Mr. Rando: why are so many upholsterers hiding from new customers?

I’d like to discuss someone. Let’s call him Mr. Rando.

Today or tomorrow, Mr. Rando may find your business. He may call, or stop in, almost certainly while you’re struggling with a deadline.

Mr. Rando doesn’t know anything about upholstery – but he’s curious! He has questions! He MIGHT even have a project!

(But probably not)

Because Mr. Rando is about to get in-person sticker shock, along with some one-on-one customer service of indeterminate length and quality. He might be interested in learning more. Or he might just want to yell at you.

Either way, Mr. Rando is a time and energy vampire.

And this wouldn’t be a huge deal – except that Mr. Rando has FRIENDS.

Mr. Rando’s friends are PRETTY MUCH EVERY SINGLE PERSON WALKING AROUND EVERYWHERE.

It’s very, very easy for a small workroom to become overwhelmed and burned out by the vaguely informed drop-in customer.

And this is why many of us HIDE.

I do not disclude myself here – upon opening a space, several colleagues told me I needed BIG SIGNS!!!!!!! A VAN WITH MY LOGO!!!!!!

To which I replied, “The hell I do.”

Mr. Rando is NOT a friend of my business. Mr. Rando sucks my will to live.

Have you met Mr. Rando? Oh I bet you have.

Are you HIDING from Mr. Rando? Oh I bet you might.

We HIDE from Mr. Rando when we don’t advertise, when we don’t answer the phone, when we put down the shades, when we ignore all the emails.

Which is understandable, because Mr. Rando will put you right out of business if you let him, banging your head against the same dead end conversations day after day (after day)

But there’s a trade off happening, every time we disappear from the grid, when we ghost our phone (I’ve done it. I do it.) and bury our business.

And that trade off is MORE MR RANDOS.

Why is it, that the average consumer is such a time-suck for your shop?

BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT UPHOLSTERY.

Why don’t they know anything about upholstery?

BECAUSE WE HAVEN’T BEEN TEACHING THEM.

As long as we’re all hiding, this cycle will continue. Educating Mr. Rando is OUR RESPONSIBILITY.

But how?

Setting our business on fire to graciously answer a billion questions for free is no kind of solution.

So here are a few other ideas:

Support industry outreach

Close your eyes and imagine walking into a local brewery. A coffee shop. A specialty yarn store. What are your expectations? What do you know about this business without anyone needing to tell you?

When I walk into these businesses, I can make an educated guess on what to expect, what I’ll pay, where the value is. WITHOUT an extensive one-on-one explanation.

That’s because many different businesses are working together to communicate a relatively clear message about their common values – perhaps with the assistance of guilds, unions, co-ops or associations.

Some industries are better than others. Ours is historically terrible.

And it always WILL be, if we don’t opt in to something collaborative. This is the value of OUTREACH.

When we individually or as a shared entity communicate proactively about the values of reupholstering, it makes Mr. Rando a little LESS Rando. Effective outreach shifts the exhaustive burden of educating the market AWAY from one-to-one conversations in your workroom.

Upholstery has a LONG way to go on this after decades of radio silence (and occasionally outright hostility) towards consumers. Consider getting involved with The National Upholstery Association or at the very least, becoming a member.

Wouldn’t upholstery be nice with considerably more market awareness in our favor?

Clear signals and self-service.

One reason we end up with high-touch customer service is because we fail to utilize lower touch options.

By “lower touch” I mean an informative website, a strong social media presence, maybe even some automated response tools. Modern consumers are better and better at doing their own research – so throw them a bone.

Don’t be coy in your messaging . Talk about the skill and time involved in upholstery. Be reasonably transparent about the cost. Give them guidance on how to send photos for a quote.

You think you need to tell every single customer in person to send three angles and rough dimensions? Oh I assure you, you do not. And when you DO encounter that customer in person – send them back to your excellent tools for self service. Not “Let me write it all down for you.” – Here’s a card, everything you need to include is on my website. If you get stuck, give us a call” (Because hey – we’re still looking for good service here, even as we move for efficiency.)

Develop a solid set of qualifying tools, and think about delegating them.

I know some upholsterers who won’t give ANY pricing without good photos and information. And I DO understand – I’ve been burned by that customer too.

“You told me it would only be X!!!”

“You told me it was a ‘simple sofa with a few buttons’- this, sir, is a Chesterfield with major foundation issues and a feral cat living inside.”


So use your words and your disclaimer – nothing is a real quote without photos/dimensions/fabric etc. . .

But listen – if someone thinks that sofa is going to cost $400, it doesn’t matter how many buttons it has. Don’t waste anyone’s time or energy.

I’m ABSOLUTELY NOT saying to be rude.

But there are professional ways of quickly filtering out the confused shoppers (assuming industry outreach and your self-teaching nets didn’t catch them)

I worked retail for several years with LOADS of walk-ins.

People frequently popped in on a whim, no photos or details, just casual research. I could have stonewalled them, insisted on photos etc.

But why? We both want the same thing – to figure out if reupholstery is a fit.

So instead, here’s a script I often used – feel free to copy and tweak:

“Well, if you want an accurate price, we really DO need to see photos. But I can tell you if you’re thinking about having a chair reupholstered, $1,000 is a good starting point to have in mind.”

Obviously, the final price could vary significantly – but again, if they have the misguided notion that this is a $100 project, there isn’t much value in figuring the nickels.

This price script could be delivered very efficiently, and very pleasantly. I wan’t trying to blow them off or accuse them of being malicious and cheap – I was genuinely trying to help them determine if reupholstery was their desired option. Sometimes, the answer was maybe – and we’d get into details on the quote process.

Sometimes the answer was HOLY CANNOLI!!!! WHY WOULD ANYONE REUPHOLSTER!!!! And I’d follow with a BRIEF public service message:

“There are a lot of good reasons to reupholster – saving a bunch money just isn’t usually one of them.”

What’s great is that you can create some qualifiers for in person, on the phone, over email etc. and when they’re defined and road tested, pass them off.

It’s true, a college intern can’t do a full estimate on gutting and rebuilding that Chesterfield sofa. But they can definitely vet the lead and cheerfully communicate next steps.

“Here’s a ballpark, and here are the details we’ll need to finalize an estimate. We can generally get a quote worked up in 48 hours. If you want to start thinking about fabric, here are three companies with very user friendly websites.”

Yes yes, I know – everyone who walks in wants an estimate NOW and they want to talk to YOU!!!!

But I’m sorry – is this a fast food restaurant? Are they leaving with a burger?

It is NOT bad customer service to draw boundaries that support your ability to serve people WELL.

So don’t resent your clients – train them. Gently herd them towards a process that serves you both – even when that process is the process of polite elimination.

(Although you may be surprised at which clients stick around – Mr. Rando occasionally turns out to be Mr. Opportunity. But he’ll never find you if you’re hiding under the bed. )

One thought on “Mr. Rando: why are so many upholsterers hiding from new customers?

  1. Great post. So true. perfect time saving & filtering & respectful & professional responses. We too ask for pictures and measurements – been burned on projects even still. Just don’t know everything until it is on the table and opened up.

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