How can the home improvement industry clean up its act?

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Nick Dardalis

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To many people the home improvement industry is tainted by years of bad press caused by rouge operators. Even recently there have been reports by Which? Magazine and television programmes highlighting the plight of homeowners plagued by bad workmanship. Sadly this applies to the double glazing industry as well as the wider home improvement industry.

This bad reputation even extends to individuals with the double glazing sales profession being derided and people selling double glazing being regarded as untrustworthy.

How did this reputation come about and what can be done to change it?

The double glazing reputation

homeowners looking for new windows and doors today have more choice than ever before.
Homeowners looking for new windows and doors today have more choice than ever before.

Examples of poor workmanship and bad installations of windows by smaller firms coupled with the sales tactics of the larger double glazing firms are largely to blame for the negative perception of double glazing.

Whilst the media has not reported as negatively as in recent years, it is important to remember that it is not only double glazing but home improvements generally that have been subjected to the bad sales tactics, “rip off pensioners” approach and questionable business ethics.

Home insulation, Solar Panels, Intruder alarms, driveways, landscaping, builders and many others have all tarnished the overall reputation of home improvements in some way and not just double glazing.

The double glazing salesman.

It is well known within the sector that the majority of double glazing salespeople are employed on a commission only basis.  Historically the tactics in the 1970’s and 1980’s where double glazing really took off are well known.  Salesmen would spend many hours in the customer home using old hat sales tactics such as too good to be true offers, discounts available only if you sign on the night and the media reporting rogue double glazing firms ripping off vulnerable customers with cheap products sold way above what they were actually worth.

It is also well known in the trade that big national firms will focus the training of new staff on closing the sale rather than accurate and dedicated product training.  It is also the case that once a “typical” double glazing salesman has secured a sale it is unlikely a customer will hear or see that salesman again during their order process.

What can be done about bad workmanship by window installers?

It’s probably safe to assume that local authority trading standards officers are not going to go out of their way to proactively deal with the problem. At best they only have the resources to react to complaints. And any attempt to introduce stricter regulation would probably be resisted by the wider industry anyway.

Logically therefore it is likely that any effective control is going to come from some form of self-regulation. One suggestion made on the Doubleglazingblogger site is that manufacturers restrict who they supply their products to. The sentiment behind this thinking is understood but would this solution solve the problem or stifle the industry?

Trade Manufacturers are in the business of selling windows.

the vast majority of window companies buy in their products and do not manufacture anything.
The vast majority of window companies buy in their products and do not manufacture anything.

The majority of double glazing firms do not manufacture their own windows and doors. They place orders with trade fabricators who then supply the product. Whilst DGB’s efforts to highlight this issue from within the trade should be applauded, his suggestion is simply not practical for several reasons.

Who would pay the increased administration costs, appeals and disputes over who gets rejected and who gets accepted to do business with a fabricator? Would installation companies be willing to stand a price increase in the name of “cleaning up the industry”, inevitably those costs would be passed on to the consumer?

Aside from the specifics there is the general point that no right minded trade fabricator will control who they sell their products to. To discriminate against a particular window company simply won’t happen. It is no different to refusing to sell any product to any customer.

Many trade fabricators are already cautious of one man bands, small window firms, man in a van type window companies. If, like many trade suppliers they operate a credit scoring system before supplying products to any potential customer and the window firm does not pass the credit checks the trade fabricator will still willingly and happily supply them windows as long as they are protected financially. It’s that simple.

There are plenty of well known trade suppliers of fabricated windows and doors that this website knows or has worked with that operate strict payment controls.  These include pro forma invoices, payment in full with order or payment in full before delivery to companies that are either perceived to be less then reputable or those that do not pass their credit checks.  Better still for the  manufacturers, many have long term customers they have been supplying for many years on this basis.  A window manufacturer won’t turn away an order large or small. What they will do is simply ensure they don’t lose money in any way and simply cover themselves.

This is simple business common sense that is applied by any business in any sector that is concerned about payment for their goods and is in no way exclusive to the window industry nor is it a problem only faced by the window industry.

Do trade fabricators really care who they sell windows to?

The answer is no. They are in the business of selling products to the trade. As long as the manufacturer is confident they have made windows as ordered, they are of the right quality and they have provided their customer with the right supporting information such as CE Marking, installation instructions and other information, their work is done. What happens to their windows after this is outside their control and not their problem.

Let us also remember that window manufacturers are also in competition with other manufacturers and to suggest that an otherwise paying customer should be turned away is not seeing the bigger picture.

Is the reputation of a window manufacturer harmed by selling to bad installers?

No it isn’t. Anyone experienced in the door and window industry that has ever called upon a manufacturer or systems company to attend site when problems with installations have occurred will know all too well that if that manufacturer of windows, doors or their glass has made their products correctly they will walk away. Simply put, they’ve done nothing wrong.

There is an argument that persistent bad installations by the same installer may cause a supplier to consider whether they wish to supply them but this is the exception rather than the rule. In simple terms suppliers have no control over their customers or the reputation of their customers and nor should they.

Is this sour grapes by other window companies?

Suppliers, manufacturers and those actively involved in the home improvement sector will be very aware, at a local level especially, that there is much competition from other window companies. It is rare nowadays for manufacturers to offer “territories” to their existing customers like systems companies and trade suppliers used to.  The market does not react well any more to people favouring one window company over another and offering exclusivity.  There are window companies that wish their products were only available to them in their area and no other installer.

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Double glazing discounts are one area that gives the industry a bad reputation

Window companies frequently complain to their suppliers and others that they are losing work to who they might perceive as smaller, less reputable, always cheaper and for these, competition is a thorn in their side and they don’t like it.  Nobody likes losing work to other people.

In home improvements especially and where homeowners will frequently obtain several quotations, window firms are frequently irritated at losing work to their competitors because:

  • Their competition sells the same product as them at a cheaper price.
  • They don’t like their suppliers selling their local competition windows when they’ve been dealing with them longer?
  • They cannot understand how their competition can make any money selling so cheap.
  • They put in a lot of work as an individual or business to try secure the work only to have their quotations passed around their competitors in an effort to drive down prices.
  • They may be justified in perceiving local competition as less reputable and may even have rectified the mistakes of their competitors.
  • Their competition often buys in the same products they sell cheaper than they do.
  • They simply believe that they are better than their competition and don’t like losing work to them .

Is this mainly a PVCu issue?

In some areas yes, but not exclusively.  What we do know is that those involved in aluminium installations, commercial aluminium work and those companies that set themselves aside from the mass produced PVCu window are in many areas detached from this perceived problem but not exempt.

Aluminium products are generally at the same price point with obvious exceptions.  PVCu windows are drastically different in price from product to product.  You will never see high end aluminium products, bespoke glass work, commercial or any specialist work outside of PVCu subjected to the fantastic discounts, offers to buy on the night and huge competition evident in the PVCu window sector. With plastic window prices so competitive all round selling plastic windows is hard.

Look at many cases of bad installations and terrible customer service and often it is PVCu window related from those buying windows at the cheapest price.  This is understandable considering the dominance of plastic windows today however those not active in this part of the market won’t often be involved.

It is the historical reputation of large double glazing firms and the mass production of PVCu windows that has played a part in the negative perception of the home improvement sector.  But we must remember that it is not just double glazing that suffers from bad workmanship by cowboy companies.

Aren’t controls and certification already in place?

The double glazing sector already has professional representation and countless industry bodies set up to help, advise, support and of course, make money from it’s members.

With organisation such as DGCOS, The Glass and Glazing Federation, Insurance Backed Guarantee Schemes, FENSA, CERTASS and of course British and European Standards these help maintain standards but cannot ultimately police the entire sector and it is naive to suggest they can.

But as with any professional organisation or badge, this will never completely do away with bad double glazing firms that may also be members of these organisations.

So what is the solution to rogue double glazing firms?

Ultimately we must remember it is the homeowner that makes a buying decision who to place their business with. If they choose to employ a bad company then caveat emptor – buyer beware. Double glazing firms themselves on their own websites often inform their customers on “things to look out for when buying windows”, “choosing the right window company”, “top 5 things to do before you buy windows” and countless sources of information.  Today there is really  no reason not to have done your research.

Many consumers are driven by the lowest price and not the highest quality. If price somehow leads them to the cheap window company  that results in problems post installation then that is their choice and it should be respected. They have a choice where to buy and who from.

It is a fact of life and fact of business that there will always be good firms and bad. But somehow attempting to control the supply chain when those involved in it are in no way responsible for bad installation of their products is not the answer.

In our view the best solution is probably an educated consumer making informed decisions without being placed under pressure. It is however accepted that our solution is no more likely to happen than DGB’s.