As I write this column the stock market continues falling. World leaders are meeting at the IMF to share gory details of each nation’s downward spiral. I hope by the time you read this it is all resolved and the world is back to normal, but I doubt it will be. Everything I observe and hear tells me we have a whole new ballgame and the rules are changing. The wealthy are hit with lower investment values, the man in the street is laid off, people willing to buy struggle to get credit.
Yes, there is hope. Yes, you will survive, if you act now.
I have been making a lot of phone calls and talking to a lot of dealers and decorators. Yes, the phones are quieter, but they do still ring. Yes, appointments are off, but they do keep coming. The world has not stopped. People are still buying. There is no question, we are in for limited growth. But here is what you need to know to stay in the game.
Marketing rules have changed, and they are changing still. We all know most media is dead—newspapers, shelter magazines, yellow pages don’t work. Reread my September column, “End of an Era” (see D&WC, September 2008, page 42).
Every savvy operator is facing the facts: Only two things work to find new customers, the Internet and personal, one-to-one and one-to-many activities. Yes, past customer marketing is your first line of attack. Mail to your customers every month. Call them every quarter. If you want to survive, start there and do not be discouraged because it doesn’t seem to pay off. It will.
These are changing, too. The Internet is a moving target, but it’s one of only two things that work. Making it work takes time, money and continuous attention. It used to be easy. Spend a few dollars and put up a Web site. Then send them to it with media advertising or business cards and flyers. Sure, you want to keep that up, but the problem is, people are using local searches on Google and Yahoo instead of the yellow pages. Now, you have to be in the top 10 on the first search results page.
Early users, five years ago, used pay per click (PPC) to snare plenty of appointments—until everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Today, it still works marginally and is a necessary part of the mix, but only a part.
Next came search engine optimization (SEO) and it still is vital—be sure you have keywords in your Web pages that customers look for when they want new window products and stylings. But then Google changed their algorithms to include not just keywords, but how many links came in to the site and how many pages are active. Now it looks for changes in Web pages, it looks for blogs. Sometimes blogs come up higher than the web page itself.
What’s next? Reviews by customers may be the next big thing. Social networking with Facebook, LinkdIn, YouTube and more are absolutely part of the Internet mix to get appointments. The principle: activity and exchange, it’s what grabs attention from Internet crawlers.
The new bottom line: Getting appointments on the Internet is much more challenging than just putting money into a newspaper ad with the site’s address. It takes money plus time and expertise to get appointments from Internet search engines.
The solution? We all are still learning, but some facts are clear: Few of us have the time to become experts. Most of us don’t have the money to hire experts, and so many are Witch Doctors who do little but charge a lot. It is a mystery unfolding. The main thing for now is to keep your Web site active every week. Be sure you are listed on directories for your area.
The rules are changing here as well. If you have a major business with two to 10 decorators, or if you are a personal business owner supporting a family, how do you survive let alone grow? Media is dead. Internet is mysterious, costly and iffy. What’s left? Activities!
Personal activity is the one proven thing that still works. As I have often reported, it is the one constant in our industry. Knocking on doors, introducing yourself and building awareness person to person is the one reliable, affordable way to build a business. But, most people hate it. They simply won’t do it. That is why the industry will soon be left with fewer businesses. Those who will do it will survive.
NEW RULES FOR OWNERS
The most profound change for our industry will be a new bargain between employee decorators and the business owner. The old rules were simple: the owner gets the appointments and the decorators present products to customers. That day is gone. No business can get enough appointments from media including the Internet to keep all its decorators busy and earning survival wages.
Both owner and decorators must learn new rules. They must work together as never before. Otherwise there will be a lot fewer employee decorators. Employee decorators are the end of the food chain. If business is down and appointments are off, the owner can downsize the location and take appointments themselves to survive. But, without appointments the employee starves.
Employees must learn to overcome their fears and be pro-active generating appointments—calling past customers, joining networking groups, putting on group demonstrations, meeting realtors and engaging in other activities they have never wanted to do. It is either do this or find a good office job, and even that will be hard to find.
Owners must learn new skills: how to manage decorator activities, how to assign territories so decorators feel pride of ownership, how to provide bonus commission for business the decorator brings in that is not just a customer the business would have anyway. Everyone—owners and decorators—must learn new skills to survive in a new world with new rules.
How will we learn the rules? Who will grow? Who will fall?
Several years ago Carl Movrich and I co-founded a group of about a dozen leading retailers who collectively sell over $100 million a year. Without exception, these retailers used media to generate leads and a team of decorators to go on appointments. My experience in franchising had always been guerilla marketing, using limited media.
In the beginning this experience was not useful to the group. But, as years have gone and media advertising results dry up, personal activities have taken on new importance. These leaders found their own solutions to lead generation, some highly innovative. Most are now embracing activities by a paid PR person or working with decorators in a new way. The point: Savvy managers with decorators can find new ways to get leads in this new era.
Watch for my articles in the future to tell how to do it. The starting point is having a good heart-to-heart with your decorators to help them realize you are all in this together and every soldier must carry a gun. Everyone has to find new customers and take care of old ones. You cannot sink half a ship.
Yes, these are challenging times after 15 years of robust growth. But, tough times harden us. They bring out character. If window coverings will be your future, your passion, your lifelong commitment, as it is mine, you will take action and set plans now. Either do that or quit. Drop out. The industry doesn’t need you if you can’t learn, change and do what you must do to serve your customers.
We all have many blessings to count: loving family, good health, and being part of a wonderful industry in a great country with a strong economy—one that may hesitate briefly to teach us new skills, but will bring us growth and prosperity for the future. Change now and you surly will thrive, not just survive.
This article is based on Steven C. Bursten’s actual experience with sales and financial information working with hundreds of window coverings businesses. Bursten is co-founder and CEO of Exciting Windows! a network of experienced and aspiring window coverings professionals. He also co-founded the International Window Coverings Exchange, Window Coverings University, and WCU Online, and is the founder of Interiors by Decorating Den. Whether you are a sole operator of a personal business or manage 50 window fashions consultants, this series will help you improve sales and increase profitability. Bursten encourages questions and comments at steveb@ExcitingWindows.com