Sales and Marketing Advice

Here's a long and thoughtful thread about how to create and implement an effective marketing and sales strategy — online and elsewhere. March 22, 2013

Once again I find myself in the midst of an email and postcard marketing "campaign". Word of mouth was fine in the old days, but now it seems harder. What works for you guys? Yellow Pages ads seem really out of date. How about networking groups?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
The answers to the following questions would dictate which way you should approach "finding work". Who is your target? (Direct to home owners, through home builders or remodeling contractors, through architects or designers, through commercial contractors, etc.).

What is it you plan on selling? Do you want to expand into new geography or sell to other types of customers? How long have you been in business and what is your reputation among your targets? (Assuming they may have heard of you).

What is your unique advantage over your competition? What works for someone else in their particular chosen market may not work for you in your chosen market. There is a huge difference in the way you'd approach "finding work" in selling a new kitchen to mom and dad homeowner and furnishing casework to a new medical clinic.

If you'd be more specific, I'm sure others will offer suggestions, and when others offer their suggestions, please take it with a grain of salt. Unless you understand the market dynamics in their areas and how they fit in, you won't be able to replicate their results in your area.

From the original questioner:
My target audience and ideal referral audience: private homeowners, general contractors, other cabinet/furniture makers, designers, real estate agents, and audio visual companies.

I make and install custom built-in cabinetry, custom kitchen and bath cabinetry, studio furniture from time to time, and also offer finish carpentry services. Seventy percent of my one man show is residential, the other 30% being commercial. I have never done any government work nor work in any medical environment. My goal is to keep a steady flow of work going.

As far as new geography, I'd rather stay within my 20 mile radius as the cost of looking at a job much further away becomes a real time issue (especially when you don't get the job). My reputation is solid and I have been in business for four years here in the Bay Area and for 14 years total elsewhere in the States and abroad.

From contributor S:
You're all over the place when it comes to ideal targets. What is the kind of job you've done the most of and do you want more of those kinds of jobs? If not, pick your next favorite kind of job and answer the questions below.

How did you get those jobs? In other words, how did that prospect find out about you? Who were the decision makers on those jobs? Who was you competition on those jobs? Why do you think they bought from you instead of the competition?

What I'm attempting to do here is to help you identify at least one (or more) prime targets you can go after. If you've addressed them in your business plan, and your business plan works, feel free to share that here too. Flyers might be part of the answer, but until you identify exactly the kind of target you want to hit, flyers could be a huge waste of money and time.

From the original questioner:
I was in a networking group for over a year (and I did get solid work there but it petered out as the trades people, architect, and designer left the group) and what I was taught was to think of all the types of professions that "touched" my line of work (as mentioned on my second post). For this reason I named those audiences. As far as what type of work I would like to be doing and what type of work seems most profitable it looks like I should choose the latter. I would love to be solely making studio furniture. I tried it for three years and almost starved.

What I do most of the time is make and install high end custom built-ins, some commercial work (kitchens and low to mid end cabinetry), kitchen re-facing, and basically residential cabinetry. How I have acquired jobs throughout my career has been completely random it seems to me - a friend, friend of friend, neighbor's friend, babysitter's parents friend, and the less random - contractors, designers and architects.

Who was my competition? I do not know, I am never told who I am bidding against. I do know I have been higher than others in the bidding wars in the last few years, and I can only explain this by thinking other companies may have lower paid employees doing the menial stuff like sanding (yes I know sanding takes experience too).

In the end I think it comes down to price over my sunny disposition/reputation/competence. Please enlighten me. I have (it seems) been trying to re-invent the wheel since the beginning of my self-employment and have never had any business education. I guess I am doing something right though as I have stayed self-employed through the years and am supporting a wife and kid.

From contributor S:
Now we are beginning to get somewhere - keep the information coming. It sounds to me like much of your past business has come from your network of family and friends and their contacts, along with perhaps a few next generation referrals from past clients. Sooner or later everyone runs out of family and friends to sell to, and that's when the work begins to find the next client. It's what I call selling to a retail audience, where you are dealing directly with home owners and not being part of a "package" sold through others, like contractors, architects or designers.

You also mentioned that you had some success in selling through contractors, etc. in your networking group. (Wholesale selling - where you probably don't have a direct contract with the property owner, but your customer does). In dealing in these kinds of markets, unless you are working with a brand new architect/designer/contractor, you are looking to replace their current supplier. That's not an easy task.

Secondly, in working wholesale markets, you need to realize that your client will mark up your work to their ultimate customer. Had you found that same ultimate client, you not only could have sold the job, but you could have also kept the additional markup as part of your selling price.

Trying to make a profitable living in studio pieces or ultra, ultra high end furniture is possible, but your market for such work is very, very limited. For every very successful studio/furniture artist, there are hundreds or thousands who don't make enough sales to put bread on the table. Even guys like Sam Maloof were not one man bands. Sam had at least three or four shop employees and a significant number of marketing and sales people working with him when he was in his eighties. At that time, his chairs were selling for tens of thousands for each one and dining room sets were in the hundreds of thousands. He certainly was in the top 1% of the top 1% of studio woodworkers.

Let's back up to a few more questions. Aside from your networking group, what kind of advertising or marketing techniques have you tried in the past? What kind of advertising and marketing has worked for you? What hasn't worked? What have you given up on? How do you think you can attract more of the same kind of profitable clients you have had in the past?

If you want a constant flow of new business, are you prepared to do something to market, advertise and sell every week? (Including the weeks you are extremely busy in the shop).

From contributor G:
You have to find a niche that is wanted. In Guerrilla Marketing they say the number one aspect of marketing is your position in the market place. If you can do this it will drive all of your other decisions. The only way you can determine this is to survey the lay of the land. Find out who is doing well and emulate their success. Selling directly to homeowners is done successfully as a marketing driven company which means you spend a lot on advertising and you limit the choices of what you offer.

Selling to contractors is done at a lower price and offering more choices. It can be a good trade off as they in effect become your marketing department. Either way the one most effective thing you can do is to mail/email to your former customers. Keep your customers physical/email addresses and mail to them once a month by mail and once a week by email.

From contributor M:
What do you mean by Bay Area" Is that the San Francisco Bay area of California? I am in the LA market. It is similar to the SF Bay area and it’s tough right now. From your description of your operation, I would say you're a general cabinet maker like me. There's nothing wrong with that. That's what I have done for 35 years with considerable success and just by myself. I have a similar work mix to what you described. Specialization is overrated.

If you try any advertising, don't expect too much. What advertising to the general public generally gets you is a chance to bid low end work for very little money. The only real source for real decent work for guys like you and myself are referrals from past work. I do not consider what you said about your referrals to mean that you are stuck working for personal friends, relatives, or friends of friends. That was an incorrect characterization of what you said. You have simply relied on healthy referral feedback from the good work you have done in the past.

From contributor D:
Our website has generated no sales that I know of. Many of our competitors went under the past three years, while we expanded. We also do no advertising. I sometimes wonder if some people here who believe success revolves around the web and new management techniques own successful businesses or teach how to do it at a university.

From contributor J:
Contributor D - how did you do it? In defense of the web guys (being one myself), the use of a site will change if you are selling to other businesses or to end users (consumers). I think that's why someone earlier mentioned identifying the target. Then comes all the other stuff - where are they, how do they get their information, what channels can you use to get seen by them when they go looking, etc. I'm a B2C operation in a 70 mile radius with an average ticket of $1200. The web has been the source of 70% of new clients, referral the rest.

From contributor B:
To the original questioner: I am just north of you in southern Oregon and as Contributor M said the market is slight at best with a few pockets or exceptions. I also have been at it for over 30 years as a one man show, and referrals and repeat clients have been the best source of work for me. You need your name in the phone book as an anchor for folks to find you. When your name is given make it easy for them to find you. In the last three years or so I have not turned down much, so what I'm saying is we need to approach different areas of the market than before because some do not exist anymore. Try expanding your horizon. Your former satisfied clients are your best source. Contact the last ten decent jobs you did and go out for an inspection and door adjustment (follow up). You'd be surprised what can come from it sometimes.

From the original questioner:
Brilliant - I love the door alignment idea. Yesterday I cold called about 30-40 designers and builders. When they picked up I said “Hi this is....,is the owner in? Again the intro with the owner, and then I mentioned that “every six months or so I call all my local designers, builders, and architects to introduce or re-introduce myself to let them know I am still around and to keep in touch. We make custom so on and so forth. It’s tiring but it has worked in the past.” People seem receptive and realize what it is I am doing and also seem to respect the ambitious nature of the call. Anyhow, door alignment calls are next.

From contributor D:
I run the custom door dept, I don't own the place. I suspect it comes down to loyal customer base. We sell only to commercial vendors, so marketing is their problem. The employees here are loyal team players - a profit sharing program is on the table after the first two years. Our aggressiveness is applied toward rapidly building high quality products. I'm pretty sure our margins aren't as good as other companies because our material is getting marked up twice before it ends up with the final customer. Work volume is high though. I can't speak for our sales staff, but I'm pretty sure I've never heard them cold calling. More like quoting and taking orders all day.

From contributor G:
The main thing about sales is that you actually do it. Another "the question is the answer" type item. You have to get as good at sales and marketing as you are at cabinetmaking.

I noticed that one man shops on this thread said that specialization is overrated. I cannot think of a more cogent reason to specialize? Maybe there is something to know about this subject? I have surveyed some of the local guys that I have noticed are expanding and they are all doing it on the internet and they are all specialized.

As I said before the best advertising you can do is along the line of what Contributor B says, which is staying connected to your former customers. For me that has been a mailing to my former customers every month. Most web guys do this once a week with something.

From contributor L:
If you use your website properly your customers will be using it too. Every one of your customers is on Facebook. They are blogging incessantly about their remodel. It is the only thing they can think about. They live, breathe and talk about their project. They are utterly fascinated and terrified at the same time. This is the time they are riveted to their project and everybody in their office knows all about it. This window of time is about two months in duration. For this period of time you have somebody to evangelize for your company.

The primary thing people talk about is how much different and better it is now. "You should have seen it before!" is what they say. What your customer needs at this point is some tools to really prove their case. Your website should have a page dedicated to their project with before and current pictures - emphasis on current. This gives you a reason to constantly update your client with progress reports.

The more contacts you have with your client the better the bonding will be.If your website has really great pictures of before and current your customers will show these pictures to everybody. If the pictures are on your website they will ricochet your website around the office to solicit opinions, receive validation, and etc. Somebody else in that office is also planning a remodel. Those people will turn event more pages on your website and eventually call your friend to ask what you were like to work with.

If all you have to offer is a mediocre link to a free upload service then nobody is going to be excited to see your pictures. Full screen high resolution images are a completely different story. That's how you use a website and photography to create referrals. The pictures have to be on a website page and you want to send the link to your customer during business hours. Opening the image at 7 PM at home is not as good as opening it at 1PM during business hours. The 7PM photo does not get ricocheted. The 1PM email will make the inter-office rounds.

From contributor D:
Good advice Contributor L. I would counterpoint, though, with hard work. Our staff is focused on hitting deadlines with given expectations. Many companies downstream need us to survive. I walk into a room, slap down a drawing, and say "The competition says they can build this in three days. I say we can do it in two. What do you say?" A resounding yes, even though we only need to ship it in two weeks. Some of us live off of jiving customers until they're giddy with joy.

From contributor L:
The three things a customer wants to know are:

1. Does the guy have what I want?

2. Will it fit in my budget?

3. If yes to above, then what do I do next?

Figure out how to talk about money. Money is the first thing on anybody's mind. Compare this shopping experience with going out to buy a coat. As soon as you see something you like you have that price tag in your hand in about a nanosecond. You probably do not spend an extra second on coats that are not priced. If the work on your site looks very expensive consider dumbing it down a little. Times have changed since you built those masterpieces and customers need to be able to relate to your work. If it looks too expensive it could scare them off. At least don't lead with it.

Contributor B and Contributor G are spot on - stay in touch with your customers. Set up a photo shoot six months after the job ships. This will give you an opportunity to bond with your customer while they are not in the thick of it and are more relaxed.

Whoever mentioned offering the twelve month tune-up is also pretty savvy. This kind of after-sale service is unheard of and will create lots of buzz amongst your former clients, but also amongst their friends. It wouldn't hurt to spend some time learning photography as well.

From the original questioner:
Well, consider me schooled. It’s no wonder it takes so long to hone in on the perfect business model. I thought I worked a lot - guess I need to work more on the marketing side than I thought.

From contributor B:
It used to be called a "come-up file" in sales. It mainly is designed to get you back in your clients place/space, and really to give you another opportunity to be professional, or sell. Basically we call to check on our job and see if anything needs our attention. While we are adjusting the doors we ask if they need any additional shelves, etc. I don't charge a penny for this. A lot of the time the clients say no need to come out it's all fine but making the follow-up call is a great way to keep you the person they refer others to.

From contributor S:
Creating a steady flow of work is very much dependent on simultaneously creating a constant marketing and advertising plan to fill your funnel with new prospects and suspects. Your network of existing customers and their contact will only take you so far. To expand and grow your business, you'll need to get your message to others beyond your current network.

How exactly you do that is part of proper planning. I applaud you for cold phone calls you made to the group of designers you identified. What is your follow-up plan for those you spoke with? How about the ones you missed? Are there other designers that you should also contact? What about doing the same kind of thing with builders, remodelers, and other groups? Developing a weekly plan to expand those kinds of networks will go a long way in filling your prospect funnel so that an occasional new sale can drop through.

The next step beyond contacting individuals you can identify would be to get messages to others you cannot identify personally. That's where advertising would fit in. Advertising differs from marketing in that you don't know specifically who is receiving reading your message. Marketing is getting your message to a known person or company.

From contributor L:
If you are trying to collect information or trying to answer questions sending emails early in the morning is probably perfect timing. The customer is fresh and clear headed and with fewer distractions will give you better attention. So if you are trying to have your questions answered before your client launches their day do this.

If your goal is to get your client to evangelize for you then you want them to open that big picture at work when they are surrounded with their peers. This is what enhances the chance that one of these peers will ask about you for their project. You want these images to be big and accessible. Sometimes office email protocol will not allow large attachments. In this case a URL will slip under the radar easier. Having your images on your website also makes it easier to navigate when you are trying to steer a meeting with a customer. You can sometimes just point them to the link or page while you have them on the phone. It’s much different than emailing large files and trying to remember what has been sent or finding it when you need it.

From contributor P:
The website was the workhorse of my operation. I grossed on average of around 200k a year from just the website alone. It was also an invaluable tool for letting prospective customers see the quality of your work and the options that they had.

One thing I will stress though is get it professionally made. There are hundreds of free website services you can use, but they actually cost you jobs in the end. Think about the times a homeowner has showed you things they have built that just look horrible. They are so proud of it, but you as an expert can see every flaw in it. That is what happens when a guy in the IT field looks at a homemade website.

From the original questioner:
After considering all of the info in the posts, cold calling, email marketing, and sending postcards to designers, architects and builders, audio visual companies, and joining a local builders exchange it occurred to me (though it may or may not seem obvious) that networking with other cabinet makers is another avenue. I have acquired quite a few jobs through other cabinetmakers. Other cabinet makers are not necessarily competition, but rather your friends I think. Sometimes others may have too much work or may turn down a job because it isn't in their strong point.

From the original questioner:
While being a one man and sometimes two man shop, keeping up wouldn’t work unless you are talking about a steady work flow. For the big jobs on tight or conflicting schedules I either sub out more components of the job and/or have my local CNC shop make parts. So, please elaborate on how you could help. Are you a sales person? At the moment, times are pretty good with enough work to keep me busy for the next three months or so.