Image means everything in our business

j_ulreichClean work clothes, a well-maintained shop and courteous employees will keep customers coming back time and again

You only get one chance to make a first impression, so that image should be a memorable one. It could make a difference whether you land a job, get a promotion, or even win a bid on a project - even if your quote is higher than the competition.

Considering the current economic tide, unless your business is flat-out booming and you're turning away jobs because of your heavy workload, you can't be complacent in your approach to "bringing home the bacon." Even then, the competition will always be looking for an edge to overtake all those who stand in their way. It all harbors on the customer's initial perception of you and, taking a step farther, your place of business, your employees and their attitude.

As the owner or manager, more often than not you're the front-line person who customers will see or hear first. Whether it's someone coming into your shop for the first time, a scheduled outside appointment to quote a residential or commercial project, or just picking up the phone to begin that important contact to let the world know you exist, you have to appear sharp. And yes, you can sound sharp over the phone, too. Be friendly, be knowledgeable and, above all, show your concern for their needs and offer solutions to their particular circumstances.

Dress for success

Despite your work clothes, you can - and should - look clean-cut. You could wear an impeccable three-piece suit and still look unapproachable if you're unshaven, your hair is a mess, you don't smell like a rose, or you simply have an apathetic attitude. You will stand out a mile away and keep potential customers at the same distance. There's no advocacy here for a coat and tie at all times - after all, you are a woodworker. But if you're headed for an outside appointment, look the part and come across as the best person to do business with.

Make sure you're cleaned up. Nobody wants you in their house or place of business if you're trailing a cloud of dust and your hair is speckled with wood chips. Not unlike the person "dressed to the nines," it won't mean a thing unless you have the complementary attitude of friendliness, genuine concern for your customers' needs, and knowledge of yourself and your abilities. And don't forget to bring a portfolio. Showing pride in your work can add to the image of forthcoming work and your business acumen.

The same can be said for telephone contact, where listening is as important as selling yourself. Sounding sharp over the phone isn't an exaggeration; sit up straight to make the call (or stand up) and project yourself as if you're talking face-to-face. You can't see it, but if you slouch or get distracted, your customer will notice immediately and that first impression will shoot you down every time. Your customers' time is valuable, too, so develop a rapport and listen to what he or she has to say. Take the time to note what you spoke about so during the next conversation you will have some common ground and indicate you were truly listening. It's a natural human trait to really appreciate someone who has their best interests in mind and is genuinely concerned about them. Nothing turns off a customer more than the appearance that they're just another name on a list for you to try to generate your income. If you start off on the right foot, your follow-up calls will not go unanswered.

Get out the broom

Now, about your shop. Is it a place you'd be eager to have a potential customer walk into unannounced, or a potential employee? A visitor will expect to see some sawdust and scrap wood, but there should never be so much that you're swimming in it. If your shop is a mess, might the same hold true for the way you conduct business, for the condition of your vehicle and, more importantly, the quality of your work? It's a direct reflection on you, and nothing beats word of mouth to promote your cause.

You want a positive reaction from someone seeing it for the first time, which will create a domino effect of thinking in their mind - a well-kept shop equals an organized person, business and end product. People see that and they're more than likely to tell their friends about it, perpetuating the positive domino effect. This now becomes a secondary first impression, not any less important than the initial one, which can pan out exponentially to your benefit.

Your shop can be neat as a pin but, continuing the organizational theme, you need to concentrate your efforts on the expeditious flow of material through your shop. A customer might not recognize this (don't assume they all won't, either), but if you're looking to employ good help, it will be beneficial to point out to a potential candidate your organized and efficiently run shop. If they're happy with what they see, then they can create a positive image of a good and productive place to work; they're more than likely to act as a recruitment tool for you as well. From this, they can also deduce the type of manager they'll possibly be working for.

Also, keep in mind this first impression directly relates to you as the owner or manager. You enter your workplace and view it anew each day. Is it what you want to see on a daily basis? You should be anxious to come to work and get the day rolling, knowing that your domain is what you expect it to look like even before you unlock the door. If not, make the changes that will enhance the look for you, as well as everyone who walks through your door.

Don't forget who else enters that same door on a daily basis - your employees. They should be just as enthusiastic as you to come to work every day, whether it's the workers in the shop or the office. Sure it's a business, but they have feelings, too, and want a comfortable atmosphere to apply their trade and feel productive.

Beyond the shop

If you have the luxury of an office staff or if "one of the guys" happens to be the one to greet a customer at the door, make sure they know to be personable, and have the ability to direct them to the person they need to speak with. They're the front line of your business and if you're not there to conduct the initial introduction, you better make sure they'll be representing the company in an appropriate manner that reflects you and the image you want to project.

As for your crew of installers, there should be a designated foreman to conduct any communication with the customer on-site. Simple questions can be answered by any of the crew, but if it involves a decision to be made or an in-depth inquiry by the customer, the lead person must be the one to conduct the conversation. Again, this shows good business sense and organization and will promote a good feeling toward the customer, which will validate their decision to work with your company in the first place.

A job done well by a professional staff will do wonders to promote your company. It's a lot easier and less expensive to retain customers than it is to gain new ones; that's just good business sense. A satisfied customer will always call you back for future projects, and they'll always tell their friends and associates about a favorable experience they had working with you. When word gets out that you're the one customers are seeking to do business with, gaining new prospects will come much easier with less effort.

Get it right the first time and it will come back to you a hundredfold.

Jeffrey Ulreich is a 20-year veteran of the woodworking industry as a machinery technician and a dust-collection designer and troubleshooter.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.