Rules for Keeping Customers Happy

Most cabinet shops depend heavily on their existing customer base for survival. It's all about the builders who come back for more work, and the people who love your work who tell their friends about you. That's what keeps the projects coming, allowing your shop to thrive.

After you've built that cherry kitchen for your favorite contractor, you want him to be happy with your work. He'll find someone else if he has problems with your performance or your quality.

The same goes for individual homeowners. If they've had a bad experience with your shop, they will not spread the good word about you. On the contrary, they may go out of their way to say bad things about your operation.
So, it's important to note that any shop starting out in business should be building a foundation of happy clients right from the get-go.

To keep customers happy, there are simple rules to follow. "Customer management" can be broken down into three main tasks for your shop: perform, respond and communicate. If you can manage these areas well, you'll create a base of fans who will send you work and sustain your company.

First and foremost, you have to produce good work. If your finish is no good, or the doors you produce fall apart, word will soon get out that your shop's quality really is not up to snuff. Your cabinets have to last; they need to function and look good for more than a couple of years.

At our own shop, we've discovered this the hard way. Buying cheaper drawer slides, for example, can be a short road to disaster.

Keep in mind that part of quality is making sure that, when you deliver, all of the parts are there. Label, bag and securely attach the spare bits and pieces of the work. A complete job is a big part of your attention to quality.

Performance for most builders using subcontracted trades (such as cabinets) relies heavily on on-time delivery. A late set of cabinets is an inferior set of cabinets in the mind of many contractors. And, for the homeowner, too, a late delivery can hold up vital sequencing of the project. In this scenario, your shop will be seen as the bad guy, so your own internal scheduling system is a key part of keeping your customers happy.

Another big part of your shop's performance is standing behind the work that you do. If you've built a big hardwood entertainment center and the customer calls to inform you the retractable doors don't function properly, you will be judged on your reaction to that call. It's worth taking the time to fix the problem.

You may feel very strongly that your reputation as a shop is based largely on the quality of the work you do. How many times have you heard shop owners boast about how the doors they build themselves are so much better than any door supplier, that their shop has fabulous equipment or does unbelievably complex work?

However, there's so much more to it all than just the beautiful "product" you produce. The way you react to your customers' requests is just as important and, it starts with that first phone call inquiry, where the customer wants to know about your availability to do a piece of work. You need to call people back! This is basic, polite stuff, but critical in the way your customers, both potential and actual, feel about you. Try to respond that day if you can, even if it's after hours and is only a voice message back.

E-mail can help here if you're really overwhelmed. You can give a polite and brief response and then keep going on with your other work, all without picking up the phone and getting dragged into a long conversation.

Responding to mistakes is another critical part of keeping your customers feeling good about you. Often it's not the problem itself that bugs people, it's how you fix it that really determines how your client will feel about your shop.

The Complaint Department, unfortunately, has to be open all the time at your company. It may fall to you as owner or manager to be in charge of this area, but it does have to be dealt with. And, here again, you'll be judged by your customers on your ability to respond.

Following through needs to become part of your whole com-pany's approach to your customers. Customers expect you to do what you said you would. If there's a punch list to complete the work, it has to be dealt with and done. That's what people remember about you the last 10 percent of the project, and how you responded.

No news is bad news in our trade. If you get a call from a client, you'd better get back to them, or at least have someone from your company follow up. Leaving people hanging for example, with estimates that don't get submitted can be the kiss of death. And, if you can't get the pricing done, at least call in advance to let your client know.

In your proposals and contracts, it's good practice to communicate clearly as to what your shop will be providing and what it will not. It's that kind of thing that can bite you later.

Another part of communicating with clients is sending them occasional mail-outs, or news of what your company is doing. These clients are your sales force out in the world, and they need reminders of who you are.

A key part of communication is making the customers believe that they are special. That means paying attention to them. At the end of jobs, some shops use gifts such as flowers, restaurant meal certificates or even kitchen gadgets to end out the work.

Some business coaches will tell you that the secrets of keeping your business growing are few and easy: Show up on time, do what you said you would, finish what you start and say please and thank you. If you follow these basic rules, you will create happy customers. The rules presented here are a recipe for success both business and personal!

Next Column: Keeping Your Shop Clean, Neat and Organized