Where do installers come from? Do I hire an installer as an employee, or subcontract out installations? How do they learn their craft? How do I find one? These are questions dealers ask, and we’ve assembled a cadre of experts to shed some light on these matters.
Installers these days come from all walks of life. That’s not how it used to be. In the past, someone—usually the new person, or the most junior member of a dealer’s staff—was assigned to go with the installer to lend a hand. Eventually, he might be asked to go it alone and hang a blind, but in the meantime he filled in wherever was needed: on the sales floor, checking inventory, making deliveries, or even sweeping floors and picking up lunch. If he was lucky, he got to follow around an experienced installer who knew and loved his trade and was willing to pass it on.
Things changed over the last several years, however, as corporate America downsized and men and women suddenly found themselves looking for new careers. Many of these educated, middle-aged former executives wanted out of the rat race and were looking to start their own businesses. Beth Hodges, Beth Hodges’ Soft Furnishings, Elberton, GA, teaches the installation classes at the Custom Home Furnishings School in Swannanoa, NC (see “Back to School”). She says most of her students began by helping out a spouse who is either a designer or a workroom.
A few states require installers to be licensed or bonded. This is one way a state can ensure its public that the installer is covered for liability and does not misrepresent his services.
A DEALER’S PERSPECTIVE
Steve Walton, president, Shades Of The Future, Inc., Beaverton, OR, knows the subject of installation from a dealer’s viewpoint as well as from an installer’s point of view (see D&WC November 2003, page 20). Walton considers himself a hard treatments specialist who works on a personal level with each customer. If he doesn’t do the actual installation himself, he’s on-site to check on all the details when the products he sold go up.
“There have been a handful of installations done by customers or other distant contractors, when I haven’t been present,” Walton says, “but a lot can go wrong at installation and the dealer needs to be present. I’m pretty picky about the final product—things like level rails, vertical vanes sticking together with static electricity, rubber bands and cut strings sometimes get left on the floor. If the installer misses them, the customer will notice and if you’re not there you might be lucky if they call and complain, but they may just be silently unhappy. I want every customer to be a referral customer.
“Just today I was with my installer on a job and the color of the verticals looked wrong,” Walton continues. “Back at the office I used a piece of scrap to check it and the color was not what was ordered. There’s no way the installer could catch something like that. [Customers] are counting on me to deliver what was purchased.”
Walton’s installing experience has taught him a thing to two—things like: Always carry spare parts. “I have a box of parts for verticals, parts for specific lines, several cases for horizontal shades and blinds and they are sorted in compartments,” he says. “Those spares are used regularly.”
For most products, Walton studies the manuals and attends training sessions produced by manufacturers, who certainly have an interest in making sure their products are installed properly (see “Shutter Installation—A Manufacturer’s Perspective”). On-the-job-site instruction may be one of the best methods. “When I decided to carry shutters,” says Walton, “ I traveled, at my expense, to an area where my shutter vendor had field installers and I went on installations with them for several days. If you don’t know how a product will install, how can you sell it?”
These days Walton prefers to hire an experienced window coverings installer for most jobs. “A good installer is really fast and does a great job. I use installation contractors exclusively versus hiring an installer as an employee. You have to have a lot of work to keep a full-time installer busy,” he says.
Walton readily admits to valuing good installers and usually paying them more than what they invoice.
But how do you go about finding a good, qualified installer—especially in these days when most dealers have Web sites and might be working with a customer well outside his immediate area?
“The online WindowPro group has been very helpful at finding distant installers,” Walton confides. “An online posting usually nets a referral in a day or so.
“Hunter Douglas is the only manufacturer I know that has been actively training installers and building a list of certified installers for their products. These installers would be useful for standard window coverings. But there is no list of installers for complex projects. You have to rely on a referral, if you can find one.”
Even a good referral must pass muster. Here’s what Walton says he looks for in hiring an installer:
“First impressions are essential, so that’s a high priority. Also, the installer has to be driving a vehicle that makes a good impression.
“The installer has to have a lot of prior experience with the window coverings in my line. They can get their training elsewhere.
“They have to be courteous to the customer, respectful of the property and clean up after themselves.
“You want an installer that can work through problems, not throw up their hands and walk off the job. The installer never criticizes the dealer in front of the customer.
“The contractor has to have a license, bond and insurance. Their prices have to be in line with their performance and they have to show up on time!
“Installers with problem-solving and analytical skills that can help design products and come up with clever installation techniques are highly desirable. An installer with motorization experience is a plus.”
Walton also offers this advice: “Make sure your installers complement your business. They have to be compatible. They are representing you and will enhance or diminish your reputation by their actions.”
And that’s the point—installers are the last contact your customer has with your business, and like most customers, Walton always remembers the bad experiences.
“In 2004, I was referred to an installation contractor for a challenging, out-of-state project. He interviewed well and was actually over-qualified. I worked with him on the job site during meetings with the customer, contractor and electricians, and all went well. But later he didn’t follow through on promises to me. When problems arose on the job, he couldn’t get the job done, wouldn’t take direction from me and wasn’t honest in what he was telling me. He didn’t even have the skills he claimed. That job was a major disappointment and took many frustrating months to finally complete. Since then I have been very cautious about distant projects.”
But don’t despair; every bad experience can be a learning experience. “Fortunately,” Walton adds, “such installation problems are rare and provide opportunities to improve future projects.
WHERE TO LOOK
“We are looking for a qualified window treatment installer in (name the city/state or region) that has experience installing (pick a custom window treatment). Please
contact . . .”
These requests are becoming normal on industry e-mail lists such as Window-Pro and DraperyPro in a time when everyone has e-mail and a Web site so it’s no longer unusual to make a sale outside a dealer’s normal marketing area. As Walton mentions, word-of-mouth is often the way dealers find an installer.
There also is a large field of independent sub-contractor installers—some available to designers, others available to the industry at large. The Draperies & Window Coverings 2005 Directory & Buyer’s Guide lists 120 companies offering installation services for contract and retail. Many of these are independent while others are connected with larger dealers and fabricators.
Oddly, while many industry dealers jealously hang on to the good installers they value, there has been at least one attempt to make it easier for consumers to locate an installer. Richard Carlan, group developer and installation manager for National Blind Installation, Inc. (NBI), has created a Web site that will allow consumers to obtain a quote on a proposed installation project and will forward the customer’s name to a sub-contractor installer in or near the home’s ZIP code.
The idea, says Carlan, is “to improve the American consumer’s overall experience when they are purchasing window coverings.” He adds that “measuring correctly and installing properly is the key to a successful project.”
For the industry, however, the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA) offers an online locator for its 1,100 members. Window treatment installation is covered in the Basics of Window Treatments course as part of WCAA’s Certified Window Treatment Consultant Program. On its Web site (www.wcaa.org) “Installers” is one of the search options provided under “Find a Window Covering Pro.” In just two clicks, what you get is list of WCAA-certified installers.
MIND YOUR INSTALLATION ETIQUETTE
Once asked for advice by someone new to window coverings installation Richard Carlan put together a list of technical and courtesy tips every installer should keep in mind.
He began by noting, “You learn by doing.” But added, “Read the manufacturer’s instructions. If you need to take them out to your work vehicle to read because the customer is hovering, so be it, it’s OK.”
Another key point Carlan made is, “Measuring is crucial. Make sure you know what product you’re measuring for prior to doing so and make sure you understand how the product works.”
The list continues:
• Be on time, be on time, be on time. Give yourself a two- to three-hour window of arrival, and if you’re still behind time call the customer. Buy yourself a decent map; it will save you tons of time.
• Carry liability insurance. It’s not expensive and you can write it off.
• Look professional. Have a neat appearance.
• Work with clean hands. Do not be afraid to ask the customer if you could please use their washroom.
• Compliment the customer’s choice of window treatments (regardless of how you really feel about them).
• If you also sell retail, don’t leave your card with the customer if you’re doing the installation for another retailer. (This is about of being professional.)
• Don’t place any tools, screws or parts on the customer’s furniture, bed, hardwood floors, etc. Bring a sheet or drop cloth with you and put everything on that.
• Leave the customer’s home cleaner than when you arrived.
• Purchase those shoe protection baggies. You usually can get them from a local hospital supply or maybe find them online. Otherwise use some hard bottom slippers, this will protect your customer’s flooring from dirt and impress both your customer and the decorator.
• Make sure to explain to the customer the operation and maintenance of the treatments you just installed.
• Be very careful working in the customer’s home. When in a hurry or running behind schedule, we all tend to get a little careless. Even if you are in a hurry, try not to look like you are. Techniques of working efficiently will come by repetition.
• Buy yourself a tool belt and use it so you don’t have to keep running up and down the ladder every time you need something.
• Never use plugs (plastic inserts) in an empty ceiling; you’ll be going back picking the blind off the floor. Use toggles (bolts with wings).
• Always pre-drill if you’re mounting a blind on the customer’s wood molding or use self-tapping screws.
• When measuring inside mounts put the end of the tape inside the jamb and bend the tape on the other end to take your exact reading, call it IM (inside mount) or IB (inside brackets). The manufacturer will take its own deductions.
• When measuring vertical blinds as an outside mount, never mount on the wood molding unless you have to. Measure above the window frame about two inches (it will be flat and you’ll hit the header).
• When measuring mini-blinds, wood blinds or soft shades as an outside mount, don’t mount above the window frame but rather on the frame (remember to pre drill). Otherwise the treatment will hang up on the top molding unless you spacer block it out.
An informal survey of other window coverings professionals has added the following good-to-know suggestions. Special thanks to Judi Turner, Domicildesign, Dover, NH.
• Buy a stepstool.
• Keep the cordless drill charging.
• Make notes on each job as to what you could have used that you didn’t have and fine-tune your toolbox as you go.
• Look for a hardware store while on route to the customer’s home (just in case).
• Double-sided tape is handy to hold a bracket up
temporarily until the pilot holes are drilled.
BACK TO SCHOOL
For generations, the School of Hard Knocks has been the place to learn window treatment installation. You learned by doing.
But there is a huge benefit to learning the craft by people who have been there, done that; who have learned by experience and are making the knowledge available to anyone interested: male or female, experienced or novice.
Three installation educational sources are among the most well-known in the industry: the Window Coverings Association of American (WCAA) Certified Window Treatment Consultant program; the Lafayette Installation Training Center (LITC) developed by Lafayette Interior Fashions, West Lafayette, IN; and the Custom Home Furnishings School, Swannanoa, NC.
WCAA’s Certified Window Treatment Consultant Program was developed by the association “to establish and disseminate a comprehensive professional level of knowledge in providing consumers with quality window treatments.” As part of its Basics of Window Treatments certification course it covers installation along with window treatment functions, measurements, hardware selection and product care.
The objective of its certification program is that a solid foundation of product knowledge will enhance a person’s confidence and presentation skills and ultimately increasing income. Continuing education will help students stay ahead of competition.
All course materials are provided by WCAA and its certification exams can be taken online (www.wcaa.org).
Begun 10 years ago, the Lafayette Installation Training Center holds a regular schedule of classes stretching over several days throughout the year at the company’s facility. It offers a 3,000-square-foot teaching center designed specifically for hands-on installation training (see D&WC, November 1996, page 76).
LITC provides separate shutter and soft window fashion installer train-ing classes and is able to provide installation training on other products as needed.
The Custom Home Furnishings School (CHF) presents a seven-day program of installation courses about every other month and at the CHF educational conferences and trade shows. The classes are taught by Beth Hodges, Beth Hodges’ Soft Furnishings, Elberton, GA (see D&WC, January 2005, page 26).
The CHF school makes a point of being independent from specific manufacturers and fabricators and of covering all window treatments installations “right down to what screws to use” and from measuring to dressing. “We work them pretty hard,” Hodges says. The school even will arrange consultations and have Hodges go out and work with a student one-on-one. The school does not teach shutter installation.
“The classes have been full every time they are held for years,” Hodges continues. “I’ve had installers who have been installing for 35 years to women who have never held a drill.” She says that probably two-thirds of the students are people who are associated with a workroom somehow, either their wives are designers or workrooms. Students have been as young as 18 (and even have included her own son).
“Dressing is very important. Because it’s hands-on, because they actually install window treatments, they learn how to dress them out properly,” Hodges adds.
“I teach my installers to take photographs, to take digital pictures. They don’t have to be great, or magazine quality,” she says. Installers can’t, or shouldn’t, rely on memory, she points out.
“I teach them all about tools, what they need to start up a business. We discuss business, we discuss marketing, whatever they need, but all those things are also part of the course,” says Hodges.
“We also talk a lot about attitude and demeanor and professionalism. We try to teach them to maximize their time, have a schedule, but most of all how to behave. That really is the biggest thing to me, not only the knowledge, but the demeanor that you have to have.”
The one thing she’d really like students to learn is to watch what they say. “If the client ever gets a whisper of something’s not going right . . . If they have an inkling that something’s not right, then they’re going to pick the treatment apart. An installer can blow that really quick by saying Uh-oh or Oops.”
“You have to come into it with an open mind,” Hodges says. “There’s something for everybody to learn. I learn something every class!”
SHUTTER INSTALLATION — A MANUFACTURER’S PERSPECTIVE
As the popularity of shutters, wood or otherwise, has skyrocketed over the past five years, manufacturers have worked to anticipate difficulties in the ordering and installing process and to make these steps easier. Still, shutter installation is considered a specialty among installers and manufacturers do not overlook its importance.
“Installation is everything,” says Stormy Clements, of Norman International® Co., Santa Fe Springs, CA. “After the sale has been made and the shutters have been installed, the only thing that matters is how well the shutters look to the homeowner in the window.
“Traditionally, shutters have been perceived as a difficult product to sell and install. We have invested much to innovate features that make Norman Shutters™ as fail-safe as possible for our customers. Our processes, systems and design features help prevent ordering and installation errors. But installation is still key. There are so many different variations for different types of windows. We know that no matter how much we engineer into our shutters, the installer is the last person who touches them and plays a critical role in the consumer’s level of satisfaction. So an experienced and well-trained installer is still important.”
Norman International offers a multi-level training program that currently is on a regional tour of the United States. “The most basic level focuses on our product features and benefits plus selling techniques,” Clements says. “We want retailers and installers to be knowledgeable and comfortable selling our shutters, first and foremost. In more advanced classes we explore challenging installation applications not generally taught in other classes. We feel that installers should know how to handle French door cut-outs, arches, out-of-square openings, casings, by-pass track systems, corners, bay windows and other advanced applications.”
Hunter Douglas, Upper Saddle River, NJ, takes the mater of shutter installation seriously. Three years ago it began offering a schedule of installer training sessions throughout the United States. “Shutter installation training is absolutely critical,” says Christine Kane, brand manager for Heritance® hardwood shutters. “Every window is different. To look like the custom job that it is, our shutters have to be installed by a professional to ensure the best fit and long-term performance.”
Hunter Douglas currently offers two levels of Shutter Excellence Training: Hands-on Shutter Basics Training and the advanced Journeyman Training Program. The basic course has been designed to introduce both dealers and installers to the Heritance hardwood shutters program and to begin the process of building confidence through hands-on installation and expanded product knowledge.
In this course, attendees learn about proper shutter configurations and applications as well as how to effectively measure and prepare an order. Each session is limited to 24 installers.
This year marks the second year Hunter Douglas has offered the advance Journeyman Training Program designed for installers who have completed Apprentice Level Training or the Hands-on Shutter Basics program. Attendees receive additional experience with more complicated installations and learn how to make professional on-the-job fixes and repairs. Journeyman Training includes hands-on experience with bi-fold track systems, bypass track systems, French door, bay and corner window applications.
To date, more than 3,700 installers have been through these intensive hands-on training programs. Upon completion, attendees receive a certified installer badge, a photo ID and a listing of the products they are certified in, along with a Certificate of Completion. They then become part of Hunter Douglas’ nationwide network of Certified installers “There is a national database of qualified installers who have gone through our Heritance Shutter Excellence Training,” Kane explains. “Dealers and designers reach these installers through their full-line Hunter Douglas fabricators, who provide a complete service resource. In many instances the fabricators have trained those installers and in some cases they offer turnkey installation. To sell shutters successfully, it is imperative that dealers and designers ally themselves with a Hunter Douglas fabricator and work with an installer who is locally and professionally trained.”
THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE RIGHT JOB
Nick Christopulos, Window Visions, Wheeling, IL, is a window coverings dealer selling to designers and retail end-users. He has spent the last several years installing all types of treatments: draperies, blinds and, especially, shutters (see D&WC, November 2002, page 70).
At D&WC’s request, Christopulos put together a basic installer’s tool kit based on his experience, along with specific tools installers will need for draperies, blinds and shutters. These lists should be considered good starting points, albeit comprehensive ones.
BASIC INSTALLER’S TOOL KIT
Allen wrenches (metric and standard)
Needle nose Vise Grip Pry bar
Putty knife (1 1/2-in. metal and plastic)
Miter box with saw Screwdrivers:
Flat tip (large and small)
Phillips (#1 and #2)
Right angle drill (or adapter)
Supply of various wall anchors
Flat tip (large and small)
Phillips (#1 and #2)
Robertson (“square” #1 and #2)
1/4-in. hex head
Set of drill bits Extension cords
Inside shoes or shoe covers
Tool belt, pouch or holster
In addition to the basic tool kit,
a drapery installer should have:
Basting/tacking fasteners and gun
Steamer (handheld and floor model)
Crease A Way winkle remover
In addition to the basic tool kit,
a shutter installer should have:
Caulk gun and caulk
Bar clamps (large and small)
Compound miter saw
Palm and detail sander
Clamping sawhorse or portable
In addition to the basic tool kit,
a blind installer should have:
Dental tools (picks and forceps)
Supply of spacer blocks
Extra brackets of the most