How do we solve the installer crisis?

Paul Crow, MD of Ripples Bathrooms, on how the continuing high demand for home improvements is putting pressure on installers and how there is a critical shortage of new ones. Plus, tips on how installers and designers can best work together.

The good news is that there are plenty of customers around who want to buy a bathroom. The bad news is, they might not be able to have it for six months, and not just because we can’t get the products, we simply can’t guarantee that someone with the right skills and experience will be available to install them. Neither can we ultimately do anything about this.

The reality is, whether we like it or not, the installation industry is under pressure because of demand and was always going to be. So if you are looking at me for the long-term answer, I am afraid I can’t help you. 

Try speaking to Damian Walters of the British Institute of KBB Installation instead, as he has been championing this subject for many years. We invited him to our Ripples franchise conference one year, and not only did he speak well and with great passion, but he is also getting on with what he says he is going to do.

Our terms and conditions state very clearly that we do not offer an installation service. It’s not an area we have the skills, expertise, people, or facilities to provide, and we, therefore, introduce the customer to people who can. Often it is the same installers that we introduced last year, the year before that, and in some cases, 20 years before that. 

We spend a considerable part of our day on the subject for a company that doesn’t get legally or even financially involved in the installation. At the end of the day, it’s obviously a critical service to our business.

Installer and designer relationships

Some bathroom installers are cleaning up financially at the moment and, in a way, good luck to them. I’ve seen too many good ones who are better at their installations than they are business get ripped off by customers when the final payment comes. It shouldn’t happen, and rarely does these days, but the consumer has a little too much power regarding payment day. 

As a result, installers are now setting their own prices and frankly not being too disappointed if their tender doesn’t lead to the work, because there is always another customer that says yes. That is not a good long-term strategy, although I am pleased to say we haven’t experienced a significant issue in that area yet. 

We try to work closely with our installers as if they are part of our team. Our designers may tell you that they can be problematic at times, but I also haven’t met an installer that doesn’t say the same about our designers. Therefore, the real work is done by our franchisees, who put an arm around both parties and nurture them through every project like a container ship through the Suez Canal. Maybe a bad example.

Our role is to continue designing bathrooms that excite the customer to spend more money on their products and, although even to the detriment of the product sale, the installation too. We need everyone involved to love it. But, as you know, it isn’t that easy.

We’ve migrated over time from salespeople that design to interior designers-cum-architects that microscopically hand-hold our installers through every detail of the bathroom we can think of. Scaled elevations, perspective drawings, mood boards, bespoke fitters item reports from EQ, and the customer’s expectations. It has become a massive part of our job, and quite a big ask for our designers to work to such consistently high standards. Because we do this, I believe we have fewer challenges than others and, more importantly, we seem to be able to persuade our customers that it is worth the wait.

Our installers tell me that they love the homes they get to work in, the creative challenges our designers bring them, and the personal satisfaction of installing a bathroom that is as beautiful in function as it is in form. 

As a result, they become our silent sales team, visiting customers to get the surveys done and doing their best to work around various challenges. While our mutual relationship with installers sounds all very altruistic, the reality is that it’s the only way we can make it work that is good for their business, our franchisees and subsequently, our customers.

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