CWB April 2002

Play Like a Pro

Anybody with a garage, a few thousand dollars, and too much time on their hands can be a "professional woodworker," right? Wrong.

By Anthony Noel

Our trade suffers from something few others do. I call it "The Norm Abram Syndrome."

Mr. Abram's show on PBS-TV, "The New Yankee Workshop," and others of its ilk offer a wealth of information for weekend warriors - you know, homeowners whose love of puttering around in their garage or basement leads to the purchase of a scroll saw... then a table saw... followed by a jointer, a planer - until before long, they have a fully outfitted shop.

Once they've accumulated all that gear, they need just one other thing: Some clue regarding what to do with it.

So they flip on the TV and see Norm putting together a deacon's bench in thirty minutes, or a reproduction rocking horse just as quickly. "That looks easy," they say, not fully comprehending that somehow, when they head to their shop, the lumber won't be waiting for them, already cut to size and neatly stacked, calling, "Assemble me!" Or, even if it were, that it would take them a whole lot longer than half an hour to do even that much.

Even worse, and I fear more prevalent, are the folks who only watch the TV shows, and don't even put on airs of being "into" woodworking. Nonetheless, they think they "know" about it. After all, how hard can it be - right? I mean, they got a "B" in wood shop back in high school!

Still, working wood is intimidating enough, it seems, that when they're ready for a custom kitchen, they call you. Then, armed with their half-baked "knowledge" of woodworking, they proceed to beat you up on your price.

When a well pump needs replacing or new plumbing service is needed to an addition, do these same people argue dollars and cents with their plumbers? And what about electric service? Not many homeowners want to even think about playing with their home's circuitry, even with the main breaker shut off!

But woodworking, being one of the most accessible skills in our culture, is something that everybody who's ever picked up a handsaw, or received a mail-order catalog from The Woodworker's Store, thinks they "understand."

Too often, of course, they don't. So what do we "real" pros do? Unfortunately, many of us make matters even worse, lending credence to their suspicions that we are just a cut below a "real" tradesperson, by acting like amateurs.

There is one inevitable fact of business that you need to understand: People take your business seriously in direct proportion to how seriously you take it.

Professional conduct

Steve, a good friend of mine, has owned a successful resume-writing service for many years. It involves taking incoming calls garnered by an ad in the Yellow Pages; making an abbreviated presentation of the services he offers over the phone; scheduling prospective clients to come in for a free, no-obligation consultation which goes into greater depth and gives the prospect a chance to see samples of his work; and then letting the prospect decide if they want to move forward.

The parallels to custom woodworking and The Abram Syndrome are striking. Most people try to write their own resumes for years before turning to a professional for help. After all, they took a seminar in it in college (like wood shop). The work is highly customized - it's as individual as the client himself (like a custom entertainment center). The difference is, Steve takes his business very seriously.

For reasons ranging from a fear of feeling inadequate or being "judged," to just plain lack of motivation, about half of the appointments Steve makes never materialize. He knows that, and has learned to live with it. As part of his initial phone consultation, Steve makes sure to ask the prospective client to call in advance if he won't be able to keep his appointment. Most do. But every now and then...

"Sir," Steve begins when he reaches a person inconsiderate enough to break an appointment without calling, "I explained to you the day you called that all of my business is conducted by appointment. Now, simply because you lacked the common courtesy to call me in advance, someone else who could have come in at the same time didn't get that chance."

Sound harsh? Maybe. But if, before that call, the person thought of Steve as something less than a serious businessman, you can bet they won't make that mistake again. The really interesting thing is how many of these people become totally apologetic and reschedule their appointments immediately. And they are much more reliable about keeping them, because they know this guy is serious about helping them get the job they want.

So, merely by demonstrating how seriously he takes his profession, Steve overcomes the perception that "anybody" can write a resume, and the implied belief on the prospect's part that they are somehow doing him a favor by expressing an interest in having him work for them.

Sound familiar? Sure it does. How many custom woodworkers can honestly say they've never had a condescending customer of the worst type, who makes them feel as if they are doing them some great service by "indulging" them with their business? We woodworkers don't do ourselves any favors by knuckling under to this type of patronizing behavior. The only way to really change the public's perception of our trade is by taking a professional approach, and by extending our professionalism to every facet of our business.

From the moment you first come in contact with a client, to the collection of the final balance on their project, constantly ask yourself: Am I conducting myself in the most professional manner possible? Answer based not on a comparison to other woodworkers, but to other businesses in general. Ask your spouse and even former customers for their opinions, and for suggestions of how you can improve.

Next month, we'll begin looking at specific areas of customer relations, and benchmark behaviors that can help you to begin being viewed as a consummate professional.

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