Business partners, Maija Kropp and Don Katzenberger. Brand-building helped fuel the growth of their company, S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows, in Eldersburg, Md.
Business partners, Maija Kropp and Don Katzenberger. Brand-building helped fuel the growth of their company, S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows, in Eldersburg, Md.

Unlike many home improvement contractors, Maija Kropp and Don Katzenberger, partners in S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows, don't worry much about leads. Why should they, when roughly three out of every five jobs result from previous customers, either repeat or referral?

S&K, in the rural town of Eldersburg, Md., is in a growth spurt. Sales have steadily climbed since the early '90s, when the company blew past the $1 million mark. Last year S&K did $15.4 million, most of it residential and two-thirds of it roofing. Vice president and CFO Kropp says the growth has been steady, controlled, and manageable. The last several million in added revenue, she says, came from adding two new salespeople and from results achieved by the marketing and public relations company that S&K hired three years ago to beef up its image. The re-branded company got a new look and logo, one that carries through to everything from stationery to uniforms. The goal: To equate the company with quality, stability and reliability, and to position S&K — which does substantial volume in windows, siding, decks, and gutter protection — as more than just a roofer.

None of that would have meant much if S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows hadn't developed a customer-centered culture. Telephone inquiries, for instance, are routed to an owner. “Everything we do is based on customer satisfaction,” Kropp says. “From the first phone call to the final billing, customers are handled with kid gloves.” Home owners, she points out, are “scared to call a contractor. So we try to exceed their expectations immediately.”

New Attitudes, New Ideas Today, many home improvement company owners are trying on kid gloves. They have to because consumer attitudes about shopping and buying have changed. Homeowners are wiser, warier, and more demanding. Probably the biggest driver of that change is the Internet, where curious consumers can get all kinds of data — including pricing and warranties — about home improvement products.

In fact, as many company owners will attest, by the time reps arrive at the house, prospects are often anything but uninformed. “Our product is something they research for a year or more before they buy because there is no shortage of competition,” says Sven Kramer, general manager of Stanek Vinyl Windows, in Cleveland.

Add to this the general bombardment of advertising messages and the demographic of a gradually aging consumer who's been around and has seen it all before, and you have someone who “has become much savvier in the way they respond to certain media,” says John Aurgemma, co-owner of Rhode Island Home Improvement, in Warwick, R.I. “Consumers are tired of hearing about X discount and free this and that. They've become desensitized to those types of stimuli. It doesn't quite work the way it did years ago. It's a different market.”

The restrictions on phone solicitation several years ago brought a flood of home improvement companies into event marketing and media advertising, making it harder for any one company to stand out. The problem? If you don't stand out, you won't get the business.

“Homeowners aren't going to go to 10 or 15 different home improvement companies,” says Scott Seiler, marketing director for ABC Seamless, the Fargo, N.D., company that operates 125 steel-siding franchises, including its own retail division. “They will go to three to five [companies], and if you're not one of those, it's tough.” Seiler says that the company once used telemarketing to go where the competition wouldn't; i.e., into small-town markets. Now it's a matter of franchises being “aggressive and creative” to reach the homeowner who can't be reached by newspapers or direct mail by, for instance, seeking out public events where the company and its franchises can stand apart.

Kramer says the consumers that his reps come into contact with are often just busy. “It's not like the old days, where Mr. and Mrs. Jones are home at six, the kids are upstairs doing their homework, and you have the next three-and-a-half hours to demo your product,” he says.