One of the long standing "rules" of marketing is that every product needs a reason for someone to buy it. This idea is called the "Unique Selling Proposition" or "USP." Sometimes the USP is a big idea that creates its own justification for existence - for example, the original iPhone. Sometimes the USP is less revolutionary but still compelling, such as the USP of Coke: a familiar taste available by design at just about every grocery, convenience store, pharmacy and restaurant in the US.
With recession looming, a lot of you are wondering how to stay afloat. You already work hard; "working harder" doesn't provide much comfort or much of a plan. You want to work efficiently and you're willing to cut costs where you can, but the real question is how to bring more customers to your door. They have to be the right kind of customers for your product, and they have to go away happy.
One of the most important changes in the way I think about new products is the USP. Understanding the USP informs the seller's decision-making about whether a product will sell, who will buy it, and how much to charge. The better we are at understanding the USP before introducing a new product, the more successful the product will be for us.
Tools for Working Wood had this issue a couple of years ago. Sales of perfectly good but widely available products were dropping as people moved to Amazon. We knew we needed to make more of our own unique products. But what to make? Two years ago we bought our first CNC milling machine so that we could start the process. We needed a product that was fairly simple to make - we were new at this - so we could start earning enough to start paying off the machine and then make money.
I am not sure how the idea for a planing stop popped into my head but I quickly realized that we certainly had the equipment to make one in-house. I knew its price had to be competitive with our competition or there was no chance we would sell more than a few. But competing on price isn't enough (and we could not really compete on this basis anyway). When I was thinking about how to test a planing stop, I realized that no way did I want to follow tradition and chop a square hole into my workbench (See engraving below). I wanted an add-on. On my big bench with a tailvise, the add-on simply clamped into my tailvise (see picture below). For the other benches in the shop, I was thinking about threaded inserts or something like that. Here a USP was born. We would sell a planing stop that didn't require chopping a hole in your bench. And we would include mounting screws because this would make the project so much simpler. I bought some threaded inserts, installed them in my bench. They worked well and were far easier to install (20 minutes) than chopping a hole. But they were less then ideal and finicky. Then a brainwave hit: I realized it was really easy to mount a block with a planing stop at the end of my bench that could flip out of the way (photo above).
The first incarnation of the idea used stock hardware, but then we turned that into a product too. We decided to offer the planing stops in both hardened and unhardened material. The hardened stops have enhanced durability and their heat treat marks look really boss. Because of the cost of the hardened stops, we wanted to offer unhardened ones too. The manufacturing of the hardened and unhardened planing stops are nearly the same except for the cost of material and hardening. Hardening the 1095 steel turned out to be much harder to do than we had initially assumed until we mastered the process. But from a USP standpoint, we had two products that addressed two sides of the market, and both versions have been very successful. On my main bench I have a stop screwed into a block which goes in my tailvise (picture below). In the showroom, we have one mounted on the end of a bench (picture above).
We are very proud of this product and its performance. We've gotten great feedback about the planing stops from customers. The planing stop has also gotten great reviews. Here's one and here's another.
How does all of this apply to you, the professional woodworker? Simple. USPs are not restricted to those of us who are selling products. What is your USP? If the reason people choose you is that your cost is the lowest, unless you are a demon at cutting costs you might be struggling to stay afloat even when you get the project. If the reason people choose you is that your design and communication process reassures people and makes them confident that you will deliver what they ask for, you are in much better shape. If you have a unique design or technical skill that allows you to deliver features and quality that nobody else can, that's great too. One major USP that custom woodworkers have over stock stores is the ability to deliver exactly what the customer wants in size and finish. Shops that just install stock units cannot make odd custom pieces.
In the field of woodworking something drew you into the field in the first place. It might be you enjoy casework, making things with your hands, carving, finishing, veneering, who knows the areas of expertise are wide and deep. If your passion is carving but your clients want plywood boxes there is a disconnect between what you like about making things and your job. One of your USP's might be that you are a great carver, but so far your customers seem not to want carving projects. Identifying a skill/product/service/USP you can offer and aren't is where better marketing and sales comes in.
The purpose of sales and marketing, and even a company with one person getting business via word of mouth is doing sales and marketing, is to find, educate, and explain to prospective customers that the USP's you bring to the market are worth having and paying for. Marketing to your USP's can not only be more lucrative, it can also make your job better.
In a cabinetry company delivering custom woodworking, the USP might have a different flavor than the features of a product (although no one will want to give money to a company without integrity). Your USP might be that you have happy customers, that people trust you to deliver, that you make good on your mistakes. All of these features of your business are important.
So as we head into a recession and your order book might be slimming down, I urge you to think of the big picture. Why should someone buy from you? What do you offer than nobody (or very few people) offer? How can you articulate your USP in a way that more people understand it than ever before? What do you have to do to get this new articulated USP out to more customers who will appreciate what you have to offer?
Here is what I think you should do as you contemplate the reopening of the economy:
Figure out your USPs - an overall USP for the entire company and a separate USP for every identifiable product you make (furniture/kitchens/storefronts/chairs, etc)
Write down every USP you can think of and tell everyone in your organization about it. Writing it down gives a reference to go back to.
Now that you know why people should buy from you you have to find them and educate them. In practice this means:
Reaching out to your customer base to communicate your USPs
Networking to find more customers who understand, appreciate and want businesses like yours
Adjusting your website to focus on your USPs
Adjusting your marketing material and social media to emphasize your USPs
In the coming weeks I will be writing more about how your website can communicate your USPs and the short term value of "word of mouth" marketing.
PS: As you might imagine, this advice also pertains to to every business and everyone has to think about what they uniquely have to offer during these challenging times.
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04/16/2020 Bill Morison
Joel: Thank you for sharing such a trenchant analysis in these unique times. Your ideas are applicable to most businesses, regardless of size and whether goods or service based. You are an original! Bill