It’s common management advice to focus on what you do best, but the times make specialization a luxury for many woodworking businesses. Being adaptable and extremely responsive to customer needs may be more important to weathering the current economic storm than small efficiency gains from specialization.

We are hearing increasing numbers of stories about shops that are battling lowball competitors who are underbidding every job in site just to get work. Eventually these bottom feeders will fold because they just can’t deliver what’s required at the price they promised and stay in business. But it is sure painful for the rest of us while those lowballers are bidding away.

Certainly when price is all the customer cares about, there’s not much you can do. If you truly know your costs, you must say no to work that won’t make your margins. So, what do you do? One source of relief is in the relationships you have built over time. Remind all of your past customers that you are still around and anxious to help meet their needs. And this is where versatility comes in handy.

Maybe your customers know you mostly for one specialty. Or maybe they think you can handle only certain size projects or limited time frames. If you can add versatility to your mix, you can change the way customers think of you.

Let’s face it, people like doing business with people they like and know they can rely on. Sure, there is pricing pressure out there, but being able to work with a reliable shop that is a known quantity is still a strong selling point against some unknown lowballer who may not even be able to deliver the goods.

Gary Medeiros at Unique Woodworking in Weymouth, Mass., has been banking on his versatility. He’s gone so far as to set up three production cells to handle jobs at maximum efficiency based on size. Read more about his solution.

Not every shop will go to such a stretch in the search for more versatility, and even Medeiros knows what his limits are, regularly passing on jobs that don’t fit his shop. Still, there are lessons to be learned here and questions to ask yourself. What more services can you offer to set you apart from competitors? There is work out there. What do you need to do to go and get it? 

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