Advice for Beating Your Shop’s Competition

How has Toyota become the dominant company in worldwide automobile sales? After all, it has beaten all of the competition soundly, and now for the first time in 75 years, there’s an outfit selling more than General Motors.

In fact, the company has produced more reliable cars and trucks than anyone else – at a great price point. Toyota has also come up with right-for-the-times hybrid technologies. And, most importantly, the company has figured out what makes an excellent company from within.

So how can you apply the Toyota model to your cabinet shop?

There are three key ways: Identify the competition, produce better products than others do and be a better company than the rest.

Identify Your Campetition

It all starts here: Who are you up against, what do they offer and how do they do it?

You may find that, as a local shop, you’re going head-to-head with the local kitchen dealerships – at least as far as selling kitchen and bathroom cabinet jobs. If this is the case, you should try to find out just what it is these folks provide that you can do better than them. That may be a custom product or service that a dealership may not offer – such as exotic veneers, unusual door styles, detailed shop drawings or fast turnaround times.

The best way to find out what’s going on is to talk to your customers. It always makes sense to ask people who buy from you who else is out there, what they do and, more specifically, why your customer choose them, not you, to do their work for them.

If your customers are builders, go visit them, take them out to lunch. Make it a point to ask them specifically which other shops they deal with.

Go armed with a list of questions: For example, what do those shops offer that is of interest to the builder himself? You may be surprised by the answers. When you hear, “Oh yeah, XYZ Company can always turn an estimate around for us in a couple of days,” that tells you that this kind of speed may be critical to the way that particular builder runs his own business.

Or if you hear, “ABC Company can’t ever seem to deliver on time,” you are being given a great clue as to what your own shop could offer to get a foot in the door.

Ask the builder how often he’s being approached by other shops, and in what manner – phone calls, personal visits, postcards, e-mails?

Or maybe your main market is the designer community. If that’s the case, ask those people what they need from a shop. If the answer is, “Joe’s Cabinet can always give me a sample door so I can show my client what I’ve designed,” well, maybe this is what your shop needs to do with these types of customers.

Ask your suppliers, too: Your hardware salesman is your ear on the ground as to what other shops are doing. He or she gets to visit everyone in your area, so if you want to know what kind of work other competitors are doing, ask the sales rep.

Another simple way of staying in touch with your competitors is to just call them up. Talk to each other, get together. Share with them what you’re doing, and ask them how they’re running things. This will pay off. You’ll find that being in contact with those who do the same kind of work as your shop will not only help you grow, it will be a good place to share the pain and heartaches of your industry.

Set Your Shop Apart

When it comes to setting your shop apart, the name of the game here is differentiation. What can your shop do that’s different from the rest?

This is something that you as owner or manager can decide. It may be that you are known for specific kinds of work – you specialize in flush-inset face frame cabinetry, for example. Or perhaps it’s commercial work that you’re really good at; when it comes to plastic laminate casework, your shop can’t be beaten.

Perhaps your finishing is the best around. Or you do custom veneer work that other shops can’t do. Maybe your shop is equipped with the best CNC machinery in your area, and you can offer perfect and fast millwork.

Remember, too, that if you actually do not do better work than others, you may be able to offer better value. Most customers are after value as well as price. Perhaps you offer great terms on your financing or your payment schedules (be careful here!), or you don’t charge for delivery. Maybe you offer free gifts, ballgame tickets, cooking or woodworking seminars to your customers. All of these add value to your offerings.

Or maybe you’ll concentrate on the service end of your business – you have the best installers, or you can turn work around really quickly. Maybe your shop drawings are killer and you have really great in-house design.

Whatever it is that you have that’s an edge, that’s how you should position yourself to the rest of the outside world.

Bear in mind, too, that your customers will often judge you (and therefore buy from you) based on how you look. Your logo should set your shop apart, and you may want to use that extensively on your trucks, signage, letterhead, cards, etc. All of this will create the impression that you’re professional and that you’re better than the rest.

These days you need a good Web site so potential clients can see what you do. It’s the modern version of a showroom; that’s how many potential customers are doing their research. There are plenty of Web designers out there who can help you set up a site. You can even buy simple software to do it yourself – and often it needs only a minimum amount of photos and text.

Be Better Inside

Beating the competition does not stop with what your shop makes and how it does business – the home team is critical, too.

If you can create a better shop for your own employees, they in turn will help you do better work than the other shops out there.

It may be difficult for you to pay higher wages than other shops. But maybe you can offer better benefits – health insurance is such an important part of employment these days.

T-shirts and tool allowances may seem like small things, but they can go a long way in cementing team loyalty – a solid foundation for your shop in being a better place to work than others.

The main way you’ll create a better shop within, though, is by empowering your employees – giving them a challenge as well as a job. They have to participate in how the shop grows, and how the work is organized and done – not just feel like a cog in a wheel.

Regular team meetings are important – they make employees feel involved. If you can encourage feedback and an ability to change how you do things, you’ll create an atmosphere of connection. You’ll find your shop will be a great place to work in, and you’ll become a leader in your field.

Read past columns on Cabinet Shop Management by Stephen Nicholls , and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto the Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site, located at