Colin St John, commercial director at roofline and cladding manufacturer, Freefoam, talks to Total Installer about economic recovery in the wake of Covid, the benefits of a customer-centric approach and why honesty’s the best policy when it comes to lengthened lead times.
TI: Can you tell us a bit about Freefoam, the company’s offering and the types of projects your products are used on…
CS: Of course – Freefoam is an independent manufacturer of PVC-UE roofline and PVC-U rainwater and external cladding. We also supply interior panelling systems for bathrooms and wet rooms. We sell exclusively through a national network of independent stockists and merchants for the home improvement, housing repair maintenance and improvement (RMI) and new-build housing markets.
TI: How are the various sectors that you’re involved with currently performing?
CS: It’s hard to take stock of the past 12 months but despite all the disruption of Covid-19, the sectors we operate in are doing very well. The housing market quickly bounced back and both new-build and RMI are doing very well.
TI: A number of surveys and forecasts are pointing to positive workloads for those operating in the home improvement and RMI sectors – is that what you’re experiencing?
CS: Most definitely. While Covid-19 has had a devastating financial impact on entire industries and countless individuals, those with job security and savings may have actually found they’re better off. The last report I read said consumers had amassed £100bn in savings by the end of 2020. That’s a huge amount, and they will have saved even more when we come out of lockdown in the summer. The Bank of England is forecasting they’ll have £250bn. We haven’t been able to spend money on holidays or meals out, so people are spending on improving their homes to make them more comfortable and convenient, or adding much needed living and working space.
Many of our installer customers say they’ve never been busier and there’s no sign of demand slowing down. We’ve seen a massive demand for cladding – either for garden offices and studios or as an easy, low-maintenance way of transforming homes. Last year our top stockists had sold an average 38% more cladding than in 2018, and we expect this trend to continue.
TI: Have lead times been affected? And how are you working to ensure installers are delivering on their promises to customers?
CS: You’ve addressed the elephant in the room here because the truth is, most manufacturers have been affected to some extent with demand outstripping supply. Lead times for materials such as timber, concrete roof tiles, insulation for example have been stretched greatly at times. When the world shut down last March, no-one knew when or how we would reopen. We were very lucky in this industry that demand quickly recovered but it inevitably impacted on lead times. I’ve found the best approach is to be honest with customers, do our best to deliver products when they need them, and keep open lines of communication. We’d encourage installers to do the same with their customers.
TI: Following one of the most testing periods for construction with the Grenfell tragedy/ Hackitt Inquiry, Brexit and Covid-19, is there anything you’ve learned that you’ll take with you going forward?
CS: Last year was a huge learning experience, probably the biggest of my career to date. I’m incredibly proud of the Freefoam team, including our customers, and our ability to pull together and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. We’ve always placed customers at the centre of the business, and I’d say the events of 2020 have taught me this approach is critical for long-term success.
TI: You operate a Registered Installer Scheme – how important are such schemes with regards to installers differentiating themselves in a crowded marketplace?
CS: You’re right, it is a crowded marketplace. Installers who want to get ahead and sell more in the premium sector (where all the money is accumulating in customer bank accounts), need to stand out with the right product mix and the right support from their suppliers. Our scheme covers everything from marketing support and lead generation to product guarantees. And it’s very accessible, easy to use and very effective.
TI: What are the key benefits of the Registered Installer Scheme, and what are the challenges that you help installers overcome?
CS: We set up Freefoam’s Registered Installer Scheme years ago to help installers gain a competitive edge and win more business. Since then it’s become more and more popular with installers because our marketing support helps them build their brand in their local area. We also provide quality leads for them through our two consumer-facing websites, www.myfascia.co.uk and www.mycladding.com. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits installers get through the scheme is the Extended Lifetime Guarantee, which extends the 20 year guarantee on white roofline to 50 years, to give our registered installers an extra boost. If the homeowner moves home the guarantee can be transferred to the new owners. Homeowners say it’s a great incentive to buy Freefoam and it gives them extra peace of mind. Registered Installers have always loved it.
TI: How have the roles of manufacturer and supplier developed over the years, and how have installers’ requirements changed?
CS: From Freefoam’s perspective, success comes from helping customers grow – it’s so important we’ve made it our ruling principle. Successful suppliers need to offer more than just products, they need to create mutual partnerships with customers.
It’s also very true that the way installers promote their business has evolved. Being able to promote your brand online and on social media is essential. It can be hard to know where to start, so we’ve just launched new social media guidelines to help installers. The document includes details of each stage of setting up adverts, from information about a free online Facebook course to ideas on how to target an audience to make sure adverts reach the people who will be interested in a particular service. We’ve included tips on adding tracking code so that Facebook shows adverts to the right people and advice on scheduling to ensure adverts are shown when the chosen audience is most likely to see them. We’ve also developed a range of short, easy-to-follow videos to show installers exactly what to do.
TI: The public are more knowledgeable about products and materials nowadays – has this put pressure on installers?
CS: I agree, homeowners are much more knowledgeable, and we see it as a positive thing for installers. It’s so much easier to explain product features and benefits if consumers have a good basic understanding. The days of the typical ‘hard sell’ are gone and the most successful installers are those who communicate clearly and honestly with their customers.
TI: We often hear of rogue tradespeople, but sometimes customers can be too demanding, rude and unreasonable. What would your advice be to installers who come across customers like this?
CS: Earlier on in my career, I joined Laing Homes as a customer care officer. We were known as Care Bears, and to be honest I quite liked that. We were there to ease customers into their new homes and make the transition as easy as possible. The job gave me an invaluable grounding in customer service and taught me that in moments of angst, people can lose a sense of reality. As my career progressed I learned customer service boils down to delivering what has been promised. My advice to installers would be to keep this in mind at all times.
TI: What about up-selling and diversifying? Installers have a key opportunity when installing one product, to perhaps talk about roofline, conservatories, decking, garage doors etc. Is this something you would encourage?
CS: Absolutely. We always encourage installers to look for these opportunities and give them the knowledge and products to help make the sale. For example, if Mrs Jones is having new foiled windows and doors, it’s the perfect opportunity for the installer to offer matching roofline or external cladding to complement the installation.
TI: Is price still the main driver when it comes to choosing products and materials for projects?
CS: That depends on which market you’re selling to. If you’re selling in the mass middle-to-budget market, then price will be the most important factor. But if you’re selling to homeowners in the premium sector, where cost isn’t a barrier, they’ll be looking for beautiful looks, performance and products that enhance and add value.
TI: What are some of the most common mistakes that contractors / installers make when it comes to installing cladding?
CS: It’s easy to think you can have a go, but we’d strongly recommend referring to the manufacturer’s guide and getting advice from your supplier if you’re unsure. Incorrect fixing centres and lack of ventilation are the cause of most installation problems, so we have a dedicated FAQ page on cladding (www.freefoam.com/professional/technical-faqs) and our technical advisors are always happy to help with any queries. As I said earlier, cladding is an important and growing market for Freefoam so our marketing team are currently developing an easy-to-follow ‘how to’ cladding video to help installers get started.
TI: Can you tell us about some of the more interesting projects that your products have been utilised on?
CS: We’ve seen some fantastic transformations with cladding. For example, Freefoam Fortex weatherboard cladding in Misty Grey was used to enhance the front elevation of a detached property in Cheshire (pictured above). Fitted as part of an extensive renovation programme both internally and externally, the cladding was used in conjunction with a render finish to create a smart contemporary New England look. Another beautiful makeover came in a renovation of a three storey house in Falmouth, where our Fortex Double Shiplap cladding in Colonial Blue replaced tired, discoloured pebble dash to transform the property and give it a coastal feel.
TI: Despite a challenging period for construction and the public – are there reasons to be positive moving forward – in 2021 and beyond?
CS: No-one can predict the future but, as the latest Consumer Confidence data from GfK shows, consumer confidence is returning, and the wider construction industry will continue to recover. We’re focused on putting the customer at the heart of Freefoam and giving them the products, service and support to do well.