Managing On-Site Work

Knowing how to handle yourself and your employees on a job site is critical to winning future referrals. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

Knowing what to do - and what not to do - when you deliver or install work can play a crucial role in getting referrals.

You sold the job weeks ago. It began with a vision. Your client knew what she wanted, but couldn't quite explain it. You listened attentively as you measured the space and began to get a feel for her idea. You went back to the office and started drawing. You returned with a concept drawing that convinced her that you should get the job. She even gave you an advance and asked you to provide detailed drawings.

Back to the drawing board (or CAD program) you went. You designed, defined and refined her vision. When she saw the finished plans, she had only one question: 'Where do I sign?'

Okay, you can wake up now. But even if that scenario is just a dream, there is something you can do to help build a network of clients which, in turn, makes each successive sale a little easier. I'm talking, of course, about referrals. Minding your Ps and Qs on the jobsite can make a big difference in the number of referrals you garner.

It is not enough to be a great designer, an accomplished craftsperson or a shrewd businessman. Because while first impressions count, it is often the last impression you leave with a client that determines his willingness to recommend you to his associates, family, friends or neighbors. So the impression you make on installation or delivery day is critical to your business' future.

This does not mean you should 'grandstand' or otherwise go out of your way to make a positive impression on your client when you are working in his home or office. But there are some basic rules you can follow to help assure that the installation process will be as seamless as possible for both of you.

1. Be prepared. I can't overemphasize the importance of preparation. Before you ever load your work for the trip to the jobsite, you should compose a written list of stuff you will need to successfully complete the installation.

If you are like me, you will make out this list as you work on the job. I can't count how many times I've been spraying the finish on a particular piece and noticed (or thought about) a detail that will require special attention on the installation. I don't stop in mid-coat, but I do go to my clipboard immediately after I'm finished spraying and write down what I'll need to load in the truck to assure that this particular facet of the installation goes smoothly. Final in-shop assembly is another task that prompts such notions and, again, I am careful to jot them down as they arise.

It is also helpful just to stand in the shop with the various elements of the job surrounding you and visualize the installation process - 'Hmm, some clamps would come in handy as we align the base cabinetry...better bring a few.'

Maybe you are wondering why such down-to-the-last-minute planning is important, especially if your shop isn't far from the site. The reason is simple: The more prepared you are, the better it is for you, your client and your client's impression of you. The less time you spend running back and forth to your shop or the local hardware store, the faster you finish the installation. The faster you finish, the less you disrupt your client's life. Providing great work is fine; doing it in a way that is considerate of your client is even better.

2. Perfection in the shop equals easier installations. I have yet to meet the serious custom woodworker who is not devoted to perfection. The more exacting and allowing you are in making the job installable, the more smoothly it will go. By 'allowing,' I mean that you must come up with solutions to problems we all discover on jobsites and allow for them during construction of the job. By 'exacting,' I'm referring to the way we discover these problems, i.e., through careful field measurements before fabrication begins.

Take note of walls or corner angles that are 'out' in one way or another (thank you, brother carpenter) and consider how you will integrate your work ahead of time. Keep on-site head scratching to a minimum. Identify and deal with potential problems before they have the chance to become installation day headaches.

3. Work. I know. This one seems obvious. But we have all been on jobsites where, in a crew of three, we have seen two people working and the third yapping to the client or, worse, other tradespeople. Robert Ringer in his book, Million Dollar Habits, gives seven words of advice that are especially useful on a jobsite: 'Get in. Get it done. Get out.'

4. Yap with the client. But didn't I just say...? Yeah, I did, but don't allow your work to prevent you from being cordial. Be nice to the client, their kids, pets, etc. Swinging a hammer at an overly enthusiastic Irish Setter does little to endear you to your customer. Most owners of overly affectionate critters are already aware of the problem. But if an animal is getting in the way of your work, ask the client if it would be possible if it could be put outside or in another room.

Inquisitive children must also be treated kindly. I actually enjoy talking with a kid who's more interested in what I'm doing than in his computer. After all, they are becoming scarce! Take the time to explain what interests them, and let them know in a nice way if you really need to focus on your work. 'I'd like to finish this up for your family today, so I'm afraid I can't talk anymore right now. I'll let you know when it's done, okay?'

Then, of course, be sure to make good on your promise, notifying the curious child immediately when the installation is finished.

And what about meddling clients? Most woodworkers I know absolutely hate having their customers look over their shoulders as they install work. Again, this is a good argument in favor of preparation. The more carefully you plan, the more confident you will be in what you're doing. And the sooner you will finish.

Moreover, if you are perceptive, you can turn a client's interest into an opportunity to impress him or her. For example, once, after watching fine ribbons of pine curl out of one of my employees' planes as he scribed a piece to fit a wall, a client asked the worker how he kept his planes so sharp.

'I sharpen them!' was his simple reply.

'But how do you know when they're sharp enough?' the customer persisted.

My employee stopped what he was doing, removed the iron from the plane and said, 'When I can do this.' He then shaved a 2-inch patch of hair from his forearm.

'Wowww...' was all the customer could manage. As his wall unit, which included custom storage for his collection of fine wines, took shape, he repeatedly called his wife into the room to show her our progress. So complete was the couple's amazement with the clock-like precision with which the unit went in that upon its completion they gave us a tour of their home, pointing out the gorgeous pieces made for them by George Nakashima. Then they presented us with a bottle of their prized wine and told us, 'We are proud to have your work in our home.' The pride this experience engendered kept us on a high for days. And the referral network which grew out of our client's enthusiasm kept us busy for many months.

As this story shows, taking a moment to indulge a client's interest in your work can pay off.

5. Clean up after yourself. Leave the room you're working in cleaner than you found it. I always pack a hand-heldvacuum (not a rechargeable -- if you're not using a plug-in, you're not cleaning up thoroughly enough). You should also use sheets or moving blankets to protect other furniture, the floor and anything else that might get dirty or damaged.

Be absolutely fastidious. Nothing will get you a bad reference more quickly than not cleaning up. If the client offers to do it, don't let them. Say, 'Thanks, but it's a mess. I'll clean up.' And, of course, pay special attention to your work. You want it to knock your customer's socks off, and it won't do so if it's dusty. So pack the Endust and give it a thorough cleaning.

6. Thank your client profusely. Finally, when you're all done, call the client in to have a look. Point out any special features you're especially proud of. Remember, a good businessperson never stops selling. Be sure he is absolutely tickled. When everything is packed in the truck and you are ready to leave, shake your customer's hand and thank him for the opportunity.

Hand him or her a couple of business cards and make it clear that if there is ever a problem, you expect them to call you, because no one knows your work as well as you do. And say, 'It's been a real privilege to work with you. I hope you will call me for your next project.'

Careful planning of your installations and a little bit of jobsite etiquette will go a long way in helping you build your customer base.

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.