In order to approach this topic methodically, it is necessary to first explain a few terms and concepts. The first concept is "selling season." QFINANCE.com defines it as a period in which market conditions are favorable to sellers. That pretty much says it all. I will also add that seasonal conditions (weather) are factors that will affect both the opportunity to sell as well as the type of products or services that may be offered. For example, with pools, it could mean choosing to offer vinyl, concrete or fiberglass structures. With service, it could mean offering regular maintenance versus openings or closings.
The next concept to explore is your reason for being in business. If you believe that it is only to make money, this article may not resonate with you. I believe that there are three reasons to own or manage a business. They are 1) to satisfy consumers, 2) to satisfy consumers and 3) to satisfy consumers. Please don’t take this lightly or as a simple pie-in-the-sky description. It is not. It is, in fact, the basis for all long-term business success. The more people you satisfy, the more money you will make. It will never work in reverse. Also, when your focus is on the consumer you will be more prepared to alter the development of your products and services to meet or even lead, the markets to exceed changing shopper wants, needs and expectations. Also, when your focus is on the consumer you will be more prepared to alter the development of your products and services to meet or even lead the markets.
Just consider some companies that forgot this basic fact and became either product or profit-focused and recently paid the ultimate price: Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster, RadioShack, Payless ShoeSource, Pier 1 Imports, Stein Mart, Barneys New York, JC Penney and many more. These companies were all considered large or even giants in their respective industries. They are now either in bankruptcy or out of business altogether. If you think this can never happen to your small business, please read these examples again.
What’s the goal?
The initial goal is to extend your selling seasons and reduce or even eliminate the negative effects of a seasonal downturn by extending our selling season whenever and however we are able. If we can accomplish this, at least to some degree, we will be able to increase cash flow during what was previously considered "downtime." You can retain valuable staff, instead of losing them to layoffs. You can also maintain reasonable profits. You could reduce or even eliminate the use of expensive lines of credit. You can also keep your name in front of the public, which will add to our opportunity to grow our businesses during the "selling season."
Think outside of the pool
Some are in areas that have definite "selling seasons." Historically, the Snowbelt areas of Northeast, Mid-West and Northwest appear to have clearly defined swimming pool, service and retail selling seasons. These businesses are often the most successful at adding new and creative methods of increasing off-season income streams. Many have taken advantage of the upcoming freezing weather to establish pool opening and closing businesses (this is where pools are winterized to protect them from the freeze). Some have been so successful with this strategy that they have either greatly reduced or have actually eliminated pool building altogether, without loss of profit.
While some develop diverse businesses, others close their doors completely for the winter season. Some simply take the winter off while others are creative in different ways. I personally know of one Midwest pool builder who closes his doors and uses his Captains license to run fishing charters in Florida during the off-season. This is one of the more creative examples of diversifying of which I am aware.
In the regions where the seasons are less pronounced, such as the Southeast, South Central, Southwest and West, things are a little different. In most of these areas, pool building may continue all year. However, for many sales are usually much slower and, in some cases, dramatically reduced during the winter months. So, even in warmer climates, we need to prepare in advance for the off-season. Remember that our goal is to reduce or even eliminate the negative effects of a seasonal downturn by extending our selling season whenever and however we can.
The low-ballers suffer most. Historically, pool businesses that sell by low-balling their prices will suffer the most during the off-season. This is because their short-sightedness about pricing and profits eliminates the possibility of remaining in business when cash flow is low or negative. They also have little or no room in their pricing strategies for off-season specials.
Maintaining a presence
With consumers "out of sight, out of mind" is always the rule. For this reason, it is important to remain in the public’s view, even in the off-season. My advice; don’t disappear. If you do, you may find that reestablishing yourself when the season returns might be far more expensive and time-consuming than if you had stayed in the eye of your potential customers.
Don’t misunderstand; I am not suggesting that you advertise as heavily during the off-season, however, there are ways to maximize your exposure while minimizing your cash outlay. Staying open for business is one of those options.
Keep in touch
Put it on the schedule. One inexpensive way to maintain a presence during the off-season is to schedule time for continuing client contact. I mention the word schedule as an important phase of the sales process. If you don’t schedule the time, you will probably find other less productive things to do. Call clients and ask them if they have prepared their pool for winter or if there are any problems that they are currently encountering with their pool.
Remind them to check their chemicals and pH balance. Make them aware that a little maintenance now may save thousands later. Offer free or dramatically reduced prices on testing equipment. If you have a testing center remind them of free testing offers. Set up a tickler file to call or email when water should be tested. I know of no stores currently offering this service; not even the very large ones. Offer winter reviews; where you visit their pool to inspect it to make sure that all is in order. If any problems are found, prepare a proposal to correct the situation.
If they do not own a heater, remind them of the value that a heater or heat pump brings to their family and then have a special offer ready - if they act now. They can increase their swimming season at the beginning and the end of the normal season. With a spa, it is a no-brainer.
If they do own a heater, remind them of the importance of maintenance to keep the unit as effective and energy-efficient as possible. This is also a great time to introduce the value and energy savings that a two-speed or variable speed pump offers them. You will not have to sell anything. Instead, inform and help them save money and enjoy their life to a greater extent.
Personal calls from management or ownership are always impressive and valuable to the client. A personal call to a client or customer is one of the best ways to stay in touch. The call could be to see how they’re enjoying the pool or service or to tell them about an upcoming event, or special sale. It’s all about humanizing and expanding the relationship. Relationship is what it is all about.
Offer special values, with a time limit. Plan your sales with your schedule in mind. When times are slower you are probably more willing to propose a price with slightly smaller margins in order to fill your time and bank book. As your schedule begins to fill, or in the most wonderful circumstance that you become busy, you can raise your prices.
Immediacy is a very good sales tool if you use it properly. If you back off the time limit, or if you continue to extend the time limit you may fail in your attempted sales strategy. People may either recognize your lack of fortitude or worse feel that you are desperate or fearful and then they may either put off the purchase or seek a better deal.
Expand income streams
Other than what we have already discussed, here are a few other concepts to consider. Fill in the gaps that competitors create in the marketplace. Provide what others will not, cannot or haven’t thought of; geographic conditions considered, of course. The following are services that are currently being offered by some of my clients:
Provide maintenance—For the pools you build or create coalitions with service professionals to do this for you. Retailers should also consider providing the same service opportunities through alliances.
Provide services—Offer free or reduced prices for swimming classes or other special interest services. Provide safety inspections to ensure that windows and doors meet code requirements.
Update time!—The off-season is a great time to offer updates to equipment. Make arrangements with manufacturers or distributors for special pricing, as their business will also fall off during the off-season. Pass any savings on to clients. Remember, it’s all about them and keeping the cash flow coming in. Ozone, automated systems, fencing, covers and other products may be provided to increase safety and promote energy savings. You are the expert; share your knowledge by helping clients improve their swimming pool experiences and heighten safety for family and friends.
Snow removal—Many businesses in the Northeast and other Snow Belt areas turn their trucks into snowplows to increase income. This is a lucrative opportunity for many in our industry. Don’t immediately turn your nose up to additional income possibilities.
Holiday decorating services—One very creative and successful Midwest pool company offers Christmas lighting services. They will provide lighting and the labor to make any home a Christmas showplace. After the holiday, they return and remove all of the decorations. All lights provided are the finest available. The client never touches a ladder or electric wire. That is foresight and resourcefulness.
Winterizing homes—Wrapping pipes, draining lines; much like winterizing a pool; change filters; carbon monoxide leaks; window & door sealing; set up ceiling fans in reverse; reduce water temperature; energy monitors; insulate pipes, etc.
Shopping for seniors—One company has set up a service to provide grocery and medical shopping services for seniors. No more hassles fighting holiday crowds.
Christmas tree services—Another will arrive and set up a Christmas tree, complete with lights and decorations if requested. The tree is picked up at a time after the holiday.
Gutter cleaning—Along with pool closing/openings some clean gutters and storm drains.
Carry lists of your pools with you. When you’re in the neighborhood and have the time, call to ask permission to provide a free inspection visit. I know that this requires an investment of time and effort, but remember you are already in the neighborhood and have the time, so consider using it wisely.
You are staying connected. Your actual cash outlay will probably be less than if you advertised to these clients. Provide a checklist of your findings with recommendations for updates, repairs or service. You may also accomplish this by preplanning a call and appointment. Help them to save money and improve their life. Ask for the referral.
Ensure their safety. Eliminate dangerous situations.
Offer off-season chemical storage. This is one of the most important conditions for which a pool owner must prepare. If chemicals are improperly stored, explosions, fire or noxious and dangerous gasses may create extremely hazardous conditions at the home of the client. If you have ever seen a garage that has been through one of these catastrophes, you will be very impressed. Homes have been destroyed and lives lost due to improper chemical storage. Even if these most serious circumstances do not occur, chemical cleanup by a Hazmat crew is very embarrassing, expensive, invasive and time-consuming.
Offer to inspect their facilities and recommend methods of safe storage; you may do this for free or at a small fee. Another option is to offer them information about local fire departments or other government agencies that will provide this service at little or no charge.
You may offer to pick up and warehouse their chemicals during the off-season and deliver them to them at the start of the swimming season for a fee. This will create a safe environment for their family while providing an additional income stream for you. It also keeps you in touch, offers a service that others do not and creates the opportunity for a referral. They probably know other pool owners who would appreciate this service. That adds more contact and opportunities for additional clients and referrals.
Really. OK, so why might a client consider purchasing chemicals during the off-season? Because you make it financially rewarding to do so. Offer impressive price reductions, plus the convenience of warehousing of the chemicals. After all, the chemicals are already at your facilities. But isn’t this sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul? Wouldn’t they buy the chemicals during the season anyway? Why sell them now when you can get the sale later at a higher price? Here’s why: You are not guaranteed that they will purchase from you later. They may be enticed by low-balling, big box stores during the regular season.
You will be creating income now, in the off-season, when you need it the most.
You will be "touching" them once again and keeping the name of your company on their mind. You are providing a valuable "safety service."
You will be increasing your opportunity for referral business.
Service companies: Create flyers describing your services and leave them with your weekly reports. Then follow-up using phone calls, emails or whatever their favored forms of communications may be. Complete pool surveys, even as part of your regular service call. Leave a report and mention that you have solutions and will contact them to discuss their options.
For retailers or pool companies with storefronts
Keep pool items prominently displayed. This includes spas. Even if you sell Halloween costumes, fireplaces or pool tables in the off-season, always have some pool items on prominent display. Let all know that you are still in the pool business. Have fliers in the store describing the valuable and creative "above and beyond" services that you offer. Remind them that their pool still needs to be properly maintained, even in the winter months.
Hosting events used to be fairly popular in the Great Northeast. It is rarely done in the Southwest or West. It can, however, become a powerful tool for selling in the off-season. Holding free classes on pool maintenance, energy efficiency, pool safety for children around water are a few ideas. You may then offer floaties, installation of safety handholds, rope anchors, etc.
Don’t forget the kids. Include them in water safety classes and have free pool toys and refreshments on hand. Make it a real happening. Ask for testimonials. Ask for referrals.
Promote your expertise
Create and deliver newsletters and mailings to provide safety tips etc. for your customers and clients. Provide something of value for them and provide specials for them. Become the expert, the professional, the one to call with a question or concern. Build a personal relationship and always ask for a referral. Seek financial support from manufacturers; you may have to apply their logo to your mailings, but so what? If their products are valuable, it is actually a benefit to you and your customer.
Produce ways to make holidays fit your off-season sales efforts. For example, on Veteran’s Day, offer free benefits or reduced pricing for veterans (by the way, they deserve any consideration that you are willing to offer). Thanksgiving – let them know that you are thankful for them by offering special savings opportunities for them. Promote "winter savings days". . .you get the idea.
Who buys swimming pools during the off-season?
The more educated and serious buyer. More educated means they understand that they will receive the best possible pricing when they purchase during the off-season. Serious means that if they make a decision early, they are experiencing savings and will most likely be interested in many of the options that will provide them pleasure and enhanced safety while improving their lifestyle – and by the way also improving your profit. Off-season buyers are more likely to be value motivated and therefore less price-centered. So, continue to push the value of off-season buying.
Encourage them to begin planning now. If you are in a snowbelt state, remind your client that they can take the time to do it right, and lock in the investment right now. Prices are not likely to come down for quite some time and they know it. Buying in the off-season will allow them to add a few additional options while still enjoying today's lower pricing.
Developing off-season sales
Developing off-season sales will take effort. Here are a few ways to begin:
"Revive the Dead": Comb through your files for those leads with which you were not initially successful. Contact them to detail your special off-season options and create immediacy. Most companies simply write off the dead leads and lose them forever to others. The off-season is a great time to invest in their satisfaction and your profit. Even if they have purchased a pool from a competitor; congratulate them and determine if they need service or a free safety inspection or chemical storage or. . .fill in the blank.
Contact those for whom you have built a pool in the past. Even small builders may have built hundreds of pools during their tenure. Take advantage of your past success by promoting future successes.
Build strategic alliances
Get with real estate brokers, accountants, attorneys, title companies, auto dealers and any other people or companies that are in a position to recommend your services. Meet with HOA’s and corporations in your market area to offer special services, benefits or slight price reductions for their employees. Create an alliance for cross-recommendations.
Cross-advertise. Find companies with whom you share the same prospects. Possibly offer coupons for specials in each other’s mailings. For example, a building contractor who provides home improvements, a roofer, exterminators, home warranty inspectors or a landscaper are examples of companies with whom you may partner. Get aggressive.
Just do it. Place signage on your vehicles. Make people aware of what you do. Leave cards at restaurants with your tips. Include cards when paying local bills through the mail. Find companies that provide services to their employees and offer added value for their personnel.
Renovations/Restorations: Off-season is a great time to help pool owners plan for future improvements. Use electronic design and drawing programs to enhance the experience. In winter climates push the value and price advantages of buying now. In the Sunbelt states, the off-season is the perfect time for renovations to take place, as they will be swimming by warm time. Their pool can be completely rebuilt to meet their changing family needs and requirements.
Renewal—Updating older equipment to newer more energy-efficient possibilities will always be important to present pool owners—but only if they are aware of potential values. This means that their equipment may be serviceable, but not necessarily efficient. I rarely see the renewal proposition offered. My recommendation is to get together with the manufacturers that you use to help you with offering the renewal sale.
Prepare for the coming sales season, by strengthening relationships when you have the time; during the off-season. Don’t wait to build and fortify relationships until the season starts; it is too late then, as you will not have the time to do it properly. Building relationships is what ongoing and future sales are all about. Ignore this sales step and you will never be as successful as you could have been.
Sales success is based here. . .
Relationships. Please understand that everything you do to accelerate off-season sales may also be accomplished during the season; time permitting. The relationships that you build, however, will continue to yield positive results throughout the year. Relationships are not bound by seasons; they are bound by people and actions. Keep contacts active and the relationships will continue to flourish and bear fruit (or sales and profits, if you prefer these over fruit).
The key is to always consider the relationship as the primary source of building and continuing a successful business. Just as I work hard to construct positive relationships with you by offering you value that far exceeds any investment you may make through participation in training or purchasing of products, you should also work hard to construct value-related relationships in the same way with your prospects, customers and clients.
I trust that a few of these ideas will prove helpful to you in increasing sales and profits during the off-season. Have a wonderful and highly profitable off-season.