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Finding Customers

Customers come from many different paths, all of which THEY choose. You have to decide which "sales path" or paths you want to support.

Referrals

This is the best source of customers - the sale is half done before they contact you. (The referral may not want to use the same sales path as the person who recommended you, but that is another issue.) But how do you get that first customer? How do you broaden the market that you sell to? You need additional ways to find customers.

The internet - web pages

As a techie who has had a web site for decades (for technical papers long before people bought things through the web, long before I built furniture for sale) this was a logical place for me to start. I find it easy to build web pages, so I don't have to pay someone else. I don't have a shopping cart - enabling people to buy things and pay for them directly on the web, without personally contacting me (a shopping cart adds a lot of complexity, and is of limited value when selling custom furniture, but might be worth doing for other crafts.) Some say the internet is an international sales tool, but it has worked amazingly well for me, selling locally, as my advertising and catalog/gallery. Operating costs are only a few dollars per month. Here are some steps to follow to get started on the web.

Catalog

I know a professional woodworker who spends thousands of dollars each year printing full color catalogs, and many more dollars having professional pictures taken of his work, to put in the catalog (a printed catalog requires far higher picture quality than a web site). He builds beautiful furniture, and is successful. I have never had one of my customers mention his work - he has an entirely different set of customers and potential customers - people who are catalog oriented.

Designers

Most woodworkers I know hate dealing with designers... they give you a sketch and feel they have done all the design work (where is the internal structure or the material list?). They interpret the desires of the customer, and don't allow a dialogue between you and the ultimate customer. BUT, I have met a few craftsmen who have "teamed" with one or a few designers, and have a very satisfying, mutually rewarding relationship. The craftsman produces top quality work that the designer places with the appropriate customer at a price that makes everyone happy. One craftsman wouldn't tell me what he charged for something I admired - his work was exquisite, and he said he charged the designer a lot. Okay, I asked, "How much does the designer charge the customer?" "I have no idea, but she serves high end customers who don't mind paying for high quality work that is exactly what they want - I bet she charges a lot more than I charge her." Okay, some people work well with designers.

Yellow Pages

I believe that the yellow pages are something whose time has come and gone. Years ago I would jump to the yellow pages whenever I needed a skill or product, now the yellow pages just collect dust - or with the competing "yellow pages" most of them hit the recycle bin without entering the house. The web versions of the yellow pages are so useless that I ignore any search results from a directory. A few years ago a friend said he got an inquiry or two per year based on his yellow pages ad, primarily from designers. He no longer uses the yellow pages.

Craigs List, Want ads, EBay

Most people searching Craig's List are looking for a bargain, but one friend occasionally puts an ad on Craigs List, offering custom furniture, cabinets, remodeling services, etc. He admits that most of the responses are not appropriate, but he has gotten a few leads. Okay. Maybe. The free ads on Craig's List means the price is right, so you have little to lose other than your time. If you are making inexpensive craft items, this may be good, but I have less confidence when it comes to top quality custom furniture.

I looked on eBay for products similar to what I might list... to see the competition. Most items were used furniture. Some were junk. A few were valuable antiques. No way for me to distinguish between the used junk and my work. And unlike Craig's list, I have to pay (a small amount) even if it doesn't sell. But it may work for you.

Craft Fairs

You better like the experience of going to the fair, spending a day in the sun (or cold rain) chatting with people, etc. If you make items that sell for $5 or $10, this may be a viable sales path, and at that price you have a chance of selling a volume. I know someone who makes wooden bowls, sells lots of cheaper wooden bowls, but has to display the $100 bowls at dozens of different fairs before they sell (this craftsman uses the fairs to encourage customers to visit his web site, where they can have more time to make a $100 purchase decision). I talked to someone at a fair who was offering beautiful bowls that probably took over a week to make - he hadn't sold any for $250, and lamented everyone thought they were too expensive. (I think his work could have sold for $500 in a gallery, but it wasn't selling at a craft fair where $20 was a large purchase).

Charity Auctions

It won't take long before a charity will approach you to donate a piece of whatever you do, for them to sell at an auction. Yes, there will be a lot of relatively wealthy people looking at your work. No, the charity will not share the proceeds with you... they expect to keep all the money your item brings. But the people looking at the donated items aren't thinking about how the person who made this little end table may be a good craftsman to make their new dining room table, or even their new coffee table. They are busy looking at the next item, and the next. And the person soliciting for the charity will probably tell you about the great advertising you will get, and the tax advantage of making a contribution. I bet that person isn't a tax accountant - all you can deduct is the amount you paid for the materials, not the value it sells for. I encourage you to be charitable, but this isn't a big sales opportunity. I did hear about one artist who talked the charity into providing the names and addresses of all the people who bid on his little sculpture; after the auction he approached them to see if they would buy a similar piece at a price less than they bid (since the bid included a charitable component).

Galleries

If you want to make something to a customer's custom requirements, you should deal with the customer directly. A gallery adds little value if they just hand out your business card. But if you want to make something of your design rather than what a customer wants, and then sell it, you need a display space, and someone to promote it to customers, and demonstrate it, and dust it. You need to find a gallery with customer traffic consistent with your product. A tourist from a cruise ship isn't likely to buy a beautiful bedroom set, but might buy a pen or small bowl made from local materials. The shop between Tiffany's and Sacks Fifth Avenue isn't likely to want to waste display space on a $5 wooden cross, no matter how nice. Selling through a gallery is expensive, but they provide a lot of service. If you think you can do it cheaper, start a gallery! When you consider the cost of the retail space and staff and insurance and utilities and the services they provide, their costs will seem more reasonable.

Sales Path

Once you have found a potential customer, whether by referral, web, advertising, or even dealing through a third party such as designers or galleries, how do you deal with that customer (or the customer's representative)?

E-mail

As a geek (I almost said ex-geek, but that wouldn't be honest), my strong preference is to work by email. I check mail multiple times per day (in part to get to sit down occasionally for a few minutes). It allows me to work with customers on my schedule - starting something complex in the shop (like a glue-up) seems to trigger the phone to ring. I have received emails that potential customers have obviously struggled to send... that only say "please call me." Obviously I need to deal with them by phone, and accept that using emails for questions and status may not be satisfactory (some folks only check their email once per week... or less). Sometimes a prospect's discomfort with email will tip the scale on how much effort I spend to win the customer...if the probability of a sale seems low anyway, I may be slow to open other paths; if the work looks interesting, I can choose to meet their communications needs.

Telephone

Some customers strongly prefer working by telephone. Okay, but their calls always seem to come when I am busy (hopefully because I am busy much of the time). Sure, the voice mail can answer, but then I am calling back when the customer has moved on to something else - they wanted to talk to me a half-hour ago. I know one woodworker who lets ALL his calls go to voice mail - I find it very irritating to call him. His work must be good, because his customers must be similarly irritated, but they keep calling - his business is growing. I know another woodworker whose web site is weak and he doesn't return phone calls promptly, and he wonders when he will be able to give up his "day job."

For years I had an "800" number - you pay a couple dollars per month, plus a relatively high per-minute charge (maybe 25 cents per minute) for the calls, and it rings at your regular phone. That was a nice idea when long distance was expensive, my son was in college, I was on the road and calling home a lot (it was cheaper than hotel phone rates), but today most people have cell phones with "free" long distance. Many people only have a cell phone (no land line), and don't bother to change their phone numbers when they move, so returning a "local" call often appears to be a call across the country. Long distance charges are no longer an issue. I no longer recommend having an 800 number.

Visits

When I first started building custom furniture, I was quick to offer to visit. I found that his can take a huge amount of time, and the chance of a sale from your visit was surprisingly small. Too often they want a free quote, then reply, "But Home Depot (or Ikea or whatever) is a lot cheaper." Now I offer to visit, only if necessary, as a "last step" in the design and sale process - to confirm dimensions and pick up the deposit. Or a preliminary visit has a $50 minimum charge for a house call (or $2 per one-way mileage if they are farther away), plus the design fee collected before I start the design and give a final quote.

Since I am a nice guy, I can't imagine why anyone would be afraid of me, but I finally recognized that some visits were scheduled when multiple people would be home and the neighbors around. Be sure to have a friendly picture and a little bit of personal history, on your web site or in your catalog, to reassure people. For that personal introduction, don't show a picture of your grandchild, your dog, your shop, or your first project. They not only want to feel safe with you, but confident about giving you thousands of dollars as a deposit towards something you will make for them in the future.

My shop is small - in my garage - but I have equipment that is impressive even to non-woodworkers. Therefore I often invite prospects to visit my shop and meet me. I don't operate any equipment while they are there - this is not a training session, and I don't want to get into safety issues. If you have hobby-type equipment in your basement, you may still produce good work, but you may not have the advantage of showing off high end equipment. The visit also allows me to discuss different woods and techniques without hauling samples to their home.

Summary

You need to recognize that there are a lot of potential customers who don't feel comfortable using the web (you may find it hard to believe, since you are using the web to read this). People who would look at photos or a catalog of your work, but won't look at a web page. People who are glad to talk to you, in person or on the phone, but aren't comfortable with email. You have to decide how much effort (and cost) you are willing to make to keep these potential customers, or if you are willing to lose them. For now, I am willing to ignore those who want a fancy catalog or want to buy through a gallery. In the initial contact with someone who says "please call me," I try to guess whether they will be worth the effort, and how much effort I should make pursuing them.

For the first eight years I did this work full time, I had plenty of customers - my backlog of work varied between a few weeks and quite a few months - it was never zero. Customers who came to me through the web, dealing with me on my terms - primarily electronically. (I never expected this kind of customer response.) All my fancy equipment has been paid for, and I have made a profit every year (not always a lot, but never a loss). Then suddenly the backlog of work dried up - people no longer have to wait a long time to get my services. There are even periods when I can work on projects for my wife! Although I never expected to sell through galleries, there are things I would like to make that I may build and see if a gallery will sell them. I need to explore additional sources of customers. My business model is changing.