singhoslide3By Francie Healy

The trick to knowing your customers, says Gary Singh, President of the Ottawa renovation company Singhko Inc., is to get into a conversation – not just about the project they want you to do, but about them: their lives, their aspirations, their kids, their hopes, their plans for the future.

Once you’ve done that, he says, you’ve connected. And once you’ve connected, you start to understand what they need. This is a proven part of Gary’s life, because many of his customers have been with him for years – some for as long as he’s been in business.

It’s probably why the business is a referral-based company. Singhko rarely promotes itself. It doesn’t even have logos on the sides of its trucks. People hire them, and they tell their friends. Contractors and suppliers notice the quality of the work, and they pass that along.

At the beginning, Singhko was a business based in Gary’s home. He started it in 1996 after spending several years working in the renovation business. His father was a Donut entrepreneur (Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut). Gary might have followed in the family business, but after building a house with his dad and doing other renovation work, he knew where his passion lay: in renovating − not donuts.

He began “small” at first: counters, backsplashes, home painting. Then the work grew to entire rooms. Then complete floors. Then additions and other major renovations. But as the work grew, Gary hung on to his clients.

“I didn’t want to limit services because we were getting larger,” he says. “I kept my ‘small’ clients. They’d still call to change their smoke detectors.”

He found those ‘small’ clients grew, too. Their families grew. They needed more space. They wanted additions. And the business just grew with them.

Through it all, Gary listens. If they call about having a basement renovated, he finds out what kind of basement they really want. Will it be a man cave or a nanny suite? Will it be a play area for the kids, or a movie theatre where the adults can relax?

If it’s a bathroom, will it be one the kids use (because kids can be hard on bathrooms) or will it be something to update for guests?

Gary says it’s important in any large renovation project – one that may take weeks or months − for both home owner and contractor to test their relationship during the meeting-and-quotes stages.

“You can often get caught up in the excitement of discussing your project on the first few dates,” he explains. “You want to make sure you will both be committed to your relationship for the duration.”

Sometimes he listens until that “aha” moment. He might be chatting with a client about a major project they’d like to plan. And suddenly they’ll say, “In the next five years, our last child will be graduating, and we might be looking at a condo.”

That’s when Gary asks them how they really want to spend their money. Do they want to pour everything into a house they’re going to leave in five years? Or would they like to scale back their renovation plans and use the money for something else?

He might be listening to a couple who are about to retire. They’d really like to have hardwood flooring in the kitchen, but they know that’s not generally a good idea – or at least, it wasn’t when their kids were small. Gary will remind them that the days of spills and messy kids and pets are over, and now might, in fact, be the perfect time for hardwood floors. With kids and pets out of the way, they don’t need to worry as much about maintenance, and hardwood can really open up the look of the space.

Gary’s clients fall into several categories. Some might be short-term. They’ve just bought a house and they want the kitchen updated. Or they’ve lived in a house for awhile and want to update it so they can enjoy it for another 10 or 15 years. Or they have several renovations in mind and want to break them down into a 1-year, 5-year, or 10-year plan. Maybe they want to build an in-law suite with a full kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom, and private entrance.

Singhko does fixed pricing and itemized, detailed quotes. “It doesn’t change depending on where you live or the time of year,” says Gary. “We are very transparent. This protects not only the worker but the owner, so what they see is what they’re getting.”

Once the renovation is over, Gary stays in touch. He calls to see if their house needs anything, or if they’d like him to do a maintenance check. He is required by the terms of his commitment to RenoMark™ to honour a warranty, but that’s just standard stuff, he says. He likes to go beyond that. Part of it is for the client, and part of it is for his own business.

“Every job is a showroom for Singhko,” he says. “So we want to keep our clients’ homes looking as good as the day we left.” His attention to detail and quality is one of the reasons most of the work is completed by Singhko staff. The more the company can have its own people, the more it can instruct them in their own standards.

Singhko employees are special. They’re friends and family members, or people who are known to Gary.

“When we were a home-based business,” he says, “I only wanted people I’d like to have in my house and around my kids. That hasn’t changed.”

The company has an office and shop on Colonnade Road. It’s a place for people to visit if they want to, but Gary usually goes to the client, because it’s often helpful to see the space first-hand.

“Being a referral business means we’re building much more than sales,” Gary says. “We’re building a clientele.”