses continually evaluate strategies and customer service. Once you identify areas you want to improve, implementing a strategy can be a simple task. Here are 12 ways you can shine in the eyes of your current and future clients.

(1)Be the Expert
(2)Listen Carefully
(3)Follow Up
(4)Respect, Loyalty, and Trust
(5)Keep It Clean
(6)Shop Around to Save on Your Bottom Line
(7)Appreciate Your Clients
(8)Prospect, Prospect, Prospect
(9)Respond to Every Inquiry
(10)Differentiate Your Company
(11)Evaluate Your Online Image and Yelp It Up
(12)Ask for the Business

(1)Be the Expert
Positive attitude and enthusiasm can win potential customers and even build clients for life. People are looking for an expert they can trust. “Be the expert,” said Jeff Metke of Metke Remodeling & Woodworking Inc. “We believe after 23 years, we have enough gray hair, advice, and expertise. We are going to take a lot of time — baby steps toward cementing a relationship.” Stating your expertise can also be the first step toward building a long and lucrative relationship.

(2)Listen Carefully
Active listening can help you succeed as a communicator. It requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The ability to listen actively can reduce conflict, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding. When interacting, people often are not listening attentively. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next. “Listening is very important,” said Debbie Kitchin of InterWorks, LLC. “We want the process to be as comfortable as possible. We don’t want them to be concerned or upset.” Actively listening for clues that indicate the potential for concern or conflict can greatly improve your relationships with your clientele.

(3)Follow Up
In today’s world everyone is busy with family, work, and life. Communication has become difficult even though we have more ways to communicate. One successful sales person suggests asking your clients up front how they like to communicate: phone calls, voicemail, text messaging, or emails. Everyone has a preference. Check in with your clients often and communicate the process. Nancy Long at Sisu Painting said she touches base with her clients frequently after the initial free phone consultation. It’s just as important to follow up during the process as it is after the project is complete. Long does a final walk-through after painters walk away to look for issues and schedule touchups. She puts each client into a contact management system and sends them closing out papers, warranties, and thank you cards.

(4)Respect, Loyalty, and Trust
Professionals know who they can trust: other professionals. Recognizing and respecting the vendors who have been there for you is important in any economy, but trust and loyalty can be essential for survival in economic downturns. “It’s been very rough over the last few years,” said Thomas Liesy, owner of TA Liesy Homes NW, LLC, which is why he has remained loyal to his vendors. Liesy also understands the price sensitive market. “We provide more than our competition and we are extremely loyal to our vendors,” he said. Cutting corners and hiring sub-par labor is not an option for companies who are dedicated professionals. Knowing who you can trust shows your commitment to professionalism.

(5)Keep It Clean
Your professional image is important, but it’s not all about how you, your office, or your showroom looks. Kitchin said her crews always keep a clean work site, which cuts down on dust, improves safety, and is better for the environment. It’s also a common and professional courtesy to extend to your clients, some of whom may have concerns with chemical sensitivities, asthma, and allergies.

(6)Shop Around to Save on Your Bottom Line
In today’s economic climate any savings is good unless it erodes your professionalism and your company’s commitment to excellence. Loyalty to vendors you trust is extremely important. But when it comes to meeting your clients’ goals, sometimes you need to shop around and cut costs to help achieve a tighter budget. Thomas Payne from Craftsman Home Group, LLC, spends a lot of time with clients to make sure they are getting the best price for what they want. Payne said it’s important to help clients find products on sale early on in the process. “I am trying to avoid having to shop late in the project when the budgets are tighter,” he said.

(7)Appreciate Your Clients
Business is tough and your hard work deserves recognition. The best recognition often comes in the form of repeat business and referrals. Sisu Painting sends two cards a year, including a Happy New Year card with a photo and blurb about the Santa House at Bridgeport Village. “If you treat them as lifetime clients, they are more likely to refer,” said Nancy Long. This type of appreciation can come in the form of cards, emails, phone calls, or even annual events. Some members give Home and Garden or Street of Dreams show tickets to their top clients. Others have annual appreciation parties. Your clients will recognize your level of professionalism through these acts of kindness.

(8)Prospect, Prospect, Prospect
It’s a cycle! You just finished a job and now it’s time to start the next one. How do you ensure you always have business in the pipeline? Through prospecting. One of the best and easiest ways to prospect is through the HBA. Attend an event and talk to people. Build relationships and make friends. Prospecting can be fun if you enter it with a positive attitude. Besides events such as monthly luncheons and happy hours, consider attending the Reserve Trade Show or sponsoring an event. These simple techniques can actually change the way you look at prospecting in the future and help you to keep business in the pipeline.

(9)Respond to Every Inquiry
Each and every voicemail and email is important to your business. How many times have you left a message only to be frustrated by no response? Companies that respond quickly are more likely to earn the business and respect of clients. Not responding can also tarnish your business through word of mouth. People are just as likely to say, “Don’t use that company, they aren’t very responsive,” as they are to say, “They have great customer service, I highly recommend them.”

(10)Differentiate Your Company
Know what areas you excel at and talk about them with pride. Carl Paasche of Woodcrafters Lumber Sales says his company stresses high quality products and customer service. “Anyone can sell for a lower price,” he said.  “We try to maintain the highest quality and a high level of customer service.” Specializing in a niche product or service can be helpful in setting your company apart. Woodcrafters, for example, specializes in molding that are no longer made. “If you need a molding to match, we are your best source,” Paasche said.

(11)Evaluate Your Online Image and Yelp It Up
Metke uses Websites and Facebook to reach out to clients, but he doesn’t shamelessly promote his business. “Become an expert on what people are doing to maintain their house and work to engage with clients on Facebook,” he says. While Metke admits his company is not as diligent as it needs to be with its Website and social media, he is trying to be more regular by dedicating at least 5 hours a week.  Long developed a group of 12 professionals to help out with her social media. “It’s a group effort,” she said. Sisu Paiting trades services with the group and they review each other online. “If an electrician comes into the group, everyone agrees to use the electrician,” said Long. By having multiple reviews on Yelp.com, Sisu Painting has a strong SEO presence. Long received a total of 14 bids in January. “Most of it came from improving online presence,” she said. “Nine bids from Yelp, Angie’s List and Google, and five from PRO members.”

(12)Ask for the Business
However you market your company, whether it’s through advertising, social media, or a referral system, waiting for the phone to ring is a passive way to do business. Following up with leads takes time, but the sales cycle can be shortened by asking for the business. Simply add to the end of your sales pitch or elevator speech, “Can I count on your business?” or “When do you want to start the project? I know you will be happy with my service,” and watch what happens next. It takes practice to build the confidence for the “ask”, but the results will be worth the effort.

The Journey to Meditation Mountain

The hustle and bustle of a big city brings a level of excitement that people crave. Portland, Oregon, a metropolitan of over 1 million people, has a lot to offer. Festivals on the waterfront, Powell’s City of Books, dozens of music venues, and every kind of food you can imagine. But like with most things, when you spend a decade doing the same thing day in and day out in one city, you begin to long for more.

I found Ventura, California, purely by accident. I needed a a different pace of life and a friend invited me to live here. Only 15 days into my new life in the sunshine, I came across a place called Meditation Mountain. It’s been around since the late 1960s. It’s a special place with its gardens and views. It’s mission is international peace.

View from Meditation Mountain in Ojai, California

A place like Meditation Mountain sounds very new age and spiritual. I was curious if I would find yogis and monks sitting around meditating. But I found something completely different. Something I never found in Portland, Oregon. Complete stillness.

I was shocked how good silence really sounded. The air is so quiet and clean on this mountain. I felt like I was a million miles away, yet so connected to the rest of the world with my iPhone in my hand taking and texting pictures. As I wander through life, I am always surprised when I discover new places like this, places some people may never visit because the name sounds daunting or unconventional.

Meditation is a difficult concept to grasp and I have only recently starting thinking about how this practice can be adopted in Western culture. How can meditation help reduce the anxieties and fears built up from the stress our society is currently experiencing?

I recall as a child in elementary school, each morning we observed a moment of silence. No teacher ever explained what this moment of silence was for or what we should be thinking while the moment was passing us by. When and where was this ritual conceived and where has it gone today?

It is wonderment that keeps me going each day. Every day is new and there are more discoveries to be made.

Lessons on a Journey to Ventura, CA

Top Ten Reasons Ventura is the Place for Me

1. The sunshine has given me energy that I have not felt in years. My 39 year old bones did not thrive in the wet, cold environment of Portland, Oregon. (Even though Portland is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.)

2. My dog loves the sun on her 12 year old back. She literally smiles when she is outside in the yard. It makes me happy that she is happy.

3. I had conversations with strangers in the grocery store and they were smiling and laughing with me.

4. There are taco stands EVERY WHERE!

5. I get to cook for my roommates and I LOVE cooking!

6. There is a beach here and I am going to take my dog for a walk on it. I can’t wait!

7. Yoga in the park was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced — well, it was the most amazing yoga I ever experienced.

8. More people ride their bicycles here in the winter than they do in Portland.

9. I can garden every day and my plants will grow because of the sunshine and warm weather.

10. Did I mention the taco stands? Tacos make me happy!

This is where I am going to take my dog for a walk.

Writing Sample: Economic Forecast

I am always excited when I get the opportunity to tackle a new topic with my writing skills. This is my first article on the subject of the economy. During the December 2011 Housing Forecast Breakfast, I listened to various speakers and questions from the audience. This article ran in the January 2012 issue of the Home Building News (HBN). You can also see it online here. Please note that I am not only the editor of the HBN, I am a contributing writer even though I don’t get the by line.

Improving market on the horizon, housing experts explain recovery

Promising outlook presented at annual Housing Forecast Breakfast
by Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland
December 2011

With nearly 400 housing professionals and elected officials in attendance at the annual Housing Forecast Breakfast on December 14, 2012, HBA’s largest audience in four years was eager to hear the outlook. Three industry experts gave us a peek at the economic horizon:  Slow growth is expected in 2012.

Graph A
Graph A

National Economist Perspective

“The worst is behind us,” said Robert Denk, Assistant VP for Forecasting and Analysis at the National Association of Home Builders. But there is still “a lot of uncertainty,” said Denk. The high unemployment rate coupled with the sluggish growth of GDP contributes to a low level of confidence among Americans.  Denk pointed out that of the eight recessions in the last 50 years, the current one comes in second to last in the speed of recovery. The economy is just “bouncing along the bottom, stuck in a holding pattern,” added Denk.

Graph B
Graph B

Denk uses the level of production between 2000-2003 as the standard for “normal”. According to his calculations, the national average for single-family housing starts bottomed at 28% of “normal” production. He indicates that all four measurements of housing prices (Case-Shiller, FHFA, NAR, and Flow of Funds), although not NASA precise, tell the same story (see graph A).  According to Denk, the national average on single family starts has grown to 42% of “normal” indicating that we are on our way back.  However, Oregon will be one of the slower states to recover.

Graph C
Graph C

When comparing median house price to median income, “price declines are over.” At the peak of the recession, price/income ratio topped at 4.7 and now has stabilized at 3.2.  Price to income ratio represents the ratio of the median house price compared to the median annual income for a region.  For example, if the median home price is $250,000 and the median annual income is $50,000, then the price/income ratio is 5.0.  A price/income ratio of 3.2 is considered normal, and many economists felt that until a region’s ratio got down to 3.2, the area would still have problems.

Graph D
Graph D

When it comes to foreclosures, Denk made a distinction between “problem” versus “crisis”. In some states (mostly the southwest, Florida, and the rust belt), foreclosures grew to 6 times pre-recession average.  The national average, however, “only” doubled, growing from .5% to 1% at its peak. Oregon is hovering right at the national average of 1%, which means that while we’re not as bad as a few of the worst states, foreclosures still will play an impact in our recovery (see graph B). Denk uses graphs C and D to illustrate the rate of recovery in 2012 and 2013.

Regional Land Supply Analysis

Taking a different perspective, analyst Todd Britsch of New Home Trends talked about the availability of lots and land. Currently, 10% of plats in the pipeline do not have a lender associated. “The odds are a majority will go back to the bank,” said Britsch.

When the market turns, Britsch doesn’t see the likelihood that larger banks will be the first to begin to loan on vertical development.  He predicts smaller regional banks and private lenders will make money available first.  National builders and local builders who survived the downturn will continue to build.

“We need first time home buyers back in the market. It fuels the step up buyer,” emphasized Britsch.

With 11,357 foreclosures in the four county (Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington) area in 2011, the perception has been “the banks did this to me.” But Britsch noted when rent rates go up, it fuels housing starts. He pointed out it’s now “less expensive to own today than rent,” as vacancy rates have decreased and rents are starting to rise.  These are also positive indicators for a housing recovery.

Graph E
Graph E

Britsch doesn’t believe unemployment is a major positive factor until it is down to 5%, as recent drops are also a result of some people just not looking for jobs anymore.   He believes a better barometer is the number of people employed along with net jobs added, and he sees a slight increase in the number of people holding jobs (see graph E).

Finally, Britsch also noted that there is a perception that the cost of new homes has come down.  The reality, he said, is that builders have had to decrease amenities in new homes to be competitive with the existing home market, so that has given the appearance of price declines.  As the market recovers, builders are likely to begin adding amenities back in as well as building larger homes that the market will demand again.

Local Sales Market Impacts

Ken Perry, President and CEO of Knowledge Group, emphasized “we have a perception problem in the US.” If there is no social problem to giving your house back, you will give your house back,” he said.  “What that means is there are a lot of people who gave their house bank to the bank in 2008 and 2009 because it simply didn’t make sense to keep it.”  The good news, said Perry, “Once someone has tasted the sweet nectar of home ownership, they want to own again.” It will only take those who lost their homes 2 or 3 years to get back into another mortgage because most people kept their credit scores high buy paying on their credit cards instead of their mortgages.  Perry believes this buying group, along with all those who delayed forming households during the recession, will cause a high demand for housing in 2-3 years.

Perry also stated that we’re at a point where much of the public perceptions of the economy and the housing market are driven by their conversations with others.  Perry’s solution? The CPCI – Christmas Party Conversation Index.  When you talk down about the industry, the listener will go to the next party and repeat those words: “Business sucks. It’s a bad market out there.”  When you talk positive, the positivity spreads.

It should be noted that Perry is not a blind optimist.  When he spoke at the HBA Housing Forecast breakfast in 2008, Perry said our industry just finished the biggest party of its life (the housing market boom) and was now waking up with the worst hangover it had ever experienced.  At that time (2008), he believed the hangover would last a few more years.  Due to his track record, Perry’s optimism about slow growth in 2012 followed by rising growth in 2013 has credibility.

Conclusion

These three industry experts, all coming from different perspectives, are giving us cautious but growing optimism for the housing market recovery.  So, think about how you can spread the word at your next social event: “The economy is growing – slowly but surely.”

A Short Essay: Leadership and the Committee

“Lola adds the ability to lead and inspire others around her to do more than they themselves knew they could do.” – Steve Russell, Windermere Realty

Approval by committee can be a complicated process unless managed effectively. Strong leadership helps avoid confusion, indecisiveness, and disagreements. Setting expectations and properly managing them can be the winning strategy when leading a team. My approach is to get to know each member and understand what personally motivations them. It is easier to gain respect when you build a committee from scratch, like I did with the Senior Advisory Council for Volunteers of America. However, when you walk into an existing committee, many members already have relationship patterns and it’s harder to gain the leadership edge. I experienced this on both the Heart Ball committee and the Board of Licensed Social Workers. It takes time to prove yourself and your dedication. By creating a relationship with each member, you can break down barriers and address preconceptions. Participating on a committee should be a fun and rewarding experience.

The above essay was written during the interview process at the Home Builders Association (HBA). After I received the job and became liaison to the Communications Committee, I was delighted by the following comment given to my CEO. 

“I just wanted to let you know how impressed I am with the HBA’s new hire, Lola Rain.  I’ve sat on many committees and a few boards and she is a great facilitator and thinker that surprises all of us in each communication meeting.  Her leadership, processes and programs she comes up with are very refreshing and helpful.” – Jason Coles, HBA Member

Thank you Jason for the kind words. The Home Builders Association truly has been the best organization I have ever worked for. I will miss it very much.

Writing Sample: Serving Up Style

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Home Building News.

Serving Up Style was an epiphany Debbie McCabe had several years ago while at an Elle Decor dining competition in New York City. Although she isn’t a designer, she has great admiration for architecture and décor. In fact, her daughter Megan is an architect in California. Her other daughter is Molly, of Molly’s Fund.

Molly was diagnosed with lupus eight years ago when she was only 25 years old. Lupus is a horribly debilitating disease that many people live with in silence, as it is nearly invisible to the eye. People who suffer with lupus have severe pain that often imprisons them in bed alone, leaving their family and children not understanding why this disease has such a traumatic impact on their lives. McCabe wanted to tell her daughter’s story and educate others about Lupus, so she founded Molly’s Fund in 2008.

Serving Up Style transformed the way McCabe was able to tell the story of Molly and lupus. During the 3rd annual Serving Up Style last month, she was astonished with the talented turnout of the twelve participating designers and their respective dining creations. In 2009, they started with just five design teams, grew to ten teams in 2010, and now McCabe is already receiving calls from designers who want to participate in the 2012 show.

As part of the Fall Home and Garden show, Molly’s fund is able to reach over 10,000 people and Serving up Style is just starting to gain followers – designers involved say this is the largest design competition in the Portland area.  Coupled with the design competition is the annual gala – a sit down dinner with silent and live auctions. This year the benefit gala drew in 350 people and raised over $100,000 for Molly’s Fund. “As the word gets out, our numbers increase for the gala,” said McCabe. Melanie Wingo, KATU anchor, is the emcee. “People were so generous this year,” McCabe exclaimed. One auction item, a weeklong vacation to a home in the Florida Keys (with its own lagoon and tennis court) went for $8,000 including airfare for four. Ikea donated its dining room to a raffle that sold $2,500 worth of tickets.

According to McCabe, Serving Up Style has room to grow but it depends on sponsors. Lighting the twelve dining spaces can be expensive, and if it grows in 2012, they are looking at one hefty electric bill.

McCabe expressed her gratitude to the Fall Home and Garden Show and the Home Builders Association. “We couldn’t do it without them. They are an amazing partner. Their contribution and faith in us is so important.”

Writing Sample: Portland Fall Home & Garden Show

From the November 2011 issue of the Home Building News

Portland Fall Home & Garden Show
The HBA Ask the Expert Booth at the Portland Expo Center Sept. 29-Oct.2, 2011

Recently, homeowners looking to improve the value and beauty of their homes turned out for the Fall Home and Garden Show at the Portland Expo Center.  “This year’s traffic was up nearly 20% over fall 2010,” says Dave Nielsen, CEO of the HBA.  “Members reported they had numerous solid leads and that the show was successful for them.”

This year’s show attracted traffic using billboards, a print media campaign with a weekday coupon, and special appearances by local morning show personalities. With 343 booths promoting household products, landscapers, builders and remodelers, attendees had a plethora of options and ideas to consider.

“Every couple who walks through the door is there for a purpose,” said Terry O’Loughlin, event producer with O’Loughlin Trade Shows. “They have a reason for attending the show. These people are here looking for a service, product, or to learn something,” explains O’Loughlin.

Home and Garden chair and fall vendor, Mitch Stanley of Stanley Renovation & Design, talked with several people looking for options for their upcoming projects. Because Stanley offers full-service remodeling, he appeals to a special clientele. “I had 7 or 8 conversations with qualified clients who are looking to start projects in the spring,” he said. Stanley plans on returning to the Expo center in February to continue building relationships with potential clients at the Spring Home and Garden Show.

“The Home and Garden shows are for vendors to market, brand, and follow up leads from the last show. If you make an impression on these people they will come back looking for you,” said O’Loughlin. Stanley agrees the show is good for branding and getting his name out there.

For the last three years Steve Heiteen from Portland Remodel has held a booth at the Home and Garden shows. “Most people want information,” said Heiteen. It’s about “connecting with people as you talk to them. Let them understand we can be a resource for them. A lot of people will call when they are ready,” he explained. Heinteen secured three appointments during the show.

Returning this year was the design showcase Serving Up Style, which featured dining room designs from twelve of the best local designers in the business. The exhibit helped raise over $100,000 for Molly’s Fund, a local nonprofit that supports lupus awareness, education, and research for a cure. This was a 150% increase from funds raised in 2010 used in the fight against this debilitating disease.

The first place award for both the designer’s choice and people’s choice of Serving Up Style went to Portland interior designer Wendy O’Brien, an HBA member. Her design, incorporating a life-sized giraffe made from rusted metal, impressed the attendees as well as the fellow craftsmen at the show.

Other features included a plant sale benefiting Leach Botanical Garden and dozens of animal adoptions through the efforts of Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals.

The Portland Spring Home & Garden Show is coming this February.  Be sure to visit www.otshows.com  for the latest information about how to get involved.