Here’s something I hate: walking into a restaurant and not knowing what to do.
Do I sit? Do I wait? Is it the pick up window? Do I leave my dishes on the table? Is everyone looking at me????
In these kind of situations, I feel very stupid. Then I feel annoyed. I’m here to spend money. Is it too much to ask that a business provide some instruction on how to do that???
If you belong to a gym, think about the first time you walked into a class: Were you nervous ? Did anyone pause to help you? Did an instructor make you feel welcome? If yes or no, how did that affect your overall experience? Did you receive the assistance you needed to avoid becoming a YouTube gym fail?
So think about yourself as a consumer. I’m guessing you’re like, “Yeah!!!!! I DO like when businesses help me feel comfortable and informed!!!!”
So then let’s have a chat.
In my runnings around, online and in the real world, I see a lot of venting about client relationships.
And I do NOT mean to sound insensitive – I’ve been through the ringer a few times, and I’ve worked a lot of retail. I’ve had all the aggravating discussions, and yes I KNOW that people can be exhausting and pushy and condescending. I know. I KNOW.
But I also know they can be awesome, and cooperative and enthusiastic. They can hug you, and say nice things about you on social media. They can bring you cookies and decorated pumpkins.
But you gotta help ’em out.
What we’re talking about today is giving your clients the tools they need to succeed. You may have an occasional wack-a-doo, but believe me: Most people want you to be happy when they walk through the door. I certainly don’t want my mechanic to hide in the bathroom when I walk in for tires. I’d REALLY like to be a good customer for the businesses I value.
So how do we do that with our clients? I’m so glad you asked!!!! Here a few things to try and implement:
#1. Understand that most people don’t use an upholsterer on a regular basis.
I can’t expect my new client to know exactly how this “custom upholstery” thing is supposed to go. Our industry has changed signficantly, and it continues to evolve. Even within my own business, I make changes from year to year. So any client who comes in is likely to need some clarification/communication. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge that and prepare accordingly.
#2. Know how you’d like things to go.
If you want to train your clients, first you need a clear map. How would you like this to go?
This is something you need to figure out for yourself. I have a small shop with lots of students in and out, so space management is a primary concern. I try very hard not to bring projects in until we’re ready to start work. It also means that I have a hard time adjusting if a project comes in and gets delayed – I don’t stack up multiple projects, so if something comes in and we can’t get started, I’m probably unemployed that week. BAD NEWS!!!! I need to maintain a pretty smooth workflow on the client side. As such, I like to do things in this order:
- Initial contact/quote (usually via email or facebook. I rarely go out for an estimate, but some shops like to quote in person)
- Fabric selection (this can take quite a long time, and I encourage clients to TAKE their time – I want an enthusiastic selection, not one made in haste or hesitancy)
- Fabric deposit/order (I usually order fabric immediately to make sure it’s in by go time. Some shops prefer to do a final measure when the piece come in and order then – a very respectable plan of attack. But it can leave you vulnerable to unexpected backorders/delays, something my business is not well structured for. Most of my clients are happy to provide the dimensions I need for a yardage estimate, and most of projects are fairly “standard” – if clients ask, I’m honest about my policies and why. I say, “I’d rather hand you back an extra half yard than call and tell you we’re a half yard short and there’s a dye lot issue.” Sometimes, an extra bit of fabric is the price of having a custom job go smoothly. If it’s a wildly unfamiliar piece of furniture, I may go out to do a measure in the field at this time, or I might make an exception and do a final measure when the piece comes in.)
- Schedule project (for me, this is usually 6-8 weeks out from time of deposit.)
- Call when ready to set up drop off
- DO THE WORK! YAY!!!
- Schedule pick-up/collect balance.
- Send a thank you card.
Why am I sharing this? Not so you can duplicate my policies.
So you can start thinking about YOUR process. Shops with more space and more services likely need multiple projects at once to keep the pipeline full. You may be happy to take the piece in right at initial contact, in case another project gets delayed. Maybe you allow certain clients to take up regular space on the schedule, ahead of new clients – like an ongoing commercial account.
The point is, if YOU don’t know, how the heck are THEY supposed to know? If you don’t want clients driving you all over town, make sure you’re at the wheel with a map.
#3. Provide tools for self educating.
A clear, informative website. Social media. FAQs fliers if you get loads of walk in’s You may not think so, but people can be pretty great about doing their own research – if it’s available and you point them there.
OF COURSE you’re still going to get questions and confusion OF COURSE some people aren’t going to look at these resources OF COURSE some clients are going to think that everything is up for debate.
They aren’t perfect tools: They’re HELPFUL tools.
Getting information up for your clients helps reduce the major time suck of one-to-one customer service. If a potential client at least knows the basics, you can focus precious time and energy on all the communication that DOES need to be individualized.
#4. Redirect, correct, and don’t be an ass.
Let’s say someone skipped your lovely self education section, or just thought it was super optional. Let’s say they are headed to left field, driving the project someplace you don’t want to follow: You have the power to course correct. Sometimes, people just don’t know what they don’t know. You can redirect them kindly but clearly. In fact, this is a skill you must cultivate if you’re on the service side of your business.
Here are a few examples:
Client: “Hi, I have a chair I want reupholstered, are you there today? I want to drop it off”
This may be well intentioned – 30 years ago, an upholsterer had to look at your furniture in person. They might even think they’re doing you a favor, bringing it to you, letting you keep it as long as you need – no rush!!!
I avoid this scenario at all costs.
#1 because I know there’s usually a 2-3 month lead time between initial quote and completion. Sometimes, that stretches to years. YEARS!!!! I do not want that chair in my shop all that time. Nor do I want to be an ass and ask them to load it back up if/when they insist that they’re “going to decide on fabric over the weekend, can we please leave it here? We’ll really, really, really be right back.” And then they don’t come back and it can only go badly – with me resenting a chair in my shop, or me pestering them to pick it up, or me getting pushy about them deciding on fabric ASAP when they aren’t as sure as they expected to be.
The other reason is that I know there’s a 85% chance of sticker shock when I deliver a quote. I’d rather avoid all the icky social awkwardness of face to face sticker shock and a client who was “definitely going to have it reupholstered” sheepishly loading it back up, or leaving it and never returning, or asking me if I just want to buy it off them. I want to give clients the time and space they need to make a confident, informed decision about their investment.
“You have no idea what this is going to cost, do NOT bring that chair here.”
“I’ll be here until 4, come on by” (secretly resents client, rages about them behind their back)
*ignores phone, never returns emails, moves to a cabin in the woods and is never heard from again because people are terrible*
DO: “Hi Joe Blow! I’m so excited that you’re thinking about upholstery as an option! Since our shop is relatively small, we don’t bring projects in until we’re ready to work on them – it you want to send a photo, though, I can absolutely start you with an estimate and information. Then we can set up a time to look at fabric samples. I carry several companies – I’m sure we can find something you’ll love 🙂 Once you’ve decided on fabric, we’ll take a deposit, get you on the schedule, and set up a time for your piece to come in. Let me know if you have any questions – I look forward to seeing what you have! Best, Cynthia”
Client: “Yay! We’re so excited, the estimate looks fine, please put us on the schedule and we’ll come by soon to look at fabric.”
Oh no you won’t.
This client is almost certainly means well. Hooray!!!!! They want to proceed! And it COULD turn out fine.
But also, they could get delayed by life and not get fabric selected, leaving me with a big ol’ hole in the schedule. They could not find what they’re looking for immediately and slide into an infuriating cycle of asking to be bumped out a week . . . for the next 9 months They could make a hasty fabric selection at the last second when I threaten to bump them to the end of the line – which could lead to buyer’s remorse after the work is done. NO!
But be nice: their enthusiasm for the project is a beautiful, beautiful thing .
“Um. Okay.” *stews and worries, hopes for the best*
“Psh, PLEASE . . . you think I’m some kind of sucker????? I’m not putting you on the schedule until you give me a check. Who do you think you are, Mr. Fancy Pants????”
DO: “HOORAY! This is wonderful news – I’m really looking forward to doing this project for you! I’m currently scheduling work for the end of April. We DO require a fabric selection and deposit to get in the queue. Sometimes fabric selection takes awhile, and I want to make sure you have something you’re really excited about 🙂 If you want to come in and look at books, I’m available Saturday morning or Tuesday afternoon. If you know what you’re looking for (colors, patterns etc. ) I’d be happy to pull some books in advance to get us started. Let me know what your schedule looks like – I can’t wait to see your grandmother’s chair in person!!”
Client: “Hi! We’d like to get this chair reupholstered, how many yards should we buy? We’re planning to go fabric shopping this weekend.”
Like many shops, I carry upholstery fabric.
Clients don’t always know this, perhaps because not all shops do. While I allow customers to bring in their own fabric, I really prefer that they don’t – selling fabric helps me provide the most seamless experience to my clients. If fabric comes in damaged, I can deal with it on my client’s behalf. I have information (durability, fiber content, finishes, repeats etc) to help my client make an informed decision. If I work with a fabric company, and they’re terrible – I drop it.
So if I CAN I want to redirect this client to purchase through me – and I’d like them come by appointment so I’m not in the middle of a project. See? Helping them help me.
“Oh about 5 yards – go to this big box store, their fabric is super cheap” (Angry later when client shows up with 5 yards of a 30″ repeat on a drapery weight fabric. BONEHEAD!!!!)
“We carry fabric here, how could you not know that? Everybody knows that, you must be a cheapskate.” *Tells upholstery friends about how everyone is a cheapskate*
DO: “Hello Future Upholstery Client Friend! Cool chair, where did you get it?? It looks like you need about 5 yards, assuming no pattern match. Most clients purchase fabric through the shop – we have books here you’re welcome to look through (or if you prefer to browse first online, I can send you some links) I’m around Saturday 10-2, I’d be happy to make an appointment to sit down if there’s a time in that window that works for you – and if you have ideas about what you’re looking for, I can even pull a few books to get us started 🙂 Best, Cynthia “
You’ll notice a couple common themes in my responses: Give your client options – tell them what you CAN do instead of just telling them, “oh no, we’re definitely not doing THAT” (or worse – saying okay when you really don’t want to and then feeling resentful)
This can take some communication hocus pocus, but if you can swing things around to options you’re comfortable with, most clients will operate within those parameters.
(My favorite example of this is actually with my kids. If I ask can they mow the lawn, I’m likely to get a no with excuses. But if I ask, “Do you want to mow the lawn or help with dinner?” by golly that lawn gets mowed. I can’t quite figure out why they lose track of the “no” option in there, but there’s just something about a “this or that” presentation that gets people to play by your rules.)
Additionally, I like the modified “compliment sandwich” model:
*something positive* *something necessary* *Something positive*
“I’m excited about your project!
You need to give me money to place the order!!!
It’s so great that you’re considering purple leopard print!!!”
If they’re ready to order, I do NOT want to kill that enthusiasm with an aggressive or condescending redirect. I just want to happily get them back on trail
Now, you can tell me that people shouldn’t need coddling and that you’re entitled to “tell ’em how it is” or that you like your communication “straight: no chaser.” That’s fine. If that’s the hill you want to die on, enjoy. I like my clients happy. I’m absolutely willing to tailor my communication to make them feel warm and fuzzy.
An additional, critical point on this topic: I want you to take to heart the idea that you can be kind AND firm. Many people think you have to choose between being a doormat or an aggressor. NOT SO!!!!!! It might take some practice, but I promise, you can usually cultivate a really lovely middle ground that works for everyone.
If you find yourself in a client situation you’d like to avoid in the future: reflect.
Was there something you could have done differently? Is there something you could have communicated earlier in the process?
I know you’re going to hate this part. Sometimes, it just feels good to rage, to have people tell you that clients are CRAZY!!!! And a few probably are – but most of them are potentially good (seriously). Not perfect . . . but potentially good. And clients are never going to come magically ready out of the box. That’s an unreasonable expectation. You can wish for clients to just show up and act exactly how you think they should act, but they won’t.
So get mad, go have a root beer beer, get on the other side of the situation. But then take a breath: Is there something you might have done differently to alter this outcome?
Maybe it was a total fluke and you can’t do anything. If that’s the case, BUMMER.
Maybe it was kind of a fluke, and there’s something you could have done differently, but it’s not worth revamping your entire policy.
MAYBE this less-than-idyllic exchange has exposed a weak area in your communication and processes. That’s not a bad thing. Just don’t keep getting spanked by the same mistakes.
And now I shall say something unpopular:
If you are having the same problem again and again with different clients: It isn’t a client problem – it’s a YOU problem.
Time to dig deep and figure out what needs to change – hopefully BEFORE you grow a stress tumor.
If, however, you’re having problems again and again and again with THE SAME client – THAT’s a client problem. Maybe, using the tools above, you can retrain them. If they want to keep doing business, you’re actually doing them a favor.
If you really, really, REALLY can’t retrain them . . you might need to surrender them to a nearby client rescue.
Hopefully, another shop adopts them.
But one way or another, you can’t let them keep peeing in your slippers.
Maybe this all seems like a lot to put on your shoulders. Maybe you think the burden should be on the client to be an informed and considerate consumer. BASIC HUMAN SKILLS!!! Maybe you’ve had a few run-ins that have lead you to believe that people are inherently evil.
I’m not saying it’s easy: It’s not. But it’s easier than being frustrated all the time. It’s better than burning out. It’s preferable to feeling resentful and pushed around.
As a professional upholsterer, you certainly don’t HAVE to do any of this. But when your consumers are wandering around, deciding where to eat, there are loads of places prepared to sell them a cheap, convenient burger.
If you want them to partake of YOUR unique, artisanal burger, you have to teach them how your restaurant works.
I hope you found this helpful! We’ll likely do additional posts on the topic of client communication and customer service – a topic that is arguably as relevant and challenging as your technical skills. If you have specific questions or situations you’d like us to discuss, please leave a comment here or on Facebook. It’s a common area of professional stress!
A couple additional articles that might interest you (they certainly interested me) can be found on the blog, Itty Biz: