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Plenty of retail stores had to shut down during the early days of the COVID, some with dire consequences since customers no longer had a personal connection to the stores.
A kitchen and bath showroom may not be the run-of-the-mill retail store, but needs customers coming in to make informed choices all the same. So when Dan Callies, president, Oak Creek Plumbing, Kitchens & Bathrooms, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, decided to lock the doors of his Kohler-registered showroom, you might think he also brought the figurative curtains down, too, on a decades-old outlet that typically handles 200 bathroom and 15 kitchen projects a year.
However, two years after the pandemic brought an end to business as usual, the doors to Oak Creek are still closed to the general public, and showroom operations couldn’t be better, according to Callies.
“I think it made us more efficient,” he says. “It made us more focused on what we can do better. I don’t think we lost sales as much as we made different sales. I’m not going to say that COVID did this as much I will say it gave as a license to try some new things and see what we could do to be more efficient.”
Callies said as much during a panel discussion on lessons learned during COVID convened at PHCCCONNECT2021 in Kansas City.
At that meeting, Callies outlined a number of digital methods he put into place to keep connected with his customers in these difficult times. What he didn’t realize until we had the chance to visit Callies last November was just how much of an early adopter he was at combining “high tech” with “high touch,” including one major cloud-based program in place for a decade.
“I don’t think we’re losing the personal touch,” he says. “My feeling is we can give a better personal touch because we’re touching the things that really matter to our customers.”
Callies has been in the showroom business almost as long as he’s been in the plumbing business his parents, Ron and Barbara Callies, started in 1972.
“We jokingly say that our company is so good that they named a city after us,” Callies adds of the company’s one-time rural hamlet, located just south of Milwaukee, that’s currently one of Wisconsin’s fastest-growing communities.
His dad plied his trade in the new construction market during the company’s formative years until a building recession made Ron branch out into remodeling.
“He hooked up with a local plumbing distributor and together they started a little retail store call Plumbing World,” Dan says.
The showroom displayed a modest array of toilets and sinks, while Barbara manned the parts counter.
“My mom never picked up a wrench in her life,” Dan explains, “but someone would come in with a stem and she knew that was a Price Pfister and she knew all the parts and she knew exactly how to repair it.”
By the time, Dan joined the business as a journeyman plumber in 1985, the main focus of the business was still in new construction, as interest in Plumbing World waned.
“They were trying to run a showroom at a time when even plumbing wholesalers didn’t have showrooms yet,” Dad adds. “I’ll always commend that effort, but the idea was a little before its time.”
The Plumbing World name dropped away by the mid-90s (although company also has long been known as Oak Creek Plumbing) as the company moved from new construction to residential service and repair, which accounts for 90 percent of the company’s current revenue.
Still, the company has always had a knack for remodeling.
“We’re a plumbing company,” Callies adds. “And, bath remodeling is plumbing and there’s always been a great synergy between the two that has helped our business grow over the years.”
Oak Creek, for example, was one of the first contractors in the area to offer an acrylic tub liner that simply fit over an existing tub – a service the company still offers.
“That definitely helped us get more into remodeling since customers started asking us if we could change a vanity or do tile or reconfigure a kitchen,” Callies explains. “That’s when we started developing relationships with different vendors and manufacturers to offer more products. And it’s also when we started hiring other tradesmen to offer what we consider full remodeling services from conception to completion.”
That’s one other big way Oak Creek stands out since they act as the general contractor when it comes to major five-figure remodeling jobs.
“We did try outsourcing early on,” Callies adds, “but having remodeling trades, such carpentry and drywall, on our payroll just gives us more control over the process and help us gain a deeper relationship with our customers. I mean on some jobs you’re practically moving in! That works out in a couple of ways since being the main service plumber for our long-time customer leads to remodeling, and if a first-time customer comes to us for remodeling, we want to be their service plumber.”
Callies maintains relationships with independent tradespeople and does tend to leave the electrical work to electricians. Based on the scope of an individual project or the overall workload of his crews, Callies can call in the extra firepower he needs to get the work done.
Closed but in contact
Oak Creek’s current showroom has been in place since the company moved into the building in 2001. And for most of the years between then and now, the company operated the showrooms in routine fashion … until “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” or just plain COVID-19 changed all that.
“We had no idea what was going to happen,” Callies says.
He quickly mandated working from home for his 30-person business. For the showroom, which had open doors for anyone to just walk in Monday through Saturday, that meant keeping them closed. However, with plumbing quickly being deemed “an essential service” that meant cautiously doing anything that came of the company’s way whether that be a service call or a need to remodel or update a kitchen or bath.
“I’d have to say one of the best things that happened in the early days of the pandemic was that our customers were actually home,” Callies adds. “Usually we have to work around their schedule to come out, but here they were saying, come on over anytime.”
For remodeling work, all the initial legwork can be better done at the customer’s home rather than in the showroom.
“Closing the showroom and then opening it only by appointment was something I wanted to do for years,” Callies says. “I’m not going to say that COVID did this as much I will say it gave as a license to try some new things and see what we could do to be more efficient
Most initial legwork for remodeling decisions are better made at the customer’s home, anyway.
“Plenty of remodeling customers can first walk into a showroom and fall in love with a tub, but learn later that there’s really no easy way to fit that tub into their existing space,” Callies explains. “We don’t want to disappoint someone. We can first figure out if we are a good fit for what they want. We can talk budgets, feasibility of products and timelines to do the work.”
Afterward, the customers might chose to head into the showroom.
“A showroom works best when it can helps narrow down choices,” Callies says. “We’ve vetted all the products that we have on display and know that they will work and we can offer customers a few choices to pick.”
Above all, Oak Creek caters to the customer’s personality.
“Some customers may just want an update to an existing bathroom and don’t need to see everything that’s on display in a showroom,” Callies explains. “They’re just glad to take our recommendations. And then again, other customers will want to know all the toilet options they might have, and it really helps to see those possibilities in a showroom. It’s all about what that particular customers need and how we can get the job down in a timely fashion for them.”
Increasingly, catering to customer demands is done through digital means – something that goes just as well as for the company’s bread-and-butter demand service work as remodeling.
Let’s look at some ways Callies accomplishes that:
CoConstruct: Oak Creek has used this cloud-based construction management program for a decade.
While project management software is often associated with the business and tech sectors, professionals in the remodeling industry are increasingly turning to software solutions to streamline their workflows. Project management software like CoConstruct can help contractors improve communication, manage budgets and documentation and keep track of their employees.
“That’s helped us out tremendously,” Callies says. Here are a few ways CoConstruct helps Oak Creek:
CompanyCam: Consider this Instagram for remodeling contractors. CompanyCam provides a photo software platform that enables contractors to manage, monitor, and share project progress on the spot. Oak Creek crews can take unlimited photos, which are stamped by time and location, sent immediately to the cloud, and stored securely.
Every photo is organized by project and instantly available to your team, allowing everyone to see what’s going on anytime, anywhere. Users can even draw on the pictures to provide any needed details.
“It provides solid documentation for all our customers to show the progress that’s being made for them,” Callies adds, “which helps a lot in communicating what can be a complicated process and helps everyone, our staff and our customers, to know what’s going on. While a lot of customers are working from home these days, not everyone is. And if the customers isn’t there, this helps show our work day by day.”
Oak Creek has been using the service for about five years.
JotForm: Customers that want to organize most anything with Oak Creek can easily go to the company’s website and arrange a service call as you might expect. But the website includes 13 forms to fill out online.
Looking to replace a water heater? The JotForm Oak Creek created for that job includes a handy checklist that help clarify a number of matters for customers to consider, including the condition of their existing water heater as well as optional accessories that customers might be interested in without otherwise knowing about them. Customers can also easily upload pictures of the existing appliance, including rating plate that helps Oak Creek get the job organized on its end.
“We do a lot of digital advertising so many of our first-time customers are used to finding out more about us and our services while they are online,” Callies says.
Callies was at first worried about some of his long-time customers who might not be used to, say, booking a service call online.
“Of course we’ll do anything for our customers, and we’re ready to answer the phones. But it’s really helped. When we first posted our forms, I think we just got one a month. Now, we’re getting online responses for work a few times a day.”
Roadie: Here’s that helps Oak Creek perhaps more than its customers.
“Think of it as Uber for deliveries,” Callies explains. “Let’s say one of our plumbers is on site and needs a part they don’t have. They can sign into Roadie and get it delivered to them in much the same way as anyone can if they need a taxi – right down to the interface that shows the drivers available, their location and when they can arrive.”
The service, which was acquired last year by UPS, is a tech platform that organizes same-day deliveries. Across the country, Roadie has signed up some 200,000 drivers.
Obviously, much depends on what’s needed since no one is just going to bring over a water heater in a four-door sedan – although there are drivers with cube trucks that could do that.
“It’s not practical for everything,” Callies adds. “But it does alleviate the plumber leaving the jobsite to come back here or go the nearest wholesaler. Maybe there is something else they can do for the customer while they are there waiting. If a plumber is doing anything other than working at the jobsite, than that costing us money.”