I routinely ask our customers how they get customers. When the answer is "word of mouth," I get concerned on their behalf. Word-of-mouth is a great way to get customers, but word of mouth has challenges as a long term strategy. In most cases, a professional relying upon word-of-mouth means that they have a core half dozen customers that keep them busy and they just don't need new work. If they are architectural woodworkers, architects or GC's are the ones keeping keep them busy. For furniture makers, it's usually a few main customers who are in constant remodeling mode. Once in awhile one of these supports recommends you for something. I don't want to denigrate word of mouth: anyone who uses word of mouth for business must be reasonable reliable, trustworthy, and able to deliver. That's all good.
The downside of word-of-mouth is that it can be a substitute for real marketing -- which can leave the professional counting on it very vulnerable. I know of many highly skilled and reliable woodworkers who had a big customer or two that retired, moved, or suffered a financial setback. This translated into a serious loss of work -- with no marketing plan "B".
What does this all mean in practice?
Owning a business is a lot more than just making and delivering. It's also about selling and marketing. If you have a bunch of steady customers, you might not bother to expand your potential pool of more customers. You can easily say that your book is full and you can't produce more anyway. This is actually a great place to be in. You are busy and you aren't sweating getting every job. The downside, as I just mentioned, is when the music stops.
"Word of mouth" also means something different today than it did before the internet. In the old days, when I needed a supplier I asked around and got some names. Now when I need a supplier, I still ask around and get suggestions, but the next thing I do is google the recommendations. I'm not trying to do a "gotcha" or make my decisions based on a few pictures, but before I call someone I like to get an idea of who they are and what they do.
And this is the real danger of word-of-mouth, especially if you are older and built your customer base in pre-internet days.
As long as you are working with existing customers, your customer outreach (sales and marketing) doesn't mean much. The issue comes about when you need to develop new or revive old customers.
First point: It's really hard to instantly have a sales drive from scratch. Even if you are busy, having a current accessible portfolio of recent work is vital. The best time to get your name out there, and start creating some buzz is when you don't have to.
Second point: Everyone has a bunch of customers who think you did a great job but with whom you haven't spoken in a while. Even if these customers might not be in the market for your services now, keeping track of them is important. If nothing else, they might recommend you to someone who needs your services now. You need to understand why you haven't heard from them. They might have left the business, changed their business, gotten annoyed by you in some way you don't know about, or maybe you just fell off their radar. Understanding what happened will help you get back to work. A very common reason people lose some old great customers is that they thought you were too expensive. That might still be the case -- or maybe you have become more competitive as other firms have raised their prices or you've introduced some cost savings. You won't know unless you ask. As with point one, the best time to get keep the home fires burning is when you don't have to.
If you are a busy shop, you normally really just need to keep your marketing going, but not in high gear. When things are slow you might want to kick it up a few notches, but hopefully since you are not starting from scratch you won't have to panic.
When I talk about marketing and sales for a cabinet shop, I am not talking about doing trade shows or television advertising. I am talking about a very simple webpage with your portfolio and current contact information. I am talking about Instagram and Facebook. Make it easy for others to find your work and find you (even without your knowing that they are seeking someone like you). Consider picking up the phone and rehabilitating relationships. If it's practical, consider trying to network in-person more. Be helpful to other people too.
In my next blog I am going to discuss some simple marketing ideas that you can do yourself, cost very little to no money, and are effective.
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|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.|