Credit: Illustration: Josef Gast

John Dunbar used to focus on the project, not the prospect. That was four years ago, when he began selling home improvements full-time. “I used to think that as long as I had the measurements for the roof and knew what the person wanted, I could provide them with an estimate,” says the one-time production manager who now manages sales at Jancewicz & Son, in Bellows Falls, Vt.

Between then and now, what Dunbar learned was how to conduct a needs assessment that gauges the prospect at least as thoroughly as it does the project.

The result? His sales performance dramatically improved. Close ratios went up, average dollars per job went up, and where he'd been “constantly running leads,” he was “out on the road selling less than 40 weeks a year,” he says.

MOST-IMPORTANT STEP A needs assessment is the single most important step in selling any home improvement. Done with knowledge and finesse, it establishes rapport while revealing the prospect's wants and needs. Simply by defining the scope of work, a properly conducted needs assessment positions you as an expert relative to the competition. Contractors and consultants say it also enables you to anticipate homeowner objections and close more and bigger sales.

If all this sounds complicated, it doesn't need to be. A needs assessment is simply a way to gather information. But many sales reps and contractors give it short shrift in their rush to present a proposal. Big mistake.

“The typical contractor just wants to get the estimate done,” says Scott Lemons, vice president of member services for Certified Contractors Network, in Ardmore, Pa. “He figures it's a numbers game. If he does 10 estimates, he'll get two or three contracts.”

Other contractors think that measuring the job and assessing the prospect's needs are the same thing. But, as Lemons points out, they may understand what the job entails but have no clue about what the customer wants or needs. “And the customer is the one who makes the buying decision,” Lemons says.

A comprehensive needs assessment gathers all pertinent information about the job, the prospects, their needs and wants, likes and dislikes, their home, and any other factors that will influence the sale and production of the project. Generally, there are two parts to the assessment: gathering information about the homeowners and their needs, and physically inspecting the property and taking measurements.

START EARLY Many contractors start their needs assessment at the first contact with a prospect. At Jancewicz & Son, information-gathering begins when the appointment is set. The company wants to know what the problem is, how long it has existed, how long the caller has owned the home, and what other products the prospect has considered.

Today many salespeople find that, in arriving at the home for the sales call, prospects are almost impatient to have their questions answered, with little time for small talk that's obviously such. Goldfish petting is counterproductive. “People are busy today,” says Joe Ronzino, vice president of retail operations for Four Seasons Sunrooms, in Holbrook, N.Y. “They want you to get right down to business. You don't typically spend 25 minutes on a warmup any more.”