The Kitchen Designer

Thanks for stopping by! I'm Susan Serra, certified kitchen designer, and my mission is to take kitchen design style, function and analysis to a higher level. Here's why the kitchen has the most honored place in the home - all five senses reside in the kitchen.  Best...Susan  Contact: susan@susanserraassociates.com

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My Day Today - Talking Kitchens and More

Once in a great while I like to sort of write about my day. Today seems to be a good day for that. Things are swirling around. Busy day.

A New Installer 

I started the day with an appointment at 7:15 am in my office with a new, potential, cabinet installer. Choosing to work with an installer is not unlike choosing a business partner. You want to make sure the mutual goals are similar, the business values, good habits, in order to feel that there is synergy at a certain level to produce quality work. An installer and a designer, ultimately, are a team, like it or not. They both need one another to be successful, efficient, and get the job done in the best way possible. I like this installer, and I feel very confident about him. I'm very picky and interview installers with many questions. The answers were great. I foresee mutual respect, which must be present, or it won't work.

This one's for you, Joe Z***

Where I don't see mutual respect, unfortunately, is with Joe Z***, who I met with last Friday. I guess I spent, with travel time, our meeting, and preparing for the meeting, 3 hours that day.

Joe Z*** (a local builder) called me because he loved reading my blog! He needed a kitchen for his own home and asked if I could meet him at his home. I said sure. Through our 1 phone and 1 meeting conversations (I'm a good listener) I learned (about six times) that he is a fourth generation builder, about his youth, his college, his wife, how they met, where she's from, his family, his father, his father's business in the past, where his father retired, what he's (his father) doing now, their kids, his business relationships, all his connections, name dropping legendary NYC real estate developers, and all the big, huge, work that he had done and that was coming up. Joe Z*** speaks softly and always with a big smile. That should have been the give-away.

He was very enthusiastic about working together with me and said there would be much work that he would love to send my way. He liked my approach, and we talked about getting together this past Tuesday. This meeting took place last Friday.

Joe told me at the end of our meeting that he wanted me to do the design only for his kitchen and he would use his cabinet maker. I said that I don't normally do things that way, but let me think about it, and I may have to raise my rate for my retainer to be more proportionate to the work to be performed. Zero reaction/resistance, and we spoke again about meeting on Tuesday. I said I'd get back to him the next day as I thought about a revised rate, if any. I usually like to leave a door open and leave time to consider an offer.

I left several messages for Joe since last Friday.  Joe chose not to return my calls. Joe did not have the decency to pick up the phone to say, "Thanks for your time, but I'm going to go in another direction." Joe has perpetuated the negative reputation that many builders have from their circle of allied professionals as well as the general public. There is no way around this. To ask for 3 hours of someone's time at no charge (all fine, if that's the policy, as it was mine) but to NOT return a follow up phone call (or email) to the professional who gave their time, is rude behavior to say the least. Very rude, very unprofessional, very disrespectful, and, of course, arrogant. Conversely, I have a potential client who recently let me know that he is currently exploring other options and will get back to me at the end of the month in response to my inquiry after a meeting. That's how it's done. I'm grateful that I am not involved in Joe Z's world.

A Gutted Kitchen 

I'm in the middle of a kitchen that is totally gutted. It's both thrilling and nerve wracking every time. In this case, I'm doing some wacky things, so I'm a bit more on edge than usual, and excited too. I'll keep you informed as things happen. Had a meeting today with the contractor and homeowner to work through many details. Her home is ripped apart by my doing, and there's always that little voice...will it all come back together again?? This one will be something very special, you just wait!

The Dog And The Cat 

We're watching my daughter and son in law's adorable little dog. Every once in awhile I hear a yelp! Probably something to do with our cat. The dog used to bark loudly at the cat. Till the cat very quietly put the dog in line. How, I'm not sure...except for those occasional yelps we hear! Now the dog doesn't bark AT ALL near the cat! 

A Wedding 

Now, I'm off out east on Long Island to attend a good friend's daughter's wedding. Gotta run and get ready.  


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Reader Comments (15)

Susan, I agree. Not returning a phone call is so rude. But moreover, what I am interested to read is what are some of your questions you ask when interviewing new installers.

I find it very telling when an installer boasts and then performs very differently than how he portrayed himself.

October 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLaurie

It must be the weather... it was one of "those days" for me too. I hope you have a much better weekend. Enjoy the wedding!

October 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

The kitchen installer can make or break your kitchen design, even that of your relationship with the client. If he doesn't do a good job, the client will be jumping on you and not the installer. I have a love-hate relationship with mine but I try to 'love' him more so that he'll not jeopardise my projects. Hmmm ... that sounded gay.

Prospects who don't bother to return your call after you've spent your precious time doing the drawings ... I've had my fair share. Just had one this week. Perhaps I should set fire to the drawings.

October 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterblackcadillac73

Laurie, thanks for your support!

This installer did not boast, not at all. I'd call it enthusiasm, especially when I asked about his tools and he was quite proud of them. I thought that was great.

Sure, I'll share some of my questions (that I can remember) with you.

I ask about work experience. He said he was on his own for 3 years. I asked what he did before that, he told me, then I asked what he did before that, did he go to college. He was, indeed, a college graduate (it showed.)

I tried to form a question in regard to how much of a perfectionist he is, also asking about tolerances, and he directed me to his website where there are examples.

I asked what type of work he mostly does every day. Who is his typical customer? High end? Middle end? How often does he install kitchens, what quality level of kitchen cabinetry does he typically install? Does he install cabinetry with inset doors, attached stiles?

I asked if his truck is neat looking or not (he said someone backed into him). I asked about problem solving ability, about how he interacts with clients, that sometimes I have specific ways of doing things and sometimes I'll need his input/advice. I asked about responsiveness in communications and methods. He said texting and email is great.

I forgot to mention call backs, that that goes along with most jobs. I forgot to ask about work hours, but a previous conversation led me to believe he starts early (as most do.)

I think we talked for about 45 minutes. He also said he was a positive person in general, and that really came through. I hope this helps!

October 27, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Mark, yes, but you are too much of a gentleman to talk about it, I know that! :) My sympathies for your experience as well.

blackcadillac, truer words were never spoken, in your first sentence. It is a critical relationship. Your second sentence is every bit as true. I have put up with long periods of abuse with two installers because they had every other attribute going for them. Well, one didn't, but he was so incredibly highly skilled, which I prize over other qualities, and am sometimes willing to be the whipping post for our clients, as I'm sure many designers do as well. Why? Because it's not easy to find a GOOD cabinet installer and because we care so very much about the physical result of our clients' investments. It's hard to find every attribute (and there are so many necessary ones) in an installer. We often sacrifice ourselves for the good of the project, and if that sounds, whatever, it's true.

October 27, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Wow, you did have a bad day. When things go sideways, I try to look at it as gaining information. That way it's not quite as annoying.

By the way, based on your comment re: black kitchen cabinets, I'm leaning more toward a darkish gray. Kind of like the Martha Stewart kitchen a couple years back. It'll hide the grime from the dogs!

Take care,

October 27, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterkathleen

Hey Kathleen (always love your comments)...I didn't consider it a bad day, not at all. Just sort of reporting the events. :)

Good luck on your kitchen journey...keep us informed!

October 27, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Susan, I'm 100% with you on the rudeness of Joe Z. Even something as simple as "I appreciate your time, but..." or "I haven't decided, but I will be making a decision by XXXX" will let you know where you stand sufficiently enough to gauge whether this lead will turn into a job.

Kind of an offshoot, probably prompted by watching Curb Your Enthusiasm so much, is this:

Isn't it funny how when you're contacting someone about a purchase they'll return all of your calls promptly but when it's the other way around they are mysteriously unavailable or hard to reach?

I've always wanted to make up an alias to catch people like that when they only want to take new sales calls and not handle their existing clients.

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDamon

Damon, oh, you're a Curb fan too?? Love that show. Last night's was very risky/surprising! I love every character in that show, they are all fantastic. He has to have originally come from New York, I wonder.

You're right. I'll tell you. I'm so careful when I have to decline a job. I want to let people down as easily as I can, as that reflects on me as well. Well, let me know if you make any progress with the alias thing. :)

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

I wonder if social networking will someday allow you some justice in the "no return call" case above.

I'm a cabinet installer (in the Southeast), so I found this post (and comments) very helpful, but I have a few more questions:

(A little background: I've owned my own installation business for 3 years now, with construction experience before that going back 12 years)

How can a quality installer get himself the chance to sit down with someone like you? I feel that I'm ready to move up to the next level in this business, but I can't seem to get a hearing. Calls don't get returned. Letters are answered by silence. The few times I've been able to catch an owner/designer in person, I hear that "they need to see my work" before they could take a chance on me. The problem with that is that nearly all my work is remodels in people's homes, so I don't know how to pull that off.

Others have said they'd file away my card and call me if they ever had a need. Years later, no such calls. I did pick up one (very small) account via the referral of a countertop guy who noticed the quality of my work.

Homeowners rave about my work quality and personal professionalism, but I'm stuck installing for designers who seem to make major mistakes on nearly every job, leaving me and the homeowner in awkward situations. I'm really eager to work with a designer who has their act together.

Any advice you could give would be very much appreciated.

November 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

Nathan, thanks for writing. Don't give up. But, first, honestly assess yourself in terms of what you can offer a designer. Here is the criteria I look for, and I hope this is helpful:

1. Overall demeanor - I look for respect and a professional demeanor. Being "nice" helps a lot too. A plus.

2. What sort of work does he do every day? Is it mostly only cabinet installation? Or does he only occasionally install cabinetry? A minus if he says he usually does "everything" with an occasional kitchen.

3. Is his presentation neat and clean? Are there annoying habits? I've had an otherwise good installer have conversations with me outside the home about the project while he repeatedly turned his head to the side and spit. While I'm standing there. Watch those annoying habits. They can be dealbreakers and you may not know why. Smoking is outside the house.

4. How reliable are returned calls? Do you have a sense of urgency to return calls?

5. Is the installer highly skilled? Pictures help, but, if you've read this far, Nathan, what I normally do is not use a new installer for a large job. If I have small molding fixes to do, maybe install a vanity, small jobs like that, I'll try out the installer that way once or twice. This way I can assess the entirety of all the criteria I'm looking for, as listed here. So, I would recommend that you ask the designer to "try you" on smaller things first.

6. How are problems dealt with? Are you impatient? Easily annoyed? Argumentative? Or, are you patient? Do you understand the art of collaborating on a problem in a calm way? Do you have an attitude? Or not? Do you want to do the best job for the client? That should be the goal.

7. Do you have a clean, organized truck? That translates into organization on the job. I'll ask potential installers about their truck and their tools. What is the state of your tools? Are they quality tools? Do you have everything you need?

8. Do you understand that jobsite gossip with other trades, the client, or the contractor doesn't do anyone any good? Including for me, who's paying you and could be a topic for the contractor/trades, etc? The way to be is to do your job and not be involved in jobsite gossip...ever.

9. Are you reliable, coming to work on time? Meeting the designer on time? Advising the designer of your schedule? Everyone's time is valuable!

10. Can you take direction? From a female designer who may have her own opinions on how things should be done? She may not know what tool to use, but she knows how she wants it to look. Listening to the details is a must.

I may be missing an item or two, but this is most of what I look for. I hope this helps. It is meant to be an honest picture of what I look for.

November 24, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Thanks, Susan. That gives me a lot of confidence, but also a few concrete things to improve on.

Do you consider yourself to be always open to talking to a promising installer, even if you don't currently have a need? Just getting past the gatekeepers and logging some "face time" has been a problem for me.

How persistent is it okay to be? Initially I thought it would be too pushy to make contact more than once, but at this point it seems clear that the 3-4 designers I'm targeting may not have a good system for keeping track of installers who have contacted them in the past. Is cheerfully dropping off my business card once a month too much?

November 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

Here are a few ideas. Make a list (a top ten list?) of why they should use you.

Give THEM the idea to use you for small projects first, and then do it better than anyone else, including every detail from communications to clean up to near perfect work.

Yes, I'm always open to speaking to new installers. They are few and far between that's why I'm open to it.

Email them a link to images (don't flood their inbox with images, not cool) of gorgeous mitres, other good work. I'll tell you this. When I see pictures of low end kitchens, I'm not happy. I want to see pictures of high end, complex, kitchens, to see that there was skill involved and the installer is a player in the high end market, which is its own universe of usually more quality and qualified people.

Persistance, once a month is NOT too much. Be positive with them, cheerful, use a little humor, keep it light.

And, report back here!!

November 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

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