Designers and Architects Pose Challenges,
but Can Bring Profit
by Les Shaver
With more and more competition edging into the retail window film marketplace, it makes sense that tint dealers would look for new kinds of clientele. And, if there’s little competition for those groups and they pay better than the average customer, it seems like a no-brainer, right?
Well, if the group of customers comprises architects and designers, maybe it isn’t such a snap decision. Getting in the front door with these professionals is often difficult. And, once you’re in, they can be demanding. But that doesn’t mean a film dealer can’t cultivate profitable partnerships with these people. In fact, many film dealers have. But you have to know what you’re doing.
You apply window film to make money. So why not make as much as you possibly can for your time? You can usually get your asking price with designers and architects. That’s one reason a lot of film dealers swear by them.
“If a lady has a 5,000-square-foot home, wants window film on the back of the house and she looked in the yellow pages, she would find someone to do that for $3 a square foot,” said Ray Levy, the president of Sun Belt Distributors in Houston. “With a designer, you can get $6 or $7 a square foot and sometimes more than $7.”
Others see this as well.
“Once you get in with a designer, they tend to send you a lot of business,” said Mark Stevenson, installation manager for Class on Glass in Orlando. “The best part is that they are ‘money-no-object, no-competition’ sales.”
Unlike regular retail customers, designers don’t go digging through the yellow pages to find tinters.
“When you advertise in the yellow pages, everybody in town will read who offers auto, residential, commercial and retail,” Levy said. “You will get bids from five people and the customer will usually take the lowest bid. Designers don’t nickel-and-dime you to death. It’s none of this pain-in-the-butt stuff of the yellow pages, nor are you competing with five other people.”
Architects and designers don’t seem to have time for this game.
“If you do work for an existing client, they are going to call you up at your price and get it done,” said Carlos DeCespedes, director for Professional Window Tinters in Miami. “They’re not shopping for the cheapest price. They want service. They’re not necessarily looking for the cheapest guy in town.”
But why is that? Other than just not pricing jobs out, architects and designers often have well-heeled customers that give them big budgets.
“When you’re dealing with a designer, the designer will not only get you people who can use your product, but they have the upper 5 percent of the income in Houston,” Levy said. “These are the ones that use designers because no else can afford them. So you know that they can afford film. Everyone needs film, but you want to go after the ones that can afford it. You are targeting it perfectly where you want to.”
And, since these people spend so much money on designers, they usually heed their advice.
“When someone pays a designer for their input or help, they pick a designer and they usually rely on that designer’s input,” Levy said. “They may not be good enough to do it themselves so they rely on a professional. That customer will usually not go into the yellow pages. They rely on that designer’s input because that designer’s reputation is on the line. I have designers that work on homes that are [worth] $10, $15 and $20 million dollars.”
Payment normally isn’t a problem with such wealthy individuals.
“[With many commercial jobs,] you usually have to wait a long time to get your money after waiting a long time to get approval to do it,” Levy said. “The bid has to go through budgets and committees. When you deal with homeowners, you know within a week if you get the work and that it’s COD. If you are in the tint business, that’s what you want.”
And, if the designer is good, they probably have multiple clients with million-dollar homes.
“Upstream marketing is a very effective way to win business,” said Chris Weinhardt, director of marketing for Enpro Distributing in Houston. “Designers and architects have multiple clients and getting the design professional interested in the solutions you offer only increases the chances of winning work from more than one of their projects.”
So, if working with designers and architects offered more money, less competition and a steady stream of customers, you’d think everyone would do it, right? Not so fast. Both breaking into that realm of the market and working with that clientele presents a number of pitfalls.
DeCespedes started going for architects and designers so that he could get a say in the kind of film they used. He advertised in the Blue Book and called on contractors. As he was doing this, he noticed that general contractors would call him to do a job after the specs were already written in by architects. So, while he still goes after contractors, over the past two years, he’s started to market to architects as well.
“In order to attain the approved drawings, we notice that it’s better to get in front of the architects that are doing the drawing and getting them approved,” DeCespedes said. “Once it gets into hands of the contractors, they may or may not call us. So, we’re more proactive looking for designers and architects. A lot of times we make an appointment and do a presentation in reference to what films are available to them.”
But getting to the designers and architects can be treacherous.
“The biggest challenge is getting the appointment,” DeCespedes said. “They see it as something for the future and not something they [need immediately.] It takes some time for them to let us do a presentation when they don’t have a specific need. It takes a lot of phone calls and a lot of convincing.”
Stevenson goes about it the opposite way: getting contractors to introduce him to architects.
“I get acquainted with architects through all the contractors I deal with,” Stevenson said. “I also have a large glass company that has a few architects and the glass company insists their architects work with us. After one job, they always call again.”
Other dealers rely on networking to reach architects and designers. This can be time-consuming as well. While designers have directories in the Houston area in which Levy can advertise, he prefers to meet them face to face at bazaars and meetings.
“It’s a tough thing to do,” Levy said. “I volunteer as much time as I can with designers. There are about four or five [film] dealers in Houston that try to go after designer business. I get more than them combined because I volunteer a lot. You have to deal with people. Just being a window film person who works with designers doesn’t guarantee me their work. They have to see me and trust me. Advertising itself doesn’t work and [results] don’t happen overnight. It will take a while for designers to feel comfortable that you do quality work.”
Volunteering is easier said than done. Levy often spends weekends with designers when he could be doing other things.
“The designers in Houston have weekly and monthly meetings,” Levy said. “There are so many things you can do. Once a month, they have a lunch at someone’s storefront, whether it’s a furniture, carpet or glass shop. The designers go there to have lunch and listen to a speaker. I’ve been a speaker talking about window treatments.”
Then there are the bigger events for Levy, who is chair of the Houston chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. One was a showcase house that had 18 rooms and ended up selling for $2.4 million. Each designer got to decorate a room in the Georgian- style house. People toured the house for eight days. Levy not only put film up in one room but volunteered to be a tour guide of sorts, talking about the residence.
“We had an industry partner meeting in January at Minute Maid Park,” Levy said. “We’re inviting 2,000 designers and only 60 industry partners. We’ll have table-top displays and contests for designers. That takes a lot time of people and a lot of time to put together.”
In addition to calling designers, DeCespedes spends time in local organizations, as well.
“We’re a member of BOMA [the Building Owners and Managers Association],” DeCespedes said. “We’re a member of the Latin Builders. We’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Everytime that somebody says ‘window film,’ I want them to think of Professional Window Tinters. We do whatever we can to put our name out there. Our name is always out there in the field.”
There are other ways to educate designers.
“‘Lunch and learns’ are a great way to educate designers on the benefits of window film and the services you provide, plus they can earn CEU’s—continuing education units,” Weinhardt said. “You have an audience of multiple design professionals in the same place at the same time so the message is extremely important.”
A Long Road
Yes, getting in with designers and architects is important. But once you’ve made that step, you have to know how to keep them happy. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Often you have to swallow your pride. Many film dealers have remarked that they think architects, in particular, look down upon film dealers. Part of this may have to do with their attitude toward window film.
“I find architects hard to deal with because many of them don’t like window film,” Levy said. “When they put film on a home they designed or a building they finished construction on, they’re admitting their glass is not sufficient. They don’t think window film will help their glass.”
Even when an architect does want film, a dealer also has to be prepared for him to occasionally ignore the suggestion and go with another film product. Stevenson saw this in one recent job. Ultimately, he had to grin and bear it, even though he didn’t agree with the architect.
“I had this job where the architect specified this grey graphics vinyl film to go onto a Publix supermarket,” Stevenson said. “I made an actual film recommendation that would look almost identical. The architect refused to bend and put real window film on the job. The vinyl is actually twice the cost and won’t last as well.”
Following orders is one key to working with architects and designers. Another is simple professionalism. Levy saw this when he filled in for a local tint shop for a job an hour and a half out of Houston. After the shop’s screw-ups, he ended getting some unexpected business.
“They [the local shop] tracked mud all over new carpet,” Levy said. “The designer was so disgusted with the guy that she went to Houston to find someone else to do it.”
Levy sees these issues with professionalism come into play a lot.
“There are a lot of people who talk big, but their work is not good,” Levy said. “They bring the scaffolding in the house and that stains the carpet. They scratch up the wood floor with their toolbox[es] or their ladder[s]. All of these things make a difference.”
Then there are the other intricacies of doing work for designers, things you don’t face when you work regular retail customers.
“You have [to send] thank-you cards and referral fees to designers when you’re done,” Levy said. “If you don’t do a referral fee, you won’t get more business. You have to pay the designer right away to show you’re sincere and you want their business.”
So to work with designers, you need to know how to market, you need to know your product, you have to occasionally swallow your pride and you can’t screw up. It’s easy to see why only a certain type of dealer can do this type of work.
“Usually it’s the upper-end dealers going after the architects,” said one distributor in the Midwest.
This is why Levy won’t suggest many of his own dealers ever consider working for designers.
“I don’t talk to a lot of my dealers that do flat glass about working with designers because they’re not qualified to do it,” Levy said. “It’s not like going into a storefront or going into a commercial building. You’re dealing with very, very high-end stuff.”
And that can ruin the project for a designer, which is something you definitely don’t want to do if you’re courting that type of customer.
Les Shaver is the editorial director for Window Film magazine.
What’s My (Bottom) Line?
A Look at Referral Fee Pricing
by Penny Stacey
Window Film surveyed a few dealers to find out what a typical referral fee might be, and found that the answers ranged from 0 to 15 percent—but that for the most part, there are no set fees.
“I think 15 percent is fair,” said Carlos DeCespedes, director for Professional Window Tinters in Miami.
However, DeCespedes said for his company, there really is no set fee.
“Sometimes they’ll ask for our recommendation,” he said. “It’s usually negotiable.”
Ray Levy of Sunbelt Distributing in Houston said his company usually pays a flat 10-percent referral fee on jobs involving architects and designers, with a limit of $500.
“No one has complained yet,” Levy said.
Levy did note that designers often insist on talking directly with the customer—so that once they have the film dealers price, they can set their price to the customer.
To avoid a mark-up that might perhaps make film undesirable, Levy asks that architects and designers only tell their customers that they need film—and then discuss the details with Levy.
When asked what types of referral fees his company is compelled to pay, Mark Stevenson, installation manager for Class on Glass in Orlando, had a very different answer from those of Levy and
“Referral fees? Really?” he laughed. “Our architects love us and they recommend us out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Penny Stacey is the editor of Window Film magazine.
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