Going it alone is a common way to go in the window coverings industry. Having started as a one-woman show in the 1980s, I know just how lonely that can be.
I remember craving interaction with my peers. The only problem was that my peers more aptly were referred to as competitors. I knew about them, I just didn’t know them. Occasionally a customer would drop a tidbit of information about another decorator and I’d learn little snippets of information. But actually knowing anyone else who did what I did? Not possible.
In the absence of having buddies I could commiserate with about customer woes, supplier woes, cash flow woes, or a whole host of other woes, I turned to ancillary partners in the business. Subcontractors, vendor reps, anybody and everybody associated with this industry that would hold still and let me visit with them were my prime targets. It’s no accident that every phone receptionist, office worker or janitor knew me by voice alone. If they had a brain, I wanted to pick it.
And trying to find someone to celebrate with was even harder. Sitting at my desk all alone and counting up sales for the year I would jump up and do The Happy Dance. Happy dancing alone is not nearly as fun as group happy dancing. But too much festivity with those who don’t relate has its downside. I’ve learned the hard way not to happy dance in front of my family.
Dinner with a New Friend
A lot of the decorators and designers who use my workroom work as Lone Rangers. I was reminded of this recently when I traveled eight hours to install a big commercial job for one of our designers. As the install stretched into days and we spent more time together, I felt empathy for her.
Under normal circumstances we see her only in a business capacity, and we see her often. But to work alongside her and be reminded of just how solitary her day-to-day business life is, reminded me of that same aspect of the workroom industry.
As I worked with the installation crew on part of the project, she worked with the client to pull together and sell a huge remodel job. When I looked at her, the glowing smile on her face and her bright eyes told me immediately that it was time to celebrate. She had sold the job. We lingered over steak that evening at a local restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice that she was still buzzing from the quest.
“Selling, there’s nothing like it is there?”
Her answer, “No, there’s nothing like it, you can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t know.”
I was glad I could be there to share that with her.
Offer Products and a Bit More
As workrooms, especially wholesale workrooms, our shops become central meting places to connect within the industry. Our designers stop in for more than conveying work orders. They stop in for ideas and advice, and maybe a little venting sometimes. But mostly, I think, they stop in for fellowship. We are perhaps the closest thing to industry friends they have. Other designers are their peers, but they are competitive peers to be certain.
Our interaction with customers is a different kind of interaction. With customers you have to be on guard, on your best behavior, on target with correct answers, on budget with prices. Basically, we have to be “on.” It’s very different than the relaxed interaction we can have with others who share our experiences—with other like-minded people.
This industry has come a long way since I got started in it. Today the Internet can bring us industry friends from afar. It’s a wonderful outlet to talk to newfound friends who understand what we’re doing and what we’re going through. I laugh with some of my “friends from afar” knowing we would try to pound each other if we lived closer and worked together!
It’s kind of curious how the equation common interests + interaction + distance = friends, not competitors. To understand how hungry we are to have friends go to a conference—the next D&WC Designer & Workroom Conference is scheduled for Jacksonville, FL, next spring. You’ll see there’s enough neck hugging and late night chatter to remind you of a family reunion.
As a workroom, remember that your wholesale client may need more than craftsmanship. Provide fellowship, and even friendship, for a lasting relationship. I have to say that we have genuine affection for our designers and we strive to show it. All people crave acceptance, approval and human interaction. We try our best to provide a smidgen of that along with our products. If any of my designers are reading this article, remind me to hug your neck the next time you come in.
Mary Ann Plumlee is the owner of a retail and wholesale workroom. Starting with only $50 and a home sewing machine in 1985, her business has expanded to include a showroom, 12 employees and two locations. She firmly believes that in this business only the tough survive. Finding the humor in the everyday life of a “curtainlady” is how she not only has survived, but thrived in this industry. Plumlee is often seen traveling around the country teaching classes and seminars. She is the author of The Adventures of Curtain Lady and has launched a workroom related blog: www.workroomintelligence.com