I want to share a little story with you. This morning I had the misfortune of having some dental work done. In the past, I had fabricated treatments for a designer my dentist used. He asked me if I was still sewing draperies. I answered, "No, I'm now a business consultant to the companies that fabricate and sell the window coverings, and I'm on the board of our national window coverings association."
His response was, "I had no idea there was such an industry!"
Pretty sad isn't it that other professionals don't even consider window coverings an industry? I would have shaken my head in despair if I could have.
As the dentist continued working on my teeth, I mulled over what he had said. Why are we not even acknowledged as an industry, much less respected as professionals? I had to conclude that we just don't act like professionals. Our history is of not running our businesses like professionals.
In her letter, Sheila pointed out many of our errant ways, and when I say "our" I mean workrooms, installers and designers. This article specifically addresses some of those issues. I appreciate Sheila taking the time to write her letter, and I hope she will forgive me if our opinions differ a bit in some areas.
RISK AND RESPONSIBILITY
As a business owner, you accept the risk that you or your employees could and, in fact, are likely to make some mistakes. As a moral person, you accept the responsibility of correcting your mistakes and making them right.
The problem of accepting this liability probably was inherited from our predecessors. I don't mean to offend, but for most of the past century the one-person business operating out of his or her home did not have the business knowledge to understand risk and responsibility. Those owners could be pressured by a stronger personality into accepting mistakes that were not their responsibility, and they would pay for them if they involved labor and not the actual exchange of money. This is still happening, but not to the same degree.
Problems result because there is no definition of who is accountable for what. A business has to communicate with customers and subcontractors and there is always a risk of a misunderstanding as well as mistakes. Unfortu-nately, the society in which we now live is prone to automatically blame the other party for all the problems. The only way around this is to have a written contract with terms and conditions specifying in detail who is and is not responsible for what and who pays the cost of mistakes. The cost of mistakes needs to be defined because all or part of a mistake may be considered a liability by the errant party. Contracts, terms and conditions are a necessary part of any professional business. (See D&WC, July 1995, page 50; August 1995, page 52.)
If a workroom makes a mistake, then the workroom should pay for the mistake—completely. If the workroom accepts the responsibility of estimating a job and underestimates the amount of fabric needed, then the workroom should pay for the extra fabric. It is not fair or a good business practice to ask the designer or her client to pay when they had nothing to do with making the mistake. If the workroom does not want or cannot afford the risk involved in estimating, then it should not offer that service.
What about fabrication mistakes? It doesn't matter if the mistake is on its own fabric or C.O.M. fabric, it is the workroom's responsibility to pay for the fabric and the labor if it made the mistake. Suppose I buy a unique faucet set for my sink and pay a plumber to install it. If he breaks it, you better believe I would expect him to replace it at his cost. There is no difference.
Did I ever have to do what I just said? Yes, indeed I did!
This is an issue of the business owner taking control of his or her business and setting the terms and conditions. Yes, we're talking about being professional and having a contract.
Many installers believe the designer should be present during installations. The company who installs a job, whether it is the workroom with its own employee or a subcontractor, should have a written contract with the designer specifying that he or she be present at the installation. The contract also should specify that the installer will absorb any cost that is caused by his mistake.
If it is the designer's mistake or if it requires a redesign—anything not covered in the initial proposal—then the designer absorbs the cost and will pay the installer to return if necessary. The contract also should stipulate that in the designer's absence, the installer accepts no liability for any errors or problems created by that absence.
If a workroom subcontracts an installer, then it needs a contract with the installer and with the designer to spell out all these details. By the way, if a workroom mistake causes the installer to make an extra trip, the workroom should pay for that. On the other hand, if the designer's mistake causes work to be redone by the workroom, then the designer must pay the cost of the rework and any additional installation fees.
INSTALLERS, WORKROOMS TAKE THE RISK
Installers and workrooms are window covering specialists. Yes, they do take risks, but their prices should reflect that risk—it comes with the job. But to an extent, they have a choice as to how much risk they are willing to accept. Installers, for example, may decide to install only and not measure. Workrooms may refuse to measure, estimate or install. There are some choices.
It's true that many designers do not want to know any more about window treatments than is necessary. In their defense, they are educated in a lot of different areas that are constantly changing. It's understandable that they might not want to learn yet another field. If I hire a contractor to build an addition to my house, I do not need to learn how he's going to do it. I don't have time to learn everything about it. I leave it up to him to decide how many two-by-fours and how many nails and screws he needs. He is the specialist. Yes, he may need to educate me a little bit about what he's going to do, but I don't need or want to know a whole lot more.
On the other hand, because designers don't have the window covering education, they should respect and willingly pay the price for the specialists who have the education and experience and are the ones taking the risk. However, it is up to workrooms and installers to control and handle their businesses professionally. They must display confidence, require the proper liability coverage (contracts) and demand the prices such risk, education and expertise should require. It also helps to explain their credentials to their designers and what it took to achieve them!
PROFIT, OVERHEAD TO THE RESCUE
We've talked a lot about paying for mistakes. Where does that money come from? It is either projected into the business's yearly overhead or it comes out of the profit. The risks we've been discussing are a major reason for planning a comfortable profit margin because even a padded overhead projection might not cover all the costs.
Covering your risk of mistakes is no different than retail stores charging higher prices to cover losses from shoplifters. Mistakes and shoplifters are a cost of doing business.
TIME IS MONEY
Workrooms and installers are selling time. They must be paid for their time whether it's spent fabricating a swag or calculating an estimate. Anything that costs them time must be paid for and paid for immediately upon completion. Do you think you could take your car out of the repair shop without first paying the mechanic for all his time and the parts invested in the repair?
The terms and conditions in a workroom's contract with designers should stipulate all extra charges: estimating, revision to work orders, overtime, extra fast delivery, etc. Some workrooms have two wholesale price lists, one for designers who do their own estimating and a higher one for those who depend on the workroom to assume the risk and do the estimates.
Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself and charge what you need to charge. As a custom workroom, you and your employees are much more educated and knowledgeable than the made-to-measure workrooms that do nothing but serge all day, every day. Designers will complain to you about prices because they can look you in the eye and hope you back down. Do you think they call their fabric companies and complain every six months when their prices go up?
Workrooms must charge what they need to charge without gouging. Let the designer worry about how much she can mark it up. I like Sheila's suggestion in her letter that designers should discount the fabric instead of the labor, but she could also sell a cheaper fabric and forget the trim.
The continual disagreement between designers and workrooms over prices is because of two reasons:
1. Our predecessors did not charge enough for what they did. Sewing was not looked upon as anything special because all women could sew and sewing was not considered a lucrative career option.
2. Today's serious workrooms are far more educated and experienced than workrooms of 10 years ago. And there is a serious shortage of sewers because sewing is no longer taught in schools.
If 10, 15 or 20 years ago workrooms had charged what they should have and regularly raised their prices to reflect their experiences and education, we rarely would have problems with pricing issues today. Designers would be used to our prices because they would be set at what they ought to be or close to it.
If the designer pays a workroom $10 per width today and tomorrow another workroom wants $20 per width, she's going to want to know why and you can't blame her. So tell her. Explain to her why you deserve the prices you ask. If you have to, take a self-assertiveness class.
Workrooms do not have four-year college programs followed by post-graduate strudies. Anyone with those degrees gets paid more in the business world. In reality those degrees are just titles indicating more education. As workrooms become more educated, they deserve and should get more money. Maybe they don't have a title, but it's the workroom's education that is going to make a designer shine in front of a customer and that's what it's all about.
Whether you are a designer, workroom or installer, if you are not serious about being in business and making a profit, then give it away as a hobby. Low prices adversely effect the whole industry. Even one person's low prices can hurt the window coverings industry in a whole area. Believe me, I see it happening.
Break the history mold! Be professional. Price your services professionally and run your business professionally so everybody knows there is a serious window coverings industry out there.
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.