A Selling System, part five

Part five of five, from Custom Woodworking Business magazine, on developing a customer base through a carefully planned and executed sales approach. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

The last installment in a five-part series on developing a good client base presents final notes on how to achieve and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with customers.

Early in this series, we established the importance of dealing honestly with prospects, and the emphasis throughout has been on maintaining that straightforward approach. Whether you adopt the system I've detailed or come up with your own is not important. What does matter, however, is that you keep honesty paramount in dealing with customers -- at least, if you want to keep them.

To wrap up the series, I'd like to cover some items not included in the first four installments. They are examples of some specific situations which arise from time to time, and my own approaches for dealing with them.

'I just can't picture it!' Let's face it, if the end-users of our projects could easily visualize what their completed units were going to look like, the issue of whether or not to draw prior to providing an estimate (see A Selling System, Part 3) would not be an issue at all - they'd be giving us drawings!

This alone is reason enough to try to work through interior designers and architects as much as possible. Since they often sell their ideas to the client, any battles over an end product which comes out looking far different from what the end-user imagined will be fought in the designer's domain, as long as we've built the item to spec.

Still, it seems to me that as often as not, I'm the designer. Even when working with a design professional, many times I'm asked to radically alter an existing plan or produce one from scratch. And although they are few and (thankfully) far between, there have been occasions when draw as I might and despite the urgings of the architect or designer, the end-user still can't get a comfort factor with what he is buying.

The best way I've found to deal with this is by doing perspective drawings. When I first started out in business, I did them more often than I do now. But I was dismayed at the time I was spending at the drafting board, and I came to realize that while some end-users may not always 'get it' just from the plan and elevation drawings, most of them do. So now I provide perspective drawings more as a last resort. (Well, almost last.)

Other valuable tools to help a client visualize his project are anything which gives an idea of a project's relative size. This can be as simple as a tape measure, used when discussing a specific project to show in the actual area the unit will occupy how tall and deep, say, an entertainment unit will be. Or it could be a life-sized cardboard cutout to show the size of a dining table top.

Use any aids you can think of that will help you show what you're picturing. This helps to assure that it is what your client has in mind, too.

Ballpark prices. In a word, 'don't.' Don't give them, especially early in the development of your relationship with a new client. Once your client understands that you don't just guess to formulate your price (see A Selling System, Part 2), the last thing you want to do is plant a number in his head. If you do, no matter how scrupulously you document your 'final' price, it is the ballpark price he will remember.

Note, however, that I said to be careful about guess-timating 'early in the relationship.' That is because after you have done a certain amount of work for a particular client, you may develop a feel for what the 'typical' job for that customer is worth. But until you are both very comfortable in the relationship, ballpark pricing is best avoided.

Clients as references. There is nothing wrong with using past or present satisfied customers as references, with a couple of conditions.

One is that you have checked with the client first to be sure that he doesn't mind if you give his name as a reference. And second is to make sure that they are, in fact, satisfied.

People can be very fickle. Take every precaution to ensure that when you cite someone as a reference, they are as happy with your work a few weeks or months after the job is complete as they were on the day you delivered it. Most will be. But for some reason I have yet to figure out, a few won't. What's worse is that they won't do you the courtesy of letting you know personally, but they'll be happy to complain to any potential client you choose to send their way.

The key is simply to avoid listing as references clients with whom you even suspect a problem. Nothing you can say or or do will change the mind of someone who has made a decision not to be satisfied, regardless of the hoops you agree to leap through.

So, for giving references, remember this credo: when in doubt, count them out.

Service after the sale. On the other hand, to make sure you have satisfied customers, you should make clear that you want to know if there are any problems with your work, no matter when they develop.

Since you made the project, you are naturally the best person to service it, if and when the need arises. Make this clear to your clients. Nobody likes callbacks, and if you've done your job well, you should have few, if any, for months or years after the installation or delivery. But let the client know that for repairs that result from ordinary use, you'll be glad to keep your work looking and working like new - for a modest fee, of course.

If, however, problems arise that are clearly due to shoddy workmanship (and they usually show up within a few days or weeks of delivery), it is incumbent on you to correct them free of charge. This is, of course, perhaps the best reason to get it right the first time.

There's no trick to determining whether you are being called back because of a problem due to your workmanship or the client's use of the unit. Like everything else we've covered in this series, doing right by your customers is just a matter of honesty. Put honesty into practice as part of your selling system and you'll find that it is the best way to do what is right for your business, too.

A checklist for maintaining good customer relations
- Do anything you can to help the client visualize in advance how the finished project will look.
- Don't give 'ballpark' prices unless you already have a well established relationship with the client.
- Use customers as references, but only when you are sure they are totally satisfied.
- Tell customers you want to know if there are problems with your work and that you can provide any routine service.
- In everything you do, be honest with your client.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.