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Surviving The Sign Business, A Perspective from a Seasoned Veteran

You could probably say that in my over 43 years in the sign business that I’ve seen it all. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes, but this is all part of the learning process. I’m not implying that I have all of the answers, but the fact that I’ve lasted this long in the business suggests I’m doing something right.

By Art Schilling

I get hundreds of questions every year through my seminars and at trade shows and one of the most frequently asked question is in regards to pricing: “How much are you getting for this job or that job?”

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  • The sign business has always suffered from a lack of pricing standards such as what is found in other trades. This is because our trade has relied on “artistic ability” for so many years. This reliance goes way back in time to B.C. (Before Computers).

    No, I’m not implying that the computer has replaced artistic skills because it still takes talent to produce a good sign, but it has evened the playing field somewhat. Before computers, the typical small sign shop in Anytown, USA, was operated by a guy or gal with that “artistic ability” thing, a steady hand and a desire to be creative, even if it was only a sign. That desire to create often overshadowed the need to make a profit doing it. Pricing was usually established by the person’s confidence in his or her own ability, more so than a profit margin.

    Proper Pricing
    More often than not, the sign makers I’ve met throughout the years that were successful were married to an accountant/bookkeeper type. That person usually established the shop’s pricing policy. I know that my wife, the accountant, has contributed to a great extent, to my success because she “influenced” my pricing--- not without some resistance from me! It was my lack of self-confidence that was causing that resistance. I have “given away” a lot of work because I was afraid the customer wouldn’t pay the price it deserves.

    These days, with the sign shop requiring more than a couple of cans of paint and brushes to operate, pricing and profit margin become more important. You have to look at your day-to-day operating overhead and figure that into your pricing. I have people tell me they price according to the “other guy” in town. Keep in mind that being cheaper than the other guy can mean he or she is making a profit when you are not. Remember that it is not the expensive shop that goes out of business first. You cannot survive without sufficient profit to sustain overhead and to live on.

    Without proper pricing:
    1. You work longer and harder just to survive
    2. You don’t have a “cushion” for equipment replacement or upgrades
    3. The struggle to survive will cause you to burn out faster

    Establish your price even if you need to pay someone to help you do it. Review it often because your prices will have to change with the increase cost of materials. Once you establish it, stick to it. The customer that you lose because they can buy it cheaper somewhere else will never be a faithful customer. If you can’t make a profit on a job, you are working for free. Would you be willing to do that as an employee for someone else? A good thought to keep in mind is that there isn’t a person who walks through your door that can do what you do. You have a talent and you deserve to be paid for it.

    Just a side note: Do you realize that we are the only business that works on weekends and charges the same price as we do all week?

    As an example of fair, respectable pricing, I get $250 for painting a pair of truck doors. The “other guy” in town charges $125 for it. I only need to do one job to his two. I can be more creative taking more time to design my layout, and I can use better material (which I do). This all equates to a better-finished product which equates to a happier customer. They feel like they got their money’s worth and now they will be my best advertising. A good reputation means you spend less on advertising which means you cut expenses making more of a profit.

    Create “the look”
    We live in a “Blockbuster’ mentality. Look at a Sign-A-Rama or a Fast Sign franchise shop and you’ll see what I mean. People today have become accustom to shopping in stores and malls that are well-lit, colorful, and use displays to entice customers.

    I am not trying to turn everybody’s shop into a clone of the next, but a neat appearance, both inside and out, with some pictures and examples of work on display, create the impression of professionalism. It becomes easier for the customer to accept the price you quote them.

    The same concept applies to your truck. Is it lettered right? If it isn’t, it should be. This is your best advertising. Do it right because it is very important to your business.

    When I go to an appointment, I always wear clean jeans (there is a limit to my refinement), and a sweatshirt or polo shirt with my logo on it. I also take my photo album to show the customer what I do. It also gives me a feel for what the customer likes or dislikes. Look professional. It makes for an easier sale.

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    Do what you do best
    So many people get into trouble with customers because they take on a job they are not able to complete properly. Your sign supply company can give you all kinds of information on the products that they sell you. The sign magazines are also a good source for product information. Ask questions and read about the products you’re using before you do the job. One bad job can tear down your reputation that 20 good jobs have built.

    Any job you do should be done with the best material you can buy. Do every job like it has to last forever. Using the principle that it is “only a temporary banner” or a lettering job that only has to last a couple of years, can really come back to bite you. Once a job is done and paid for, it is your reputation that is on display for the life of that sign. Don’t shortchange your reputation to save a few dollars.

    If you haven’t been hit up by everybody in your town for a donation sign, or their “worthy cause”, you will be. I highly endorse community involvement. It is a great way to gain support for your business.

    Sport team and school banners are a cheap way to make a donation that will make your business known to all those parents who are shelling out their hard-earned money so their kids can compete. They will support you because you are supporting something they are involved with.

    The same thing goes for your local volunteer fire department. Keep in mind that those firemen have regular jobs and businesses of their own. They may need lots of signs and truck lettering. Who are they going to call? I always do the sponsor signs at the local ball fields and charity golf tournaments. Again, it’s the parents and local businesspersons that are sitting in the bleachers looking at your sign out in left field.

    You can be selective with your donating, but give signs and not money. Having a booth at a local fair or town festival gives you a lot of exposure and a chance to show off what you do.

    Also, join your local Chamber of Commerce. They are a direct link to successful businesses and they will support other Chamber members in return. They usually have a monthly newsletter that you can advertise cheaply in.

    Don’t lock yourself away in your shop
    There is a whole world out there. Make an attempt to meet the other sign makers in your area. Although they won’t all be happy to see you, sometimes you’ll find you have the same concerns and interests they have and you might wind up with a new friend or mentor.

    Attend sign shows, Letterhead meets, and consider hosting a “get-together” at your shop with other sign makers. You will be surprised what you can learn not just in the area of creativity, but in pricing as well.

    You will find that we all have dealt with the same problems no matter where we are or how long we have been in business. Many of us have solutions to share which helps to keep this crazy business in perspective. You will gain new respect for the people in this profession and the feeling will be mutual.

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