When Dan Wolt started Zen Windows in 1997, he still made house calls. He arrived, showed his product — a vinyl window — gathered enough information to put together a proposal, and left. In 2002, he began offering the promise around which his business is built: Five-minute visits to produce that estimate. Homeowners anxious to avoid lengthy sales presentations by window companies jumped on it.

Today almost 100% of the Columbus, Ohio, company’s sales transactions take place without a salesperson ever setting foot in the house.

Here’s how it works: prospects — about 50% of them referrals, the rest leads generated from online search — contact Zen Windows seeking a price. Wolt sends them to his website and requests that they email him photographs of existing windows they want to replace. From there, he works up a price and sends the proposal and a pre-positioning package.

Once the proposal is accepted, the installation manager arrives within 24 hours to measure the openings for ordering purposes. Zen doesn’t take deposits on jobs, and installation crews collect the check or credit card payment upon job completion, which includes a 10-item checklist the homeowner fills out. Lead time typically consists of two weeks from order to installation.

Bid Accepted

Zen Windows is not a small business. Last year sales were $2.8 million. “My company sold 17 window jobs this week,” Wolt says, “every one online, and we’re installing four jobs today.”

Nor does it canvass or send demonstrators to work malls, retail stores, or shows and events. Almost all leads are inbound, and they’re either referrals or are generated through online search.

Zen Windows’ customers are people “ready to buy windows,” Wolt says. “They need a good window, a good installer, and a good company.”

Wolt, who once sold for a large home improvement company in Ohio, says that he decided to shift business online after watching a UPS truck deliver a box of diapers to his house for the Wolt triplets. “I looked at this box the size of the Empire State Building and I thought: We live in an age when people buy everything online.” Shortly after that he got a call from a homeowner in Lebanon, Pa., a good eight hours from Columbus, who had found Zen Windows online and wanted an estimate. “I told him,” Wolt says, “I don’t really want to drive eight hours, but if you can give me the number of windows, the color you want, the style and size, I’ll get you a price.”

Wolt says that he then worked up a bid and emailed it to the homeowner. “Forty-two seconds later,” he says, “an email came back: ‘Bid Accepted. How do we proceed?’”

The Internet Can Make You or Break You

That first online sale set the stage for more. When Wolt gets an inbound phone or email lead, he asks the homeowner if they would prefer to meet with him in person or if they’d rather have a proposal emailed. “As time went on, almost all of them wanted to do business by email,” he says.

Many studies of online marketing show that a majority of consumers now reach for their keypad before making any kind of major purchase. A PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) study released earlier this year shows 83% of U.S. consumers going online to research purchases of electronics, computers, books, music, and movies before buying those items in bricks-and-mortar stores. That trend accelerated during the recession. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 58% of all American adults performed online research on the products and services they considered purchasing, an increase from 49% in 2004.

For Wolt, the convenience that Zen Windows offers homeowners in ready-to-buy mode is the value that attaches to a product — vinyl windows — many consumers see as a commodity anyway. By doing business with Zen, they spare themselves having to spend three hours a night for three or four nights meeting with competing home improvement companies. The key to success is “making sure that lead is managed properly” once contact is made, Wolt says. For instance, this summer the owner took his daughter to New York City and never lost a day’s business. At one point, for instance, he emailed proposals to prospects from his mobile phone while riding the subway and while lying on the beach in New Jersey.

Wolt’s secret, he says, is a 35-point touch system “from when the first call comes in to job completion [so that] I make sure I don’t lose you.” 

—Jim Cory is editor of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR. jcory@hanleywood.com

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