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Shop Reputation is Gold
First, you should recognize that your town's business community is just that, a community. Neighboring businesses communicate as neighbors do. When the coffee shop around the corner gets a new sign, it is very likely that the bookstore down the street notices that sign. Now the bookstore is talking to the coffee shop about their sign and the shop that made it.
That's great. It's one of the rewards of being a professional craftsman. You made that great sign.
But what can go wrong when the owner of the coffee shop talks to the bookstore manager? You can have what is called a customer relations problem.
Perhaps the artful sign's installation was late. No matter how great the design, the art, or the installation of the sign, most store owners will report their disappointment over the installation date.
Perhaps there was a very good explanation. But try to remember how you feel when a vendor or a delivery is late, no matter what the reason. Not happy.
Customer relations can make or break a shop. Your shop's reputation precedes you. Word-of-mouth advertising can be bad as well as good.
There are many things you can do to improve your customer relations. It usually involves more than handing out flyers or brochures.
Once you have a customer in your shop, make them feel welcome. The friendly atmosphere can be achieved for the most part by the appearance of your shop. When you are building a shop, make sure that you plan for an area where you can meet, greet, and talk with your customers.
This could be an entry adjoining the design studio. This kind of setup helps customer feel welcome and feel as though they are part of the designing of their sign. Both are good feelings.
Don't rush the conversations with potential customers. This means on the telephone as well as during face-to-face meetings. Talk to them, and listen to them. Find out what the customer needs from you and why. Tell them how you can offer what they need and educate them about the sign industry.
Do not be condescending. Do not treat them as outsiders by using professional jargon that can only confuse them or intimidate them. Customers won't want to reveal their ignorance, so they will just leave.
Once you have a potential customer talking to you, set up a consultation or planning meeting. Many customers will want to do this that day immediately, especially if they have come into your shop. Sometimes that isn't feasible. Nor is it always good business or good customer relations.
Explain to your customers that you will need at least a day to think about their needs and to prepare some appropriate sketches and estimates for the proposed sign work.
If they are in your shop and insist on the preliminary meeting, produce a few quick sketches for them immediately. It may help you to better understand their needs. It will also allow your customer to see a bit of your work and to learn about what goes into professional sign work. However, remind them that you need time to do the planning right.
Do not, however, overwhelm your customers with photos. It is a fine line between sales and bragging. Modesty is the best policy.
Pick a few of your best job, ten to fifteen, and have the photos of those jobs enlarged to maybe 8x10 pictures. You want your pictures to be large so that customers can see the details. A few good pictures usually works better than a flood of them.
In addition to a photo album, you might display a few actual examples of your work in the shop. It is very helpful to customers to actually see your craftsmanship in the flesh. Again, unless you have a shop the size of a warehouse, restrain yourself with the number of samples. Plus the object is to sell your work, not store it.
Do a bit of research on your potential customers' businesses. Find out what they need before you consult them. Have rough, preliminary sketches of a few ideas and estimates of how much it will cost to produce those signs.
Make sure that your estimate is as accurate as possible. Sometimes there are unforeseen costs that a customer will understand. However, bills exceeding estimates by say $100 worth can cause contention.
You don't want to eat the over-ride, but "bad press" in the business community could cost you a great deal of future business. It is better to estimate on the safe side. Surprises when the bill comes due don't make anyone happy.
If, in the process of designing a sign, your customers begin to suggest things to you about their sign that will make the sign less than effective, tell them. But be positive about the way you make suggestions. Your customers should have an active role in the design of their sign, but not so much that the sign doesn't work.
You are the professional, and they come to you for your skill. Also, make sure that you don't rush through your consultation visit. Your customers will be more willing to do business with someone whom they trust and who answered all their questions.
Once your begin to produce the sign, make sure that the sign is finished and installed by the deadline. If you have an unavoidable problem with a deadline, call your client and explain the delay.
However, this should not become a common occurrence. Word gets around. "He does great word if you can get it on time" can steer too many potential customers from your shop. Some customers plan their schedules to accommodate your installation. Costing them time or money is not good for customer relations. Signs are invested in to increase business, not lose it.
Finally, honor your product. You may or may not have a written guarantee. However, if a customer calls you with questions or some problem with your sign, it is good business and good customer relations to handle both.
Peeling graphics or faulty installation, for example, is a mistake. You can fix either with little or no problem. But the failure to do so could be a mistake you might never overcome.
Reputations are strange. They are difficult to build and easy to damage. That is why customer relations deserve careful attention.
Customer service is really the only way to go. Customers depend on you, and you depend on them. Do your job right, and the customers will do right by you.
Treat your customers as you would want to be treated yourself. It is an ancient rule, but it is also a golden rule for doing business.
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