Here’s something I hate: walking into a restaurant and not knowing what I’m supposed to do.
Do I sit? Do I wait? Am I coming in the right door? Why doesn’t this menu make any sense? Is this the order window? Is it the pick up window? Do I leave my dishes on the table? Am I supposed to put them somewhere? Is everyone looking at me????
In these kind of situations, I feel very stupid. Then I feel rather annoyed. I’m here to spend money. Is it too much to ask that a business provide some instruction on how to do that??? HELP ME HELP YOU!!!
I don’t think this is an uncommon experience. I think most people really appreciate a bit of guidance.
If you belong to a gym, think about the first time you walked into a new class: Were you nervous about looking out of place? Did anyone pause to help you set up? Did an instructor make you feel welcome? If yes or no, how did that affect your overall experience? If you wanted to try a new piece of equipment, was there signage to help you figure out how to use it? Was there staff to answer questions? Did they treat you like an idiot for not knowing what a rhomboid is? Did you receive the assistance you needed to avoid becoming a YouTube gym fail sensation?
(As a former fitness instructor, I REALLY hope in this last example that you had a positive experience)
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!!!!”
(If you’re thinking, ‘What?? I love being confused and doing all the wrong things!!! This lady is an idiot’ then you can skip this post)
But assuming you’re like me, and assuming (since you’re reading this) that you deal with upholstery clients, or are perhaps thinking about dealing with upholstery clients . . . .
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 LOADS of retail in this industry, and 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 appreciative 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.
The title of this article is a little tongue in cheek, but what we’re talking about today is giving your new (and returning) clients the tools they need to be good clients. 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 come in for snow tires. I’d REALLY like to be a good customer for the businesses I value.
And when a business provides clear cues and good service to guide me through a positive shopping experience? By gosh, by golly, I tend to really LIKE that businesses. When a business treats me like an ignoramus . . . not so much.
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 super regular basis.
And if they HAVE worked with a shop before, it may have been a shop with very different parameters. 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 pathway from initial contact to completion (and possibly beyond)
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 how YOU need to organize 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, think about YOUR “ideal” scenario. If you don’t know what that is, clients are going to drive the bus, and you almost certainly won’t like it. But if YOU don’t know, how the heck are THEY supposed to know? It doesn’t mean you never reroute, but make sure that you’re at the wheel with a map.
#3. Provide tools for self educating.
This probably means information on your website, although if you get loads of walk ins you might also need a FAQs handout. You may not think so, but people can be pretty great about doing a bit of research before they show up.
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.
And lots of clients will use them. If you have a website, get your hands on the stats. You’ll see. We’ve worked hard in the past couple years to put up information to help our students out – what to bring, what to expect, how to come prepared. We have information on our class pages, related blog posts, a handful of YouTube videos, and a poorly maintained Pinterest board (my bad!!!)
I can see from the numbers that people are looking at them.
These tools help us because they help students know what the heck is going on, who we are, what we do. They help manage expectations. Do we still have people skip these resources and show up confused with inappropriate projects? OH you betcha. But far less than we would without them. And we spend a lot less time answering the same individual questions again and again and again. 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 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. So. This situation: NO!!!!!!
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 actually 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 general information. Then we can set up a time to sit down and 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 well intended. 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 <3
“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, can you tell me how many yards we should 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. I only sell from companies I trust. 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, or a fabric company, and they’re terrible – I get rid of it. If I screw up massively, I can reorder fabric myself without having to involve the client. (a rarity, but I can tell you it’s very stressful cutting up somebody’s 10 year old hair-on hide that they got in Italy as a college student.)
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 distracted and in the middle of a project. See? Helping them help me. Or helping me help them. It’s all the same.
“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 – if you have ideas about what you’re looking for, I can even pull a few books in advance 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. If you’re a parent, you might be familiar with this approach. Instead of asking your kids to do the dishes, ask them if they want to do the dishes OR go grocery shopping with you. You may be surprised how enthusiastic they become about doing dishes. It’s just a more positive spin on the same conversation.
Additionally, I like to use the “compliment sandwich” approach that’s common in offering constructive criticism. *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, what a bold vision!!!”
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 you AND your client should enjoy.
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.
As I tell my boys: “The only person you can control is yourself” But guess what???? That’s often enough.
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? What can you do in the future? What’s the lesson? (I’ve asked myself these questions many times)
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 made you a smarter, stronger professional. That’s not a bad thing. Just don’t keep getting spanked by the same negative experiences.
And now I shall say something unpopular:
If you are having the same problem with different clients again, and again, and again: 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 develop a stress related eye twitch.
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.
Doing them a favor, doing you a favor – IT’S ALL THE SAME!
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.
(wait -weren’t we using restaurant analogies? Sorry.)
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, culinary experience, you have to help them out 🙂
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: