In the 20 years I've operated Casa Decks, a design-build company specializing in custom decks, I've developed a system of sales and customer support that is, at its core, all about building the client's trust in the company. Key to my process is a series of "touches," or contacts, in which I focus on the client and deliberately create expectations, starting even before initial contact and continuing after project completion. Every expectation I meet increases the client's confidence in my company - and the likelihood of a referral later.

Initial Contact

I do not make cold calls or chase leads. All initial contact with potential clients is through Casa Decks' website or the phone. In both cases, potential clients are asked for contact information and their availability for a return phone call. By an auto-reply email or the answering service, they're told that the company's owner will call them within one working day to schedule an appointment. This creates an expectation (which I make sure to meet).

Before I call, however, I do a little research. Searching the Internet with just a name and phone number, I can find a client's address and even some background information on the property. I then check GoogleEarth for a bird's-eye view of the house, and in less than a minute I can see potential issues like the footprint of an existing deck, wetlands, zoning set-backs, and access.

I call the prospective client at the time of day he or she indicated was convenient. My purpose in this conversation is to determine whether the project is a good fit for my company, and if so, to set up an appointment.

To keep from sounding canned, I don't use a checklist, though I always ascertain the scope of the project, the decking material being considered, and where the prospect heard about us. I screen out at least a third of the contacts at this point, usually because they're outside my service area or the project is something I don't normally do. Some contacts screen themselves out when I tell them I charge for estimates for insurance claims and real estate closings, and for consultations with DIYers and homeowners who are purely price-shopping.

If the contact seems like a good prospect, I schedule the appointment. I set another expectation by asking for a good number to call in the unlikely event I'm going to be more than five minutes late.

The Appointment

I make it a point to be on time and prepared with material samples and product information. My goal is to keep the focus on the client and the project - I will answer questions about my company and our approach; however, that's not the centerpiece of the presentation. That information is available through my website and in my leave-behind package.

Because I have so much experience estimating and designing decks and I've seen what works and doesn't work, my inclination is to walk around the corner of the house and immediately have all the answers about what would work best for these clients. Instead, I remind myself that it's their deck, their lifestyle, their money. Listen, listen, listen.

It can be a challenge to get clients to verbalize their desires. I ask for their ideas and how they intend to use the deck. That generates a discussion about size and other preferences. I then ask what they like and dislike about decks they've seen. Those answers give me a good enough idea of their concept to walk them through several designs that reflect their desires and the intended functions of the deck.

Once the clients agree on a general design concept, we shift to materials and trim-out. The order is important - functionality with the basic footprint first, then the wow factors of lighting and trim. I discuss pros and cons of various options, and to help my clients visualize them, I refer to my company's portfolio - which contains photos of a range of deck styles, materials, and trim, not just showcase decks.

I will not give a price at this point. My aim is to sell value not price, a lifestyle not a deck, a solution to a perceived problem. And this way, I don't put the clients in the position of making a decision in front of me. That would make price the primary criterion, which isn't what I want. Also, not discussing price at this point allows clients to think through the options as I develop the proposal.

The whole session usually takes 40 minutes to an hour. Before leaving, I promise to send the proposal by the next day, once again building trust by setting an expectation I can meet. After leaving, I mentally review what went right, what I might have done better, and what the high-interest items and potential red flags were - all things that I want to address in the proposal.

The Proposal and Contract

I prepare the proposal that same evening. I address any concerns the clients may have expressed, plus what they've liked and disliked on other decks. That night or the next day I both email and mail the proposal - which includes a description of the work proposed, options, and pricing - along with a CAD-generated plan with front, plan, and 3-D views. After about a week, I follow up with an email or phone call - the fourth touch within about 10 days - and ask the clients if they have any questions.

My contract details scope of work, start dates, time to complete, materials, methods to fasten, and the like. We're normally booked out three to five months, which makes it critical to stay in touch with the clients after they sign a contract. So, I send an email every two weeks or so. This might say nothing more than I am on schedule, have processed their building permit, or am building close by - just something to let them know that I'm still there. About two weeks before the build, I schedule a pre-construction meeting to review the contract, present a flow plan, and agree on material staging and access.

Project Start and Follow-Up

One of my selling points is that I will personally be on the job site every day to answer questions or resolve issues. I introduce the lead carpenter on the first day and make it clear that if I'm not on the site, he's in charge and will address any concerns. At completion, I walk the project with the client.

I return about four weeks later and at 18 months. I email the clients a week before to ask for permission to enter their property to check their deck. I don't need the homeowners to be there, but I want them to know that I'm stopping by. I follow the walk-through with an email confirming that I went to their house and viewed their deck. This one touch has earned us many referrals.

George Drummond owns Casa Decks in Virginia Beach.