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Dealing with the Less-than-Perfect Customers

Surrendering to whatever customers want can be bad business

By Staff

If you've never heard the old saying, "the customer is always right," then you haven't been in the sign business very long.

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  • Rarely are customers so knowledgeable, so self-possessed, or so perfect. They are the market and they have the money, but "always right" is too much.

    While there is some value in giving customers the benefit of the doubt, be sure to know where to draw the line. Surrendering to whatever customers want can be bad business.

    As a visual communications professional, you and your business should not get stepped on, stepped over, and stepped around automatically.

    In the long run, if you stand your ground on important issues and decisions about your signs, you will do better work. Sometimes by saving customers from themselves, you can demonstrate your integrity and protect your reputation. You may also develop a better relationship with your customers.

    Have you ever heard of firing a customer? It can be a good move.

    Thinking about whether or not to fire customers actually can be a good way to evaluate your customers.

    Are they a significant revenue producing part of your business? Are they easy to work with? Or, are they only a drain on you patience, time, and resources? Does the work for them really pay?

    Make a list of all of your customers and rate their value to your business. What are the possible reasons to fire a customer? Ask yourself questions like the following:

    1. How much business does the customer do with your shop?
    2. Does the customer pay on time?
    3. Does it take extra effort to collect your money?
    4. Does the customer expect too much attention? Special treatment?
    5. Is the customer located close enough for the efficient use of your time?
    But, "Hold on!" you say. Maybe firing a customer is too extreme a step. How about some solutions you could present to these customers to make your business relationship a fairer one.

    Let's see, for the customer who doesn't pay you well, put them on a cash-up-front basis. This prevents you from wasting time chasing down your check after you've already given them their product. To ease the collection of money, get a deposit before hand and get the last check before the final installation.

    If your "slow" customers resist this idea, then maybe it's time they consider taking their business elsewhere. In some instances, it is better business to fire a customer who is reducing the profitability of your business. Chasing after your money costs you money.

    You hate to turn away any business, but you need to get full value for your products and services with as little time-consuming aggravation. Time is money.

    Another customer you may need to evaluate is the "little old lady" customer. That customer requires so much attention. He expects special treatment.

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    You know the one: he asks for endless design proofs, he demands numerous design changes, he assumes he'll get a discount. Then there's the installation. The universe and Rome went up faster. Of course, the "old lady" wasn't at those jobs.

    In his case, make sure that you bill all of the extra time that it took you to redraw proofs and designs and for what the wasted materials cost you.

    Again, if the customer can't understand why the cost has gone up, try to explain. Delicately. If he doesn't think that's fair, suggest that the customer find another sign shop for his next job.

    For the customer whose work is too far away for you to do business with effectively and profitably, you may find this "firing" the easiest to do. Give him the names and numbers of shops closer to him. Be sure to refer customers to shops you respect and who will do good work.

    The shift in sign shop will save the customer time and travel. He also will get his sign needs filled at a lower cost. Any good shop will include the cost of time and travel as part of its cost.

    A benefit for you might even be a recommendation from the other shop of potential customers located closer to you. That's the platitude about "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

    It is important to remember that you are a professional and that your skills and talents should be valued-by you as well as by your customers.

    Each sign and each job costs you time, creativity, energy, materials, and labor. You are a craftsman, not a slave. Think of yourself more in terms of working with customers rather than being indentured to them because they pay you. There is no shame in building a relationship with a customer.

    In addition to customers who prove difficult to deal with, there is a whole breed who would test the patience of a saint. These are the customers who can end careers in signs.

    One of the most troubling of these customers are those whose first priority is price. "Quality? What quality? Aren't all signs the same?" they ask.

    In order to deal with such customers, put the shoe on the other foot. What are your priorities? What is most important in your signs? On what basis would you like to build the reputation of your business?

    Most likely, you will want your shop to produce signs of the highest quality rather than the lowest priced. Unless you want to be "Signs-for-Less" and to mass produce the same sign over and over and over, perhaps your shop is not for the bargain hunters.

    Then there is the "something-for-nothing" customers. These are the customers who want you to do design work for free. "Can I see what you would do before I decide what shop to go with?" they ask. No, you should answer.

    Get a substantial deposit. It should be equal to the regular charges for any design work. Why do the work and then have them build the sign themselves or take the design to someone else's shop? Your creative energy is a part of the whole process. You must be paid for it.

    If customers don't want to pay for the design work, perhaps they should seek someone else's services.

    Some of the most delicate customers to deal with are the ones who come in with their own design work and expect you to use it to make a sign with your name on it. This is becoming more and more prevalent with the increase in clip art included with almost every new PC.

    Be diplomatic. Ask the customer if you can play with the design for a little while and then explain how the changes you've made will make a more effective sign. If they decline to yield to your professional experience, there are no laws that say you have to put someone else's design work on your sign.

    Bad or flawed design makes for a bad or flawed sign. If you make it and put it up, it's your sign-and your reputation.

    Don't think twice about the customer who wants to slide by permit regulations and zone regulations. This is trouble with a capital "T."

    There is a good chance they are probably already having their own trouble with the law. Why else would they ask you to bypass the rules?

    The only way-don't do it!-you can build a sign for these customers is to get a notarized disclaimer written by an attorney that states that you built the sign to your customer's specifications. You have to charge more. Attorneys cost money, and you don't want to use his.

    In this case-don't do it!-you should probably get your money up front. A strong possibility exists that these customers won't be allowed to put up their illegal signs. Guess who won't get paid? Don't do it!

    Now, it is good practice to re-cycle any materials you've got when appropriate and possible. However, beware of the customers who want you to build a sign out of their scrap materials.

    Most times, they would like you to letter a sign they has just painted over, or even worse, they show up with a piece of plywood that might have been salvaged from the Titantic. If you value your reputation, don't do it.

    So there you have it-a short list of customers you should fire and those you shouldn't hire. Now that's a unique feeling!

    If anything, you should have a better idea of what your rights and options are as a sign builder. Yes, customers are integral to the survival of your business, but there are plenty of good ones out there.

    As a visual communications professional, you do not have grit your teeth and endure customers who think they are always right.

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