Consumers have never had it easier. If they want detergent, eggs or paper towels, they ask Alexa and those items appear on their doorsteps the next day or, in some places, the same day. This extraordinary customer experience, once unthinkable, is no big deal today. And it’s not just limited to small household items and groceries. Americans buy everything from dishwashers and ceiling fans to cars and homes in a few clicks.
Frictionless customer experiences like these are increasingly the norm and, without it ever being explicitly articulated, this new norm is shifting expectations, redefining what it takes to create satisfied customers regardless of the product or service, including home improvements.
Each day when thousands of remodelers and home improvement pros hit the streets to sell jobs the old-fashioned way—far too many without the benefit of standard digital tools now available—this is the reality they face. Without quite realizing it, they are starting out at a disadvantage from a customer-relationship standpoint.
Thank goodness that demand for home improvements is so strong. These days any contractor with time to qualify and then meet with a homeowner will walk out of that meeting with a job or a signed design agreement.
But what happens in a year or two when demand softens a bit? What happens when clients can choose between the old way of remodeling—rife with missed phone calls and unanswered emails—and a newer mobile-device driven, web-enabled experience of interactions and face-to-face meetings that more closely match today’s new normal in terms of text messages and instant access to information? They will choose the second option.
Offering a smoother buying journey and overall better customer experience is just one of the reasons that contractors are increasingly embracing a raft of new business software and technology. Today, there are hundreds of affordable software solutions designed to solve small-business problems of all kinds, many tailored to the specific needs of remodelers.
Contractors in bigger numbers are embracing highly sophisticated project-management software that is no longer loaded onto company computers and implemented over many months. Today, feature-rich enterprise software solutions are offered “in the cloud” through web browsers. They are now in a category known as software as a service or SaaS for short. And just as the buying experience for consumers is increasingly seamless, the front-end user experience for contractors is highly intuitive, reducing training time. Implementation takes days and weeks, rather than months.
Abe Degnan of Degnan Design, based in Madison, Wisconsin, offers a good case study. If ever there was a portrait of a 45-year-old digital native, the type of person who gravitates to software solutions, particularly those that are mobile, Degnan is it. Beginning in the 2010s and earlier, he invested whatever time it would take to try various enterprise-level project-management solutions. Like many contractors his age and younger, the benefits of using high-quality software is worth any hassle, including training sessions in 2011 that involved travel and off-site training for him and other key team members. Even after that investment of time and energy, a few short years later he dropped that solution in favor of a new one he still uses today.
“Our use of software starts from the very beginning with our website and customer scheduling. Our customers can, right on our website, book their own appointments. We’re using Acuity for scheduling. We’re using Squarespace for our website. We also use Google Workspace, Google Apps—whatever brand name they’re going by this month. So that all integrates together, and people book a video meeting with me,” Degnan explains. “They get an automated script of emails before the meeting. Those emails push them back to the website to learn more about us and to make sure that hopefully they’ve studied our processes and learned who our people are and have looked at our projects. So, it starts from the very beginning. It sets an expectation or sets the demeanor and the pattern of what they should expect.”
Without ever having met a particular prospect or using any staff time, Degnan has set up a system where, by the time he meets with them in a video call, they are informed about the remodeling process, the people who will be doing the work, and they also get a sense of project sizes and costs. Degnan offers a high-ticket, design-build project often in the six-figure range. It is a huge time saver that weeds out “tire kickers” and helps Degnan get to the sale faster.
Other steps in Degnan’s process follow the same pattern. His firm uses CoConstruct, a popular enterprise solution, which was recently acquired by an equally subscribed solution, Buildertrend. Degnan estimates that 90 to 95 percent of his customers use CoConstruct’s web interface to communicate with Degnan and other team members during the design and construction phases of their jobs. His trade partners, including plumbers, electricians and framers, are at about 80 percent adoption.
“There are guys who like to send email, so we have someone take those emails and upload them into CoConstruct,” says Degan, who indicated that more of his extended group of vendors are conforming to the program.
Degnan credits his use of technology and his staff’s adoption of it with helping his company regularly hit aggressive profit targets. He also credits technology with allowing him more time for a very big family, which consists of six children he and his wife have adopted. “I am blessed to have the ability to make money for this family,” Degnan says.
And that gets to the root of another benefit that is driving more remodelers and home improvement pros to become FAST Remodelers. For too many remodelers, a less tech-oriented approach does not allow them the time to strike a balance between work and life, an increasingly valuable asset today. Technology allows for streamlined operations that are easier to manage and often come with better margins.
Other types of software solutions that have yet to be mentioned include a wide range of dynamic presentation software programs. These enable remodelers and home improvement pros to create slick, professional and interactive in-home presentations on tablets and laptops.
Applications designed to measure and estimate jobs remotely are also on the rise. They are intuitive and easy for all members of a team to generate accurate proposals that are interoperable with a wide range of presentation platforms.
Design software is another example. It is increasingly robust, with drag-and-drop menus, that help designers quickly draft floor-plan modifications that can be converted into stunning, walk-through-quality visuals. Visualizers are another entire category. And many are free. They are embedded in ordering software from large suppliers and manufacturers. And they can be imported as widgets onto a remodeler’s website.
A few years ago, most contractors ran a simple suite of software—email, QuickBooks, spreadsheets, CAD, etc.—and many still do. Research conducted early in 2022 by Qualified Remodeler across all types of residential design and construction professionals indicates a shift toward the increased use of business technology; 12 percent view themselves as “late-adopters” of technology resistant to change. But much of the remainder (56 percent) saw themselves as either “quick adopters” or “digital first,” while 24 percent said they were “slow” but steady adopters of new technology.
Through unaided commentary from respondents, the research also revealed that many slow and late adopters were cowed by past experiences that did not work out as they had planned. It was a combination of high costs for the product and a high cost in terms of weeks and months of training and implementation. Others said they seek to utilize more software solutions in their businesses but are unhappy when a software contract is signed, and the product is paid for but underutilized. Many also fall into a group that feels like they pay a lot for various software, but they are not using it all correctly and coherently. They are seeking information that will help them implement a solid strategy from their current hodgepodge.
As a result of this research, Qualified Remodeler is launching a new monthly newsletter called FAST Remodeler and will present an educational and networking conference, FAST Remodeler Live, May 10-11 in downtown Baltimore.
Big Home Improvement Firms Scale Up with Technology
At the far opposite end of the spectrum from the thousands of dependable local remodelers who are increasingly digitizing their businesses sits Tim Wenhold. He too grapples with finding new ways to use business software to streamline the home-improvement and remodeling business. The only difference is that he does it for one of the largest companies in the industry.
As the chief information officer for fast-growing Power Home Remodeling, which will approach $1 billion in installed sales in 2022, Wenhold has spent 15 years building Nitro, a proprietary technology platform that facilitates high-quality user experiences for a number of stakeholders. There are no off-the-shelf solutions in Nitro. Their technology “stack” is a robust blend of components only software engineers would know by name.
Power Home Remodeling leadership has said it would not be able to grow to 17 wholly owned and organically owned locations without the power and scalability of its own technology platform that is custom fit to its well-established processes for customer acquisition, sales, installation and customer relationship management. Every in-house department, from accounting and finance to call-center operations, use the platform.
“I always smile because when I sit in meetings with my partners and other members of the executive team to discuss opening new branches, like our newest in Phoenix and Pittsburgh, no one ever asks, ‘Can Nitro handle it?’ They don’t even think about it,” Wenhold says.
Internally, many different types of employees interact with Nitro in ways suited to their specific job requirements, he explains. The platform looks different to each user. They range from call-center employees who set appointments to remodeling consultants who conduct in-home presentations to installers on the jobsite.
Externally, Power Home Remodeling clients are able to see the status of their jobs, access documents and feel confident of their upcoming appointments based on the clarity and completeness of the information presented. All the solutions sit atop on Nitro, which has its own server farms in three locations around the country. It is maintained buy a full-time staff of 156 business technology employees, 60 of whom write software for Nitro.
Among the biggest firms on Qualified Remodeler’s annual TOP 500 list, Power Home Remodeling ranked No. 5 and is not alone in its strategic reliance on a robust, repeatable, technology platform to fuel both organic growth and to streamline the integration of newly acquired firms. Fast-growing West Shore Home says its technology platform enables it to be fully integrated with a company it acquires within 60 days.
Titan Holdings, based in Florida, has made several notable acquisitions in the last 24 months. Among those acquisitions was the popular lead-management software Lead Perfection, which will serve two purposes for Titan, says its CEO Daniel Gluck. The technology will help unify its disparate home improvement company operations; meanwhile, Lead Perfection will form the launching point for several new software solutions that will be devoted to the needs of its companies and other home improvement companies around the industry.
When asked the impact of what is an ongoing and massive technological ramp-up among contractors big and small, and what it will mean for the average small contractor, Wenhold did not hold back.
“I hope it changes the industry. That was one of the goals at Power—to put a new face on the industry, professionalize it, make it not like the tin man days of old, right? The tin man selling siding. You don’t need to use tactics like that. I hope it does change the industry because I know it has for us. And what I honestly believe is there’s enough work out there for very small contractors who can continue to operate profitably. And if ‘Chuck-in-a truck’ can sign up with software that makes a better customer experience for his one or two installations he’s doing that week, we all benefit from it.
“We need to raise the level of customer experience in the industry, and Power’s doing its part,” Wenhold adds. “That should be table stakes to get into this industry. I hope that technology, whether we’ve developed it or someone else is using another platform or stitches things together, that the end result for the customer is a much better experience.” QR