Communicating With Your Clients

How much of your time do you spend with customers? If you're like most shop folks, your days are probably tied up dealing with shop issues.

Truthfully, after you've made the sale, it's often a while before you even deal with your client again maybe not until you deliver your work to the job. However, it's good to remember that keeping in touch with your customer can be the best way to really cement your relationship.

In reality, communicating with your customer begins way before you build anything. If your shop can look professional, it will be much smoother sailing for you as you progress with the work. Indeed, a good solid image in the beginning can really help to put your client's mind at ease.

To begin, you may want to hire a graphic artist to help you get a clean and simple logo one that always accompanies your firm's name. Use these graphics constantly in any advertising you do, on your letterhead, on your on business cards, on your Web site if you have one. Remember, you can create a simple Web site yourself these days, if budget is an issue.

Establishing an identifiable logo is the first step in communicating who you are to your potential clients. More importantly, the consistency will give you a solidity that sales talk cannot.

Your proposal and contract are also important vehicles with which to connect with your customers. Obviously, they, too, need to look clean and organized, and it's through them you'll be able to communicate just what it is your shop will be building or providing and when you'll be providing it.

Clear and simple rules the day here, especially as far as scope and exclusions are concerned, and, in this case, you may want to reference a quality standard. The Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) is nationally recognized and offers a safe and consistent level to which to adhere. Its standards cover virtually every facet of woodworking from what edge-banding can be used at a particular quality level all the way through to what veneer lay-up should look like.

It's important to clearly communicate what your payment terms and conditions are in your agreements. Most shops these days try to get substantially paid for their work prior to, or at least upon, delivery. Let your customer know exactly what you require in this case.

During the Job
After the job is underway, your shop drawings are a main form of commu-nicating with your client. Even if you only do simple sketches, it's a good idea to use your logo and company name on the paperwork, again for the credibility factor.

A sign-off box is important to include with your drawings. It's a way of agreeing with your client that what has been drawn is what you're actually building for them.

The same goes for hardware specifications and samples. Have your customer sign off on these, as well. You're advising your customer that this is what will be used on the job, and it's far more solid than a verbal commitment.

As you start to build the job in your shop, I'd recommend checking in with your customer about his/her schedule. We all know how much construction time lines can change, and it usually happens that things get delayed around the finish time of the project. So be pro-active and make that phone call to find out what's really happening at the job site. You don't want to be stuck storing cabinets for three months while you wait for the limestone flooring to be shipped from Italy.

Some shops like to have customers come visit to see the work in progress. This can be an excellent way for clients to feel more comfortable that all the money they're shelling out is well spent. However, other customers have a hard time seeing finished product from partially assembled carcasses and door parts on your shop floor. It's your call here.

The Post Sale
It's important to remember that, even though the work has left your shop, the job isn't over. Look at the delivery, for example. It can be the most important part of the work.

The client may not have seen or heard from you for weeks while you're building the job in your shop. His or her remodeling project may be at a low point when you show up with cabinets or countertops. In this case, your delivery person is a critical communication tool a "point of contact" for your company, at least from the customer's point of view.

Bear that in mind if you send your lowest paid person out with the delivery truck, he or she is still representing you. If that person wears a sideways-turned baseball cap with a marijuana logo, well, that may not be the company image you want to project.

We've found at our own shop that if our delivery person goes the extra mile, helps out with the unloading even if your contract specifies curbside delivery only that will communicate well with your customer, and perhaps sow the seeds of future jobs or referrals.

The communication then continues through any installation work, too. Your shop may not be putting in the work, but any direction, help and advice will surely cement your relationship with your client. Sending along your shop drawings and ensuring the builder is aware of protection issues and damage control will go a long way in reducing call backs.

How you deal with punch-lists, corrections and warranty issues is a communication tool, as well. Be prompt, if possible, and give a little more, if you can. Unless the client is really bad news, you want that customer for life.

Beyond that, once you have a customer, it's smart to keep in touch with him or her. These people are your sales force. They will be the ones to sustain your company and keep you in business, so be sure to look after them.

Some shops use newsletters or mailers such as postcards of their work to keep in contact once or twice a year. It can get expensive and time-consuming, but it will be worth it. Parties and open houses are also very effective, but getting people to come to them is often an issue these days.

You may want to consider e-mail as a less costly alternative with regard to customer contact, but this can be a "drier" way of communicating, and is more likely to get ignored than other, more personal, methods.

Any way you do it, keeping in steady contact with customers is definitely your passport to future work.