The Direct Route

There are lots of ways to promote any business. For custom shops, some work better than others.

By Anthony Noel

There is a basic mistake which is made repeatedly by owners of custom shops. Recognizing it, avoiding it and applying the knowledge it represents is usually the difference between successful shops and those that struggle to survive.

Put simply, too many owners of custom shops forget what being a custom shop means. And while doing that can hurt you in any number of areas, nowhere are the ill effects more profound than when it comes to promoting your business.

How a business promotes itself should be a reflection of the market it is selling to. For example, it is usually massive companies seeking to attract massive numbers of consumers for their mass-produced burgers or sneakers or operating systems that use - what else? - mass media.

Trouble is, there are custom shop owners out there who have read just enough management books by the Ray Krocs of the world that they believe the principles presented in them are applicable to any business. They're not.

When was the last time you were watching the Super Bowl and saw an ad for a custom woodworking shop? The Twelfth of Never, right?

There's a reason for that (O.K., two reasons, if you count the cost!): Custom shops don't market to the general public, but to the very small fraction of that public which can afford and want to pay for their expertise.

Yet some shops market to the general public anyway. They advertise with mass media outlets within their service areas.

We covered this somewhat last month when we talked about the problems that can come from big flashy ads in magazines. For 99.9 percent of the custom shops out there, radio, TV, newspaper and billboard advertising make roughly the same kind of sense - unless you want to spend all your time chasing down "leads" which lead mainly to dead ends.

That's because the mass media reach massive audiences. While it's nice to think viewers will "just know" whether they can afford you or not, thereby ensuring only viable prospects will call, that's not the reality. If your ad reaches 25,000 people and just one half of one percent respond, that's still 125 people!

Do you have the staff and resources to handle that many prospects all at once? Or the time it will require to separate the viable prospects from the "tire kickers?" I don't think so. (And believe me, no matter how carefully you word your message, the overwhelming majority will be tire kickers.)

So what's a custom shop to do? Simple: Make your promotional efforts a reflection of your business. You do that by making your presentation just as customized as the work you do. By making it, in a word, personal.

I've long advocated the use of the telephone (for qualifying purposes) and the in-person portfolio review as the most direct route to selling custom work, whether you're dealing with residential customers (end users) or design professionals. I still believe a simple, straightforward presentation to be the surest way of developing long-term client relationships. But there are a few promotional methods that can help bring qualified prospects in on the front end.

(One quick aside: You have probably noticed I am using the word "promotional" rather than "advertising." It's because I think "promotion" gives a better feel for, and better describes, the intensity that a marketing effort for a custom shop should convey. Advertising is about screaming who you are from rooftops and hoping somebody might buy. On the other hand, carefully targeted, low-key, consistent promotion leads you to viable prospects who want exactly what you offer.)

Last month I mentioned highly targeted classified advertising as one of the front-end techniques I have used successfully. Others worthy of mention are direct mail, exhibitions, referral programs, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Web sites.

Direct mail, as the name implies, is the practice of sending promotional materials by mail to prospective clients. Many shops use it successfully, but as with all marketing strategies, its success is heavily dependent upon the approach.

Just as blanketing your market with TV advertising is sure to garner a given percentage of replies, sending a mailer to everyone in your community will do the same. But the same problems remain: Who among your respondents is really qualified, and where do you find the time to weed out those who are not?

The answer, of course, is targeting. You don't send your mailer to everyone. In fact, it is often better if you don't mail it at all. A nice four-color piece with several photos and descriptions of your work won't be inexpensive to produce. Keeping this in mind as you distribute it will help you make smart choices.

You want to get your brochure into the hands of people who are either ready and able to give you business, or are connected to people who can give you business. (Say it with me: Design professionals! And of course, former and current clients.) Sending your brochure via bulk mail to every address in your area is needle-in-the-haystack stuff. Don't do it.

Furniture shows can be a good place to meet prospective clients who deserve to carry off one of your nice brochures. They can also be expensive to participate in, both in terms of the fee and the need to staff the booth.

Tempting though it may be to hire a kid to pass out brochures, is this really the person you want representing your business? The person with the best sense of what you do best, who is best able to speak persuasively with customers and understand their design challenges? Not to mention the person who can make the distinction between a true prospect and someone who will trash your brochure 20 feet from your booth?

In each case, that person is probably you. Shows are held on weekends, so while they can be very good for business, be prepared to sacrifice some (more) of your time if you go the exhibition route.

Just as current and former clients are a good choice for sending brochures to in hopes they'll pass them along to friends, a good referral program can turn them into less passive spokespeople for your business.

Incentives that might help loosen their lips in your favor include cash "finder's fees" and discounts on current or future work. Whatever you use, don't ignore the very real potential these folks offer as advocates for your business. Keep in touch with them (holiday cards and July phone calls are always smart), and don't be afraid to pick up the phone once in a while simply to ask if they have friends or relatives who might be planning projects.

Which brings us to the Web. As a repository for photos of work and information about your company, the Web is certainly a valuable tool. The trick lies in getting people to visit your site.

We all like to think, after our site is up and ready for visitors, that everyone we tell will flock to it and check it out. Doesn't happen. Like everything else in the kind of promotion we are doing, drawing Web site visitors takes personal attention.

For starters, make it a regular practice to get your clients' e-mail addresses. Then, when you open or add new project photos to your site, send them a notice. "Look at the cool job we just finished," followed by a link to your site and your signature is all it takes; the shorter and less "advertisey" it sounds, the better.

Also, if you haven't done it already, put your URL on your business cards (and, of course, any other printed literature you produce).

But whatever you do, whether we are talking about the Web or some other promotional vehicle, don't expect people to come to you. It's up to you to find them, and that means being direct - and personal.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.