Partnering Your Shop with Design Professionals

Many woodworking companies depend heavily on the design world to provide projects to help keep their shop busy and profitable. While the projects may be one of a kind, this source is often repeated time and time again.

You know who I'm referring to: That slightly eccentric designer who's worked out of her house for the last 20 years, and who keeps coming back to your shop time and time again. She can be a pain, but she loves your work.

We've found time and time again at our shop that it pays to take care of these people. Ongoing, solid relationships are the key to the long-term success of our operation.

I'm sure that you, just like all of us, have had your share of "difficult" designers. Our shop, for example, shipped a custom cherry bathroom vanity a couple of years back - and received one of those phone calls from the designer, who happened to be on the job site that morning.

"Steve, the cabinet is totally the wrong color," she started. "How could you imagine that stain would be acceptable?" Never mind that it was an exact match to the sample she had provided.

Yes, designers can sometimes be tough to deal with, but often they keep coming back to your shop with more clients.

Here's the key thing to remember: You and the designer are a team, working together. You're there to make each other look good.

Let's take a look at an example of how this can work. Over the fax machine comes a blurry sketch of a large media cabinet. It's supposed to have retractable doors which cover a 42" plasma screen. The problem is, the cabinet is drawn as only 16" deep - and, as all us cabinet types know, the wide doors will not be fully retracted when the client wants to watch TV. In short, the doors will protrude.

What to do? Rather than just going ahead and building the cabinetry, it's certainly worth a phone call to the designer first - to alert her of the problem. Perhaps you can figure out some kind of bi-fold door system? Or maybe a tambour.

The point is, you need to head off the problem before it appears on the job. You and the designer will be doing each other a big favor by doing that.

Working closely and effectively with a designer will lead to further work - just as it is with any repeat client - be it a builder, remodeler or developer. And many shops find that it's the design community in particular that has a healthy loyalty factor built into their supplier relationships. In other words, as long as you take care of them, they'll keep sending you their projects. Just like their favorite painter or fabric person, they'll keep you as their "go-to" shop.

Remember, too, that the designer may well have pre-sold your services before you even meet the client, so you don't even have to do much selling yourself.

Perhaps the designer is not the actual purchaser of your products, but she's usually the prime "influencer."

And here's the key: A designer's loyalty often leads to the best type of work - negotiated projects. In these instances, of course, your shop is brought in as the "preferred provider," with an inside track - and often this means you don't have to bid the work against other shops. That birdseye maple kitchen is yours - as long as you don't blow the budget.

If you're being brought into projects this way, you have to "take care of business." Starting at the beginning of a particular project, this means listening carefully to the designer and his or her vision, especially when it comes to finishes and materials. It may mean looking after myriad details - getting samples organized, working up a set of shop drawings, chasing around town for a particular crown molding, etc. And at the end of the job, it may also mean replacing something because the designer simply doesn't like it.

But if things go well in the course of your designer relationship, you may find that you both want to team up even further - such as in a joint marketing effort.

Perhaps you can take out some advertising together and share the cost? Perhaps you can co-sponsor an open house in connection with a project you've both worked on?

What we're talking about here is a tight, ongoing relationship between shop and designer. Yes, by all means wine and dine these folks if you wish, too. It'll pay off.
You may want to draw some distinctions between architects, designers and decorators.

It's certainly been our experience that architects are trained to be more objective, hands-off and distant than designers. This often translates to an architect recommending the competitive bid scenario for shop selection - whereas most designers try to work with shops they know, limiting who looks at the work.

And the designers who work at kitchen dealerships may not be the best source of work for your custom shop. Usually these people are much happier selling a line of cabinetry from a manufacturer they represent - only turning to your shop as a last resort for things they simply can't find elsewhere.

Decorators, too, can be suspect - often not as well-trained or schooled as designers. Sometimes they're even doing their job part time or for friends. Be aware that you may not get as much organized attention to detail as you'd like from these people.

Some basic shop rules apply here, as with any client.

First off, deliver the work on time, as promised. The set of matched-grain Douglas Fir kitchen cabinets that look great but which arrive a month late do not make the designer look too good, and it was she who got you the job in the first place. Late is late; it's tough for all the quality in the world to make up the delay you've caused.

Your shop also needs to stay on top of "punch list" items. These are those niggling bits and pieces - the loose ends at the end of every job. It may be a missing piece of kick face, a magnetic catch for a door, or a scratch on a drawer head. But whatever it is, your designer partner will want it fixed. So keep an updated list and stay on top of it!

Lastly, and probably most importantly of all when you're working with any design professional: Do not take too much credit for the work!

Often it's the glory and the beauty of the final product that the designers live for - so stand back, get out of the way and let them enjoy the spotlight. It will ensure you'll get more work if you're part of the background music, not the conductor who's standing center stage.

Next Column: Is The Custom Shop A Dinosaur?