‘Why a shortage of installers doesn’t worry me’

Mark Buchanan, owner of KBB retailer Upstairs Downstairs in Chester, reveals the secret to coping with a shrinking supply of skilled fitters



The relationship between retailers and installers has always needed care and attention, whether the teams are employed or subcontracted in.

How we communicate with them about future projects is crucial for them to plan their diary. And it’s important to book the installer you want.

When you trade in mixed markets with their separate ups and downs, your business should be proactive about nurturing future, younger installers.

Many established fitters are like bumble bees. They buzz around chasing the best rates and booking them can be tricky, so it’s always wise to have five or six options who can deliver same quality, albeit achieved in a different way.

An older, more experienced installer may be slower and expensive, but he may also be more loyal long term and he will wait for your work and fit in other projects around what you have – because he knows your work will be stress-free and you ensure there will be no hurdles for him to fall over.

Part of the owners/manager’s job is to make sure their chosen installer meets three vital criteria: the degree of difficulty of the work; how nervous or demanding the client is, and whether they have the skill set for the full project.

A fabulous installer who stays with you 15 years or more gets to know the company protocols about how they address customers and how neat and tidy they need to be. They shouldn’t be too chatty and need to remember they are an ambassador for your company.

Generally, after six months, a good installer will stay for a good mixed bag of quality installs, which they are proud to be involved with. This showcases their talents and makes them feel a valued part of the team.

Once, we waited seven years to get a bathroom fitter from a competitor – and then, they only came to us after their previous employer had folded.

We’ve outlived a dozen really good old-school installers. Having been here 35 years, that’s inevitable. But we’ve also recognised that there could be a shortage in the future and so we’ve put trainees out with established fitters to expand our teams in a year’s time. We will steadily hone these newbies into the kind of competent all-round fitters we need.

All these surveys, statistics and government gurus don’t mean a thing to us. And yes, we use Polish installers from time to time, and it’s the same as if they were UK fitters, except in London it must be even more difficult to find local teams, hence more EU- born fitters are used around huge cities.

What matters is that you look ahead, see the trends and react accordingly. Make sure the people who work well for your business model are appreciated, paid a good rate and kept informed of any gaps in the work diary, so they can take advantage of these and come back ready for the next challenge.

It goes without saying that it is far easier to manage all installer teams when you have a full order book. In my view, it always flowed better when we were fitting eight or nine kitchens and six bathrooms a month back in the mid-1990s.

A really good fusion of short- and long-term outside contractors and your own fitters is the key to perfect results for you and your customers.

You have to drive the bus and whether you have one showroom or seven, the challenges will be the same.

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