No matter who the customer is, or in what industry you work, there are a few undesirables mixed in with the good ones. However, in far too many cases poor relationships with designers have very little to do with the designers. I do not mean to let the bad apples off the hook, but the problem is more in how the workroom handles the relationship.
Before you ever meet with your first designer, you must prepare yourself and your workroom business to handle this type of account. Here's how:
You must have confidence in yourself and it must show. Do everything you can to build your confidence. The best way to do it is with education. Read the trade magazines, attend shows, read books, attend the Professional Drapery Workroom School and other schools, courses and seminars available for workrooms, and get involved in the e-mail lists and forums on the Internet. The amount of education available through the Internet is phenomenal, in some cases you can have a question answered in a matter of hours.
Of course, the longer you are in the window treatment fabrication business getting that hands-on education, the more knowledgeable, skilled and confident you become.
If you have been in business for a while and you have been engaging in regular educational activities, you are far more knowledgeable about window treatments than the majority of designers out there. For some reason the technicalities of window treatments are not taught in interior design schools. So, through no fault of their own, designers are on their own to learn about this industry. As the fabricator or installer you are the one designers look to for information.
The workroom usually knows what can, cannot or should not be done. Don't be afraid to be forthright and firm in your opinions. If you have doubts about the feasibility of a project don't be shy about rejecting it.
Another reason you might want to refuse a job is if the quality requested by the designer is not up to your standards. The success of the treatment is on your shoulders. The more you voice your knowledge and adherence to quality standards, the more your confidence will show and the more designers will respect and honor your authority.
CONDITIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS
In almost any catalogue for any company you will find the Terms & Conditions, i.e. rules and guidelines that are established to inform you how to do business with them. You are in the business of providing custom treatments so there are many more areas that must be covered in this document.
Your terms and conditions should cover the needs you have to make your business work profitably, efficiently and as stress-free as possible. Include anything you can think of that would incur an extra fee, e.g. consultation, specialty fabrics, working with sheets, etc. Also include such things as a stipulation that you have a sub-contract relationship with the designer and not the designer's customer. It is the designer who pays you, not his or her customer. Cover your terms of payment and whether you extend credit.
Many, many areas need to be clarified in this document. The point here is to establish that you do not give away your time and labor and to determine who is responsible for what. It also is important to sit down with each designer and go over these points so you know he or she understands them. The more detail and clarification you include in your Terms & Conditions, the better the communication will be with your designers.
CONTROL, CONTROL, CONTROL!
Let me repeat that. Control, control, control! You are the only one who knows the best procedures to make your business run as smoothly as possible and to get quality work done as efficiently as possible. Designers have no right to tell you how to run your business.
Designers also have no right to calculate yardages by any method other than according to your instructions. If you hired a contractor to build your house, would you tell him how much lumber to order? No, you wouldn't have any idea how he was going to build your house. Designers don't have any idea what methods of fabrication you use. Even if they have sewing and fabrication knowledge, it doesn't mean they can tell a workroom how to fabricate or how much yardage is needed. There are many ways to make window treatments.
As a professional fabricator you have established the methods that work best for your situation and for most of your customers. When my clients disagree with the yardage I require, I tell them it is my job to produce a quality product in a minimal amount of time to meet their deadlines and this is what I need to do it.
As previously discussed, you must establish rules for running your business and it is up to you to enforce these rules. Designers are human, just like you and me. If you allow them to get away with something one time, they (and we) will continue to do so. There is a fine line between doing them a favor once and allowing something to happen habitually. Believe me, it does not take long for any of us to fall into bad habits and expectations, and we all have poor memories for what the rules were suppose to be.
I would like to insert here that I do not mean you can't change your fabrication procedures when a client asks. However, charge an alternative fabrication fee every time you are asked to make something differently than the way you normally would. Whenever you do something other than what you are used to it usually takes more time and in too many cases presents time-consuming situations you did not foresee. Start with a minimum charge. I charge by the hour for the extra time it takes me to do it their way. I control the situation. You must control your business. If you don't, they will because somebody has to in order to get anything done.
Signing a contract is an excellent way to seal your communication. This is done to designate responsibility, to ensure all details are understood and, of course, to ensure adherence to the rules.
You can use a contract as a one-time agreement. Sit down with the designer at the beginning before any orders are discussed and go over all your terms and conditions. You may even want to include a statement that should any work which you fabricate be published in any form, your business must receive credit. Such a statement indicates you have been published before, which increases the value of your skills. The contract, which includes the terms and conditions, is signed at that time and no further contracts are used except in special circumstances.
You also could establish that every work order is a signed contract. This is especially good when the workroom does all the estimating.
Contracts are used as a safety net and are becoming more necessary in this age of litigation. A wise businessperson will have an attorney approve any contract to verify the legality of the wording. The assurance that a contract will withstand the courtroom test is excellent insurance.
Have a price list ready to present to designers. Charge a price that is fair to you and to the designers. The price you charge designers should be a wholesale price, but it should be a price on which you can make a living. If you also sell retail, mark up the wholesale price to get your retail price. That's what your designers will do.
If you are new in fabrication, your skills and knowledge are not worth the same as someone who has been doing it for five, 10 or more years. Your value will increase much more rapidly with continual education.
Remember that your time is valuable, whether it's being used for fabrication, consulting with the designer, going out to measure or anything that requires your skill and knowledge, and you should charge for it. If you make it a habit to charge for your time, then you won't be expected to give it away. When you give away your time, you are robbing yourself, just as if a thief had stolen money out of your cash register.
Some interior designers charge for everything they do for their clients right down to the long distance telephone calls and shipping charges! Designers charge for their time, their expenses and their expertise, and in that respect you are no different.
It takes new businesses, regardless of the industry, three to five years to get on their feet. In that period of time, you should be able to get to the point of making a comfortable living-a living that could support you if necessary.
It is so important to establish your state of mind and business procedures before you approach designers. This is one area where it is important to expose yourself to as much advance education as possible. It will give you a firm foundation upon which to build a successful wholesale business.
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.