Webster's New World[TM] dictionary defines the word communicate in two ways: First, to give or exchange information. Second, to have a meaningful relationship. Most of us probably never think about the second meaning, but in reality a relationship of commitment and understanding must be present to have successful communication.
When a workroom interacts with its clients, it is establishing and building a meaningful relationship. It must let them know it not only is interested in their money, but is genuinely interested in them and in helping them make their businesses succeed. This is done by effective communication.
When someone comes into your presence, the very first form of communication is body language. Just by watching someone walk into a room, you can tell if they are having a good day.
Pay attention not only to the body language you are projecting, but to that of your client as well. If you can try to understand and empathize with what the client is going through at that moment, you will make great progress in establishing rapport with her or him.
One of the best ways of doing this actually is to mimic the person's body language and speech patterns. This may sound strange because you might be afraid that he would think you were mocking him and resent it. However, he is his favorite person and if you are behaving the same way he is, he can't help but like you. (For more information on this subject, listen to Anthony Robbins' tape "Unlimited Power".)
Talking with your client must accomplish many things. The first is to convey a feeling of sincerity, honesty and professionalism through the manner in which you speak. This means using correct English without using certain four-letter words. I recently had a gentleman confide to me that he was very offended by the profanity of the businessperson with whom he was negotiating.
Be as clear as you can in all discussions. If you are working out the details of fabrication for a job, draw it out on paper if you must. One of the best tools for clarifying information is to repeat the other person's statements back to her in your own words. Ask as many questions as is necessary for you to know exactly what your client wants. If there is any doubt in your mind, do not proceed until it is totally cleared up. Believe me, you never want to know the humbling feeling of stupidity after making up a treatment that was not what the client wanted.
When discussing specific details with clients, be sure you are using the same name for the same treatment. Be especially careful if your client is not native to the United States. The British and the American names for objects are sometimes opposite. The shade we call a balloon, the English call an Austrian. This is when pictures can be worth their weight in gold.
Once I had a prospective client tell me that she didn't want her workroom to bother her with details. I stopped her right there and explained that I asked a lot of questions and was known for doing so. It was my intention to do everything I could to get the job right the first time.
One of the best ways to build your client's confidence and trust in you is to give them delivery dates and deliver on time! Now, many workrooms don't give out specific dates, but have a consistent, dependable turnover time. If they tell a client four weeks, the client knows he can schedule installation the fifth week. However, if you see that turnover time extending beyond the norm or the date you quoted, you must tell your client immediately. A last-minute surprise might mean the last order you'll get from that client.
I had a conversation with a designer who was very unhappy with her workroom's behavior, which seemed to be getting worse. The workroom's turnover time had been extended an extra week or more, but the workroom had not bothered to forewarn the designer. This delay made the designer look bad to her client because she couldn't keep her promise on the delivery date. The designer needed advance notice of the change in delivery date in order to arrange her schedule and set up the installation.
On top of this problem, the workroom's quality was suffering because of the extra stress of trying to put out more than its capability. It was really annoying the designer and undermining her faith in this workroom knowing her order had just come off the machines minutes before she picked it up.
This scenario had become the norm. It does not represent good customer service. We all know that accidents can happen at the last minute. But having jobs done a day or two prior to pickup not only is insurance for the workroom that the job will be ready by the delivery date, but it tells designers you care about them, that you are doing everything you can to see they get jobs on time. Remember, designers observe and listen to what you do and say in terms of how it's going to affect them.
It is so important to know your working capacity, to be honest and keep your client informed. Within a week of when you receive an order, you should be able to tell your customer when to pick it up. Within that schedule should be that extra day or two of padding.
Workrooms are petrified with the fear of losing a client if they can't get the work completed when the client wants it. I suspect that saying "Yes" to the impossible has lost more clients than saying "No" ever could. Clients will respect you and continue to trust you if you are honest and keep them informed. If denying a requested delivery date is a rarity for your workroom, you shouldn't have many problems. Even if a client has to try another workroom temporarily, they will be back.
Of course you must have established a good rapport with the client and maintain your high quality and outstanding service to them beforehand. However, if inability to meet deadlines becomes habitual, you should rethink your business plan. Decide if you want to grow or downsize your client list.
Keeping your client informed with reliable timely information is good communication and good customer service!
Using written contracts will be an added incentive for the client to take time with you to go over your rules. This procedure gives you the opportunity to explain how all the requirements are ultimately for the client's benefit¬to ensure timely, quality and accurate products that translate into successful jobs and happy customers for them. When a client must sign a contract, they are more likely to take your rules seriously and honor them.
Above all, be realistic and honest in what you say to your clients. Inform them immediately of any changes in your procedures, turnover time or anything else that may affect them. Basically, put yourself in their shoes and understand how important it is for them to be able to depend on you.
Do everything you can to help them deal honestly and fairly with their customers and to present their customers with good quality products. If you can establish and nurture a meaningful relationship that makes them look good to their customers, they are not likely to leave you.
Kitty Stein is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 16 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.