StoneTalk Episode 2 – Liz Tambasco
Our 2nd episode features an interview with industry veteran and sales expert Liz Tambasco.
Listen to this episode to learn key ways to grow your business:
- How to improve your sales by improving your service
- Empathize with your customers and improve your communication to improve your service
- How to build your reputation by asking for referrals
- Give back – volunteering is rewarding and a great way to learn
Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes (and please give the show a review!) or via RSS … and please let us know what you think! You can leave comments for this show at stonetalk.org, on the StoneTalk Facebook page, via Twitter, or on this site. And of course, you can always email email@example.com, too. If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Patrick: Today we’re going to talk with Liz Tambasco. For the last couple of decades, Liz has worked in the surface industry in a variety of roles and companies. This vast experience gives her a unique perspective, especially on sales and how to grow your business. She’s currently a semi-retired consultant to her industry, based in New York. Let’s give her a call.
Liz: Hey, Patrick.
Patrick: How’re you doing?
Liz: I’m good, how are you?
Patrick: Good, thanks. Thanks so much for doing this.
Liz: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’ve got to keep busy doing something.
Patrick: Exactly. I guess that’s what that semi-retired thing is.
Liz: That’s what that semi-retired thing is. I really didn’t want to do anything, but that’s not my personality, so now I just do stuff when I want to.
Patrick: Very nice.
Liz: It is nice. Eventually I’ll be back to something full-time I think, but not yet. Definitely not yet. I’m enjoying myself, but I know my personality type. I won’t be able to do this for very long.
Patrick: Yeah. Well, I’m recording already, so let’s jump in.
Liz: Okay, great.
Patrick: So you’ve worked on the fabrication side and on the distribution side.
Patrick: Tell me about how different it is working in those. What’s different about the two businesses, and what did you like or not like about one versus the other?
Liz: Well, there is a very big difference. Just so you know on the fabrication side, I didn’t fabricate for an end user. I always worked with fabrication companies that fabricated for the trade, who then sold to the end user.
Patrick: Is this what wholesale means? I’m not an industry veteran …
Liz: Yes, I would say that that would be what wholesale means, yeah. Different people will have different opinions of that, but in my opinion, yes, that would be wholesale.
I did deal with retail customers on behalf of my customers from time to time, but that’s also a very different business model. A fabricator who fabricates directly for the end user, for the home owner, that’s a different category all together. Just so you know.
Patrick: Okay, that makes sense.
Liz: But differences between fabrication and distribution … although both roles are very detailed, working as a fabricator is far more detailed than working in distribution. You need to pay attention to every little detail in that order: where a sink cut-out goes, where a faucet hole goes. Is there a raise on a corner? Little tiny details.
Where in the distribution end, you’re basically shipping the slab. It’s a simpler process of the entire picture. Both are equally important to make the end user happy. If someone along the path is not doing what they’re supposed to do, it affects that end user, and that’s never the goal (unless it’s in a positive, wonderful way).
But I can’t say I like one more than the other. I enjoyed both, for different reasons. I enjoy detail, and I enjoy having more of the direct impact on the final product, which you get more as a fabricator than you do as a distributor.
But the truth is, unless someone in the distribution chain is doing everything that they need to do for the fabricator, the fabricator is swimming upstream. And understanding the fabricator’s need first-hand was what made distribution rewarding for me.
Patrick: Okay, and having worked on both sides, is there something about the distributor’s business that you think fabricators often don’t know that they should know? Or is there any advice that you have about how a fabricator can work better with their distributor to ultimately provide a better experience for customers?
Liz: Planning, planning, planning. Order in advance. Don’t take things for granted that things will be there 30 seconds after you ask for them. Different areas around the country are better about this. I’m based in New York. New Yorkers want everything done yesterday, and that’s not a cliché; it’s the absolute truth. They expect, when they order something, for it to be sitting there waiting … in an ideal world, that’s the way it should be.
Over the past five to ten years, with budgets being tightened and the different aspects that go along with that, it does affect some distributors. That doesn’t mean that they can’t get you the product quickly, but sometimes they’re carrying less inventory because of these conditions. That’s something that fabricators should take into consideration when they work with a distributor.
Patrick: Sure, and there’s the push toward I think what is often called lean manufacturing, or just lean in general.
Liz: Lean in general, yes.
Patrick: Which would encourage a fabricator, ultimately, to order things at the last minute. It’s important to recognize how that might affect your distributor. They may simply not be able to handle it as well as you want them to handle it.
Liz: And again, everybody in the process wants to have a flawless experience. Everybody wants to have a pleasurable experience. If you worked as a team versus working against each other, which is something that I’ve seen a lot, it hurts everybody in the process.
Working with your distributor when you are a fabricator means saying to them, “Listen, I have these orders coming in,” or just having a conversation, just keeping each other in the loop, especially for a smaller fabricator who takes everything to the last second. That’s more of a smaller fabricator issue than it is a larger fabricator issue, because larger fabricators normally have a bigger and better plan. But it’s still something that people should take more seriously and not take for granted, the fact that everything’s going to be there exactly when you need it. Especially in these times.
Patrick: Yeah, good point.
Let’s back up a little bit. How did you get into this industry in the first place? What got you into the surface industry, and what keeps you back?
Liz: When I graduated from college, I worked in a completely different industry. I worked with pagers, back when pagers and beepers were hot and popular. I worked for a company that was very successful. During my tenure there, I met a woman named Florence who became a wonderful, wonderful friend.
She had a friend who worked in the laminate countertop business. They were a very disorganized company, and they needed some help. They needed someone to oversee their offices. Although that’s not what I was doing for the pager company, this woman felt that it would be a great opportunity for me, and a great staff add-on to this other company, and had recommended me to her friend.
So I went to work for a laminate company and worked in the laminate industry for a number of years. The people that I worked with in the laminate industry ended up graduating into the stone industry, which so many have had done. That’s how I ended up where I am now.
Patrick: Nice. And then somewhere along the line, you got really good at sales type things, so let’s talk about that for a second.
Patrick: Feel free to augment this with specific stories at any point.
Liz: We need to protect the innocent, but okay.
Patrick: I’ve heard you tell some pretty good stories …
Liz: Yes, yes, yes.
Patrick: Let’s say I was a fabricator. Let’s say I have about a half million in revenue, so not very big yet, and I want to expand. Let’s say I want to double, from half a million in yearly revenue, to a million in yearly revenue. What kind of questions would you then ask me to help me figure out how to get there?
Liz: Well, number one, it depends on your business model. More important than revenue is profit. That’s my first question. What’s your profit on the revenue that you have right now, and how do you expand that?
And again, knowing who your client and who your customer base is … in most parts of the country, you cannot work retail and wholesale. You need to pick a side and be the best that you can be at that side. If you become competition to your wholesale clients, why would your wholesale clients want to do business with you?
Patrick: Sure, fair enough.
Liz: The best answer and the simplest answer, and it’s usually my answer to everything – and it’s something I completely believe in – is service. If there’s four billion guys out there doing exactly the same thing, providing the exact same product at the end of the day, what makes one better than the next? Service.
Improving your service from the get-go is where you begin. Promoting the fact that you are above and beyond your competition is the second step. Keeping in touch with your prior clients, whether you’re in the retail business or in the wholesale business, is huge. It’s a very easy way to generate business without a huge marketing expense.
Patrick: Keeping in touch with your prior clients, how does that generate new business? From needing a bathroom after you do a kitchen, or from referrals?
Liz: Referrals. Remember, most people when they purchase a countertop, even laminate these days, is not inexpensive. It’s an expensive proposition. Laminate, stone, solid surface, the new products that are coming out … this is a several thousand dollar investment, which to the end user is a lot of money.
When you spend that kind of money, you want to deal with a company that’s either referred to you or someone who has a great reputation. What better way to branch or grow your business than through the people that you’ve already made happy? It’s the best way to do business.
The companies that have survived through the past economy issues are the companies that were born and survived on referral business. The guys who were fly-by-nights? Aren’t here anymore. The guys who are doing it so cheap? Can’t afford to keep doing it that way. Referral business, to me, is probably your most important asset, but that means that you have to do good business to begin with.
Patrick: That’s very interesting. People always talk about reputation in the abstract, and that’s the result of a lot of business. But a referral is an individual “chunk” of reputation. If you’ve done one great kitchen, you’ve got a reputation with that customer. How can you leverage that to get another one?
Liz: And each countertop that is installed in each house across the world is marketing. It is advertisement. If I walked into a home and see a beautiful job, as a normal human being, and I’m about to do my kitchen, it stands in my mind. “Oh, you know what? John just did his kitchen. Let me ask him who did it, because it came out beautiful.”
The opposite is also true. If it’s a bad job, or if the person had a bad experience, that’s going to be your worst enemy. So providing the best service possible in every aspect, and then capitalizing on that … it could be something as simple as a postcard, a letter, a holiday card, anything. It’s just keeping in touch with your customers, which most people in this industry do not do. That I will tell you.
Patrick: Let’s say you send a postcard. Do you ask them something on that postcard? Do you ask for a referral, or is it just reminding them? “Hey, seeing how you’re doing,” or what would you say?
Liz: “Just want to make sure everything’s okay with your kitchen, just want to make sure you’re still happy.” I wouldn’t ask for a referral directly – I think it’s tacky. Some people will. Instead, “Don’t forget. If your friends or anybody in your neighborhood is looking for kitchens, we’re here to help.” Something that is caring and nice, not something that’s sales-y and obvious.
One of the things I’ve become well-known for is my sales ability, but the truth of the matter is, I have never been a salesperson. I’ve serviced all of my customers to the point where they want to deal with me. I don’t sell, and I’ve never sold. It’s become a private joke among people who know me well.
Because I love what I do. I believe in what I do. The companies I’ve worked for, I’ve worked for them because I believed in them. I’ve never applied for a job—I’ve been recruited by all the companies I’ve worked for, and chosen them based on their reputations, and enjoyed the time that I spent there.
And my client base is with me because they know I will always do what I say, no matter what. Not because I sold them on a product. And I truly believe, that’s the way the world should work. I do. I don’t believe that people or companies should be fighting each other for $2 a square foot. You should be chosen because you provide the very best service.
Unless you’re in a market that needs to be a completely different type of market that’s only based on price, and that’s a whole different conversation for a whole other day.
Patrick: Let’s talk about service more specifically. Let’s say I’m a fabricator, doing OK, but not really lighting it up. Where am I probably falling down on service? Where am I probably giving bad service? What one specific thing should I do better today to be better at service?
Liz: Communication with your customer. Communication with your customer is the biggest void in the stone industry, or in the surfacing industry, I should say. Most people when they complain, they complain about communication with whomever they are dealing with.
Follow-up is huge. And again, that’s a slow way to grow your business, but a very long-term, positive way to grow your business. Is that going to get you sales tomorrow? No. Is that going to, in the long term, provide you with stability and that referral base that I speak of? Absolutely.
It’s very rare that I hear people walk away from any experience in construction as a whole and go, “Wow, everything went perfect.” It doesn’t happen. The people in the countertop end of this business are the last people in the door for the most part.
As the last person in the door, you’re already working with a clientele who is frustrated, they’ve been completely inconvenienced … and no matter how much somebody tried to prepare them for it, they weren’t. They haven’t had a sink or a surface to prepare on in weeks in most cases, maybe more. They are at their wits’ end to get their life back in order.
You’re the last guy in. Guess who gets the majority of the frustration? In my opinion, it should be up to you to acknowledge that, and understand that, and do everything that you could possibly do to make that experience better for the person.
Now again, most people are not going to be able to turn around a countertop in 24 hours and work on the speed of things. But the truth is, most people, if you give them enough information and honesty about the process that they’re going to go through, from the time that they start with you to the end, they understand it. They just need information.
I think that that’s a very good place to start with growing your business, because if you have a great experience with your fabricator, you are going to be the first one to go to your friends and say, “Oh my God, these people were amazing, they were this, they were that.” That word spreads.
Somebody’s always renovating. Somebody’s always doing a countertop. It’s a very great way to build your long term business.
On the short term, that’s a very good question, since I don’t deal with retail.
Patrick: Well, for a wholesaler, what was a successful sales initiative you’d done?
Liz: It goes back to the same premise. Service … let’s use kitchen and bath dealers, for example. A kitchen and bath dealer is not the person who’s living with the end product, or a builder. They’re not living with the end product.
They don’t really care, for the most part, what a person buys. They just want everything to go smoothly, and to have very minimal issues, no issues if that’s even physically possible, by the end of the process.
As a fabricator, by impressing them with the fact that you are going to make their life easier, and that they’re not going to have to worry about the transaction or the fabrication or the installation or the customer being unhappy, that you’re going to handle everything for them – that is gold. That’s absolute gold. If you can do that, you have their business forever. Because the truth is, the people that they’re dealing with probably are not giving them that.
Communication is the biggest problem, in my opinion, in this industry. Telling people what’s going on, being honest. Again, your wholesale customers don’t touch that countertop. They send you a piece of paper and they pay you at the end of the day. What else do they do? The money that they make on that, the less time that they spend on the phone, back and forth with you, and checking in on this and checking in on that, you make that experience a pleasure, you will have all of their business. For probably more money than they pay the guy that they’re dealing with right now.
Patrick: It still comes down to making the homeowner happy, it’s just they’re not your customer directly …
Liz: … nope, but you have to make them happy.
Patrick: … in order to make your customer happy.
Liz: That’s right. Absolutely.
Patrick: It sounds like a little bit of empathy might go a long way too, because even though you can’t fix the problems of the flooring guy or the cabinet guy, at least understanding that you’re the last guy in, and having some empathy for the homeowner, meeting them where they are instead of wondering, “Why are customers always so annoying? Why are they always in such a bad mood when I show up?”
Liz: I’ve heard that a billion times. They’re not annoying. They’re frustrated, and understanding that is key to success. Because people will pick up on the fact when you’re intolerant of them.
Homeowners, if they understand that you understand, the truth is, they’ll put up with the little snafus that go along with this process. It’s a better experience for them. And I think that’s where so many people in this industry have missed something, because it’s so key. It’s so key to understand them.
I’ve gotten involved with many homeowners over the years on behalf of my clients, because my clients always knew that I understood the end user, and they would call me. Even on jobs that had nothing to do with my companies, they would call me and say, “Can you do me a favor? Can you please talk to my customer?”
My answer was always, “Absolutely.” Because they couldn’t do it, or they didn’t have the time to do it, or so many different reasons. I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “It’s just a countertop.” I have heard that so many times over the past 20 years. It’s not just a countertop.
Patrick: From customers you mean, or from people you’re working with?
Liz: People in the industry … they’ll say, “It’s not life or death, it’s not brain surgery – it’s just a countertop.” Wrong. This is somebody’s life who’s been flipped upside down because they don’t have one, and until it’s done, they can’t go back. It’s not just a countertop.
It’s been a major construction process that they’ve been going through for months in most cases, and you’re the last guy. If you understand that, in my opinion, you’re a much better business owner.
Patrick: And the very reason it’s a good business to be in is the fact that it’s expensive enough that I, as a homeowner, I’m going to be under so much anxiety when I’m wondering how this $3,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 purchase is going to turn out. It’s agonizing.
Liz: That’s right. That’s in addition to the problems that you’ve already experienced with everything else. Construction never goes well. I don’t know anybody who’s walked away from any major construction (and a kitchen is major construction) and said, “We had no problems. Everything was perfect.”
If they said that, they were shielded from it. There’s always going to be something. Again, countertop fabricators walk into a situation that’s already at its peak of, “I am so done with this process and I want it over tomorrow.” They’re fed up, and they should be.
Even if it did go well, they’ve still been inconvenienced in their world. I think if more people understood that and took that as seriously as it is, we’d have a much better industry. I do believe that.
I also believe that everybody who is in this industry should walk a mile in these people’s shoes. Rip out your kitchen. I said that when I was vice-president of operations with Selective Surfaces. Rip out your kitchen.
Everybody in the company, I would say to them, “Why don’t we rip out your kitchen?” Especially customer service people. “Let’s rip it out, and let’s see what you have to deal with, and then you’ll understand why these people are very frustrated when they speak to you and you’re not telling them they’re getting a countertop in 24 hours.”
Understand where they’re coming from. They’re not just an order, they’re a human being with a family, with children, with whatever the case may be, who hasn’t been able to prepare a meal or even boil a pot of water. If you understand that, I think that it would make a much better experience, which again will stand out from the other guy that’s your competition, which will get you referral business rather quickly.
Patrick: Yeah, that’s probably the best service training you could do is have your people who touch customers in any way rip out their kitchens.
Liz: I think so. Yeah, rip out their kitchens.
Patrick: Or at least, if you’re not willing to do that, have a movie night and watch Tom Hanks in The Money Pit.
Liz: There you go, exactly. Exactly.
Patrick: It will at least help you get into that mindset.
Liz: You have to understand it, yeah. That’s why I was good in distribution, because I understood the need of the fabricator. Again, understanding the customer, no matter what hat you’re wearing, is really important to your success.
Patrick: I suspect that it’s not much different if you’re a $500,000 fabricator or a $5 million fabricator.
Liz: Truth of the matter is, it shouldn’t be. Is it? Yes. Should it be? No.
I was raised to believe in Utopia. I was raised to believe that Utopia begins with you. I believe that you should be proud of the business that you own, for any one of these fabricators, and you should treat your customers the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes, regardless of the size of your company.
That’s the perfect world. Is that reality? No. But is it what we should all strive for? I believe so. Absolutely.
Patrick: Well, cool. Thanks for chatting with me here … what’s next for you? You said you’re probably not going to be able to sit on the sidelines for long, so what’s next for you?
Liz: I’m not sure. I took my step back from the industry almost a year ago to regain the perspective that I’ve always had, because it was starting to get a bit clouded, like everybody else, and I realized that. I needed that clarity back, because it’s what makes me me. The past almost-a-year has given me that and then some.
I’m volunteering right now for two start-up companies, which has been very rewarding, very fulfilling, and very educational. That’s been terrific. Do I have a future with them? I don’t know, and that’s not my goal. My goal was to help. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in so many cases over the past year. More so over the past six months. First six months I just enjoyed my sabbatical.
I don’t know. It has to be an opportunity that’s interesting. It has to be for a company I can believe in; it has to be for a product I can believe in. I have to love what I do. When I find it, or when it comes to me, I’ll know it.
So far I haven’t even really been looking. I’ve had many calls and many offers, but nothing that’s going, “Wow, that’s what I need to do right now.” Other than do the volunteering that I’ve been doing. That’s been fantastic.
To be honest with you, I wish more people could afford to do that. Because it’s great to help others and learn so much at the same time. You end up getting involved in so many other things that you wouldn’t normally do in your day-to-day life, because – especially with a start-up –you’re involved with so many things.
I’ve flown to China and helped one of the companies develop a quartz line, and worked with them, and worked on colors, which is something I would have never been able to do in my past life. Yeah, it’s been extremely rewarding.
I don’t know what’s next.
Patrick: I just volunteered for my son’s gymnastics meet, the last couple years. It’s a big meet, and the parents have to put it on. I swear I learned more from that than I would going back to business school.
Liz: I believe that. Good for you.
Patrick: Because when you volunteer, frankly … you can do things that you’re bad at.
Liz: That’s right, you get it.
Patrick: It’s a great way to say “Sure, I’ll help out. But you’re not paying me, so you get what you pay for here.” But then you learn. It’s amazing, actually.
Liz: It’s the truth, and you know what? Most people don’t have the time in their lives to do what they need to do on a daily basis. They definitely don’t have the time to give back. It’s great to be able to do that.
Again, like you said, you can do stuff that you would never do … most people, when they go and apply for a position, they’re stereotyped into the position that they applied for, based on their past. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have more skill sets than that, you just don’t have that on paper.
In this particular case, with two different companies, so many things that I’m good at but never done for a living, I’m able to help a company with. Or two companies, actually, and learn so much in the process.
For example, although I’ve been involved in the distribution end of this business, a little bit involved in logistics (… because I believe logistics when it comes to distribution is the key to distribution). I was not trained in logistics, or schooled in logistics, or have technical experience in logistics, I would never be considered for a logistics position.
In one of the companies I’m helping right now, I’ve been involved in a lot of the logistics of product coming from overseas, and learned so much about the logistics world that I would never have been able to do it in an actual paying position. Which has just made me better.
Patrick: And I assume it’s kind of fun?
Liz: Oh, it’s exciting.
Patrick: … and sometimes you help out with something and you find out, “Ew, I don’t like this. I definitely don’t want to find myself in this situation.”
Liz: Exactly. I’ve been involved in packaging … in everything that goes into a business. I would’ve never had those experiences if I was titled as a whatever-it-is-that-I’m-doing-today. There’s always someone else to do that. But it’s been fantastic.
Patrick: Good for you.
Liz: I would like to do this as long as I can, for a lot of different reasons. We’ll see where it takes me. I’m very fortunate that I don’t need to work, and I’ve always worked because I love to. This has been great.
Some people give to Make-a-Wish, I give to the stone industry. That’s just the way it works.
Patrick: Well, thank you for giving today, just by talking with us here and sharing your knowledge.
Liz: Anytime, and I hope that the information’s been helpful.
Patrick: I hope so too. I suspect it will be.
Wherever you do land, whether for just helping out or for your next paid gig, it’s going to be with a very lucky company.
Liz: Oh, thank you so much. Any questions, call me. Send my love to Harry.
Patrick: Thanks, Liz.
Liz: Thank you.
Patrick: Talk to you more soon.
Liz: Yes. Bye.