I admit that I was a bona fide unprofessional when I started in business for myself. Over the years, I had to be told many aspects of professionalism; others I learned the hard way. Actually, I've learned much by observing other business people and how they ran their businesses and how they treated me.
TAKE THE JOB SERIOUSLY
When you decide to go into business and stop treating what you do as a hobby, it is time to get serious. You may not be aware of it, but from the first time you receive payment for a job, you have added three weighty responsibilities:
1. The need to satisfy the customer.
2. The need to make a profit.
3. The need to be a credit to the industry.
Trying to keep these in balance is a heavy load! How you handle it could make you or break you.
A professional will tackle this challenge with the same ammunition she uses to successfully manage her business: she will know the numbers! That means you must know your gross sales, overhead, profit and the relationship of each of these to all the others.
As a workroom a big part of what you sell is labor. You must know the time it takes to produce every product you offer. And you must pay yourself a fair salary for your knowledge and abilities. Determining the numbers is homework that must be done over and over again, like an athlete in training, to achieve greater and greater success.
A professional is very knowledgeable and educated in her industry. Continuing with your education and staying current with industry resources is of prime importance. As a workroom professional subscribe to and read trade publications, attend trade shows and seminars, read books, attend industry schools and be connected to the Internet and participate in at least one of the chat rooms or e-mail lists.
Join the Window Coverings Association of America (WCAA), our national trade association, because it is known that successful businesses belong to their trade associations and unsuccessful businesses do not.
As you acquire certificates of achievement and honors, display these accomplishments for your clients to see. This is done to inform your clients about the high-caliber of business they are dealing with and to let them know your workroom is staying educated to deliver the latest and best service and quality.
A professional operates a legal business that is licensed and insured. The professional workroom would investigate and satisfy all government requirements for operating a business.
Insurance is a must. As a workroom, you have equipment and fabric that can be quite costly as well as other merchandise on the premises that must be insured against loss. You also need to insure yourself for accidents your customers might have in your workroom or for which you might cause in someone else's home or business.
In this age of litigation, it is a major risk to be uninsured! In fact, many designers and stores that subcontract to workrooms insist that they show proof of liability insurance before they will consider working with them.
A professional knows that before she can sell a product she first must sell herself to the customer. You must recognize the significance of a customer's first impression and the importance of building a good relationship based on sincere interest in your client.
In addition to always being appropriately and neatly dressed, you must be conscious of your personality and mannerisms toward your clients. Be considerate, courteous and enthusiastic and really listen to what your client is saying. Be confident and assertive but not aggressive. Your clients are depending on you to solve their problems, wants and needs. They want to trust you to do that, and your confidence will reassure them you are capable of handling their needs.
I've just said that a professional is concerned about first impressions, and in most cases the telephone is the vehicle by which that initial impression is made. A professional answers her phone with a smile on her face (Yes, you can hear that!) and with the name of her business and her name.
That last part is so important! If you or any member of your family answers the phone with "Hello" or anything other than a business greeting, you have just told that customer you don't take your business seriously-and neither will they. If customers don't take you seriously they won't be willing to pay you what you are worth because they don't perceive you as a serious business.
Please, don't allow children to answer your business phone. Have a separate number for your business. It is now possible to have one phone line with two numbers so it doesn't have to be an expensive proposition to have a designated business line.
While you are at it, be sure you have a messaging system for when you aren't available to answer the phone. There are very inexpensive answering machines, beepers, phone company voice mail services and professional answering services. As we go into the next millennium, people will be more and more pressed for time. Having to call you back because you don't have a messaging service wastes their time and they just might not bother trying again. Have your answering message ask for the best times to return their calls and return calls promptly. Professionals care about making communication as easy as possible for callers.
PROFESSIONAL TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT
When you look for visible evidence that a person is a professional, look at the tools used to operate the business. Of course, a professional has a business card with her at all times, but she also might have a professionally done brochure or even a newsletter. The key here is that these items must look nice and not look homemade because their appearance will reflect the quality of your work.
As a conscientious professional, you will use preprinted forms for everything including work orders, measuring sheets, estimating sheets and contracts. This not only makes a good impression on observers, but helps you avoid mistakes. An attorney-approved contract with specific terms and conditions is probably the best investment you ever can make. It is a wise decision for a workroom to establish terms and conditions and require its designers, decorators or stores to sign a contract.
Along with forms, a computer and fax machine are essential for any business. They are quick and efficient communication tools. The computer offers accounting maintenance, professional forms, the ability to order supplies around the clock, estimating capability, research ability and networking opportunities via chat rooms and e-mail lists. If you aren't computerized and on-line yet, you better start making plans for it ASAP!
Beyond the office and into the workroom, you must have industrial sewing machines and any special tools that make fabrication easier and faster. These machines also will enable you to produce higher quality products.
It is easy to start a workroom business with a domestic sewing machine, but if you are serious about running a business, you must invest in industrial equipment as soon as possible. You wouldn't have confidence in a carpenter who only had a hammer, a handsaw and a drill that predates electricity and batteries! If you had to pay him by the hour, imagine how much extra time he would take because he didn't have the proper updated, efficient equipment! Anyone who goes into business must expect to invest in the proper tools and equipment. That should be a given!
AN INVITING ENVIRONMENT
The office and working environment of a professional is clean, organized and comfortable. Just imagine how you would feel walking out of a Nordstrom's department store, then entering a bargain store with piled up bins of merchandise spilling onto the floor.
Your workroom is essential to your business and the service you are offering. If it is disorganized and in need of cleaning, clients will have second thoughts. Clients can't help but envision poor quality coming out of such a workroom and will expect poor customer service as their work gets buried in the disarray. Just remember, the more you look like Nordstrom's, the closer your prices can be to theirs!
Yes, it matters! A professional will abide by deep, moral beliefs and take responsibility for her actions. A professional's convictions of her own value will enable her to ask a fair price for her knowledge, abilities and services, and she will not be afraid to lose customers who cannot afford her.
To fuel this value, it is important to keep promises. As a workroom, don't promise work unless you are certain you can deliver on time! If you can't meet the requirements, learn to say "No" and decline the job. Pay attention to the details and be sure the jobs are correct before delivery. If your clients don't trust you, they will quickly turn to another workroom that will be dependable.
Be sure to own up to your own mistakes and correct them or any other problems as soon as possible. And don't forget to thank your clients for their business on a regular basis before, during and after a job. If not for them, you might be bagging fries at your local hamburger chain!
KEEP FAMILY AND BUSINESS APART
Separate business from family and personal life. Although it may be difficult at times, a professional can separate business obligations from family time and responsibilities. If you are working out of your home, learn to put yourself into a business mindset when you go into your office or workroom and to get out of it when you come out. When you go to work, put on an apron or a smock and sign in and out just as you would if you worked for someone else.
For many in the workroom business, you started in your home to be near your children, which is a blessing. However, your children should not be present when your customers are there, and especially not if there is any chance they might take away from the time and attention you give to your client. When your clients are with you, they expect to be the focus of your attention. If your children are distracting you, the chances for mistakes increase and you waste your client's time.
To help you conquer this challenge, set specific business hours that work around your children, or make client visits by appointment only. As your children get older, teach them as well as other family members and friends to respect your business and to contact you only outside of your business hours, barring an emergency of course. And, more importantly, plan time to be with your family and away from business!
PLAN REST TIME
As much as a professional may enjoy her work, she will make rest a part of her routine. It is important to get a good night's sleep every night and to take time off to re-energize.
If you worked for someone else, you probably would have two days off per week and vacation time. Lack of sufficient rest causes mistakes that cost money and sometimes destroy a reputation.
GIVE SOME BACK
A professional is generous with her blessings and rewards. Although professionals work hard to achieve what they have, they sincerely want to help others. It's their way of saying thank you to the universe for allowing them the opportunity for personal growth and achievement and to experience that tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
Giving back may be in the form of donations to worthy causes, volunteer work or mentoring others within the industry or elsewhere. Professionals are fully aware that the more they give and share, the more they will receive in return. As a workroom, give and share with your competition, your clients, your suppliers and others in the industry as well as within your community.
As a professional, you are no longer just creating pretty things at your leisure, you now are in training to meet the competition! The more professionalism you exhibit, the stronger your business will become. If you are not willing to roll up your sleeves, sacrifice and train for excellence, then perhaps you should continue to enjoy sewing as a hobby without pay. But if you are truly serious about your business, work on your business savvy and reap the great rewards professionalism has to offer.
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.