During an age when there is an abundance of communications channels with customers, shops have to continually re-evaluate how they provide service.
The intake point — and follow-up — with clients can be via a telephone call, website form, newsletter click, social media, email and even a showroom visit. But the best points of contact are clearly repeat business and the word-of-mouth referral.
Muskoka Cabinet Company of Alfred, Ont., a cabinet manufacturer with a highly automated shop system, works with home builders and contractors for the most part. “We do have a base of contractors that we deal with,” says Eric Elias, vice president of sales and marketing at Muskoka Cabinet. “They always invite us (to tender), and we’re given a special consideration because of our past performance and relationship with them.”
Elias notes that most contractors are first and foremost price-based. “There is a small amount though that rely more on loyalty. To know that the subcontractor — that being us — very well and will sacrifice the price to get us instead of dealing with somebody else they don’t know.”
Muskoka Cabinet has worked hard to earn the loyalty of its customer base, that also includes landlords which remodel apartments when tenants vacate, as well as some retail dealers, architects and designers.
Contractors are only interested in dealing with trades that will make them look good, according to Elias. “We have to make sure when we do get a job that we perform well and service it very well. Then at the end of the day they are going to say, ‘Muskoka, that was a breath of fresh air.’
“I think where we try very hard in excelling in is being on site, having a supervisor who is readily available, and they can contact and vent immediately. In the construction business they want instant gratification and unload their problem on to us. We have to not have them beg and plead and demand that we take care of our own work. You’ve got to be a step ahead of them and make sure that they are never in a position to complain to you that you are deficient.”
He adds that it is “rampant in the construction industry where the general contractors have to babysit and police subcontractors because they don’t have the proper supervision to take care of it on their own. They resent that because it takes up their resources.”
Elias advises that after the installation, “you make sure all of the units are complete and done to the satisfaction of anybody that would be looking at it. Don’t wait for them to come up with deficiency lists and put you in a position where you are having to race to get things serviced properly so you can get paid.”
Listening goes online
Where Muskoka Cabinet mostly satisfies its commercial clients directly with considerations born of many years of business relations, Prairie Barnwood of Morden, Man., relies on digital platforms to draw in consumers. The company, which creates custom furniture and cabinetry from refurbished barn wood, has a website that displays its wares, supported by a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
“Our first point of contact would be social media or our website,” says Blayne Wyton, president and owner of Prairie Barnwood. “For me, the social media aspect is just having what we can do on a thing for them to see. Then on the website having enough information so if they are going to make an enquiry, it is about something that they are already interested in — not just going at it blindly.
“Next, having ways for them to get in contact with us that are obvious, such as phone numbers or email addresses.” If they are in the area, Wyton makes it easy for them to come into the showroom with a location link to Google Maps.
The shop that has a showroom can display not only the quality of its workmanship, but also the functionality. St. Thomas, Ont.-based GCW Custom Kitchens & Cabinetry has a showroom in its plant and in nearby London, Ont.
“We feel that we are in the kitchen business, so why not have a kitchen that actually operates?” says GCW president Ron DeWeger. “And if we are in the kitchen business, we are going to have fun in the kitchen, too.”
When the company opened its showroom in London in 2011, it determined that it would have a working kitchen right from the get-go. “We bought the appliances,” says DeWeger, “so we were able to set up cooking classes.”
DeWeger notes that GCW cooking events for its customers and builders — and expected builders — especially clients “that have been good clients and spent money with us are offered as a thank you to them.”
But due to geography, not everyone can entice clients into its showroom, especially Prairie Barnwood, located in southern Manitoba not far from U.S. border. “Facebook I use more for showing what we can do,” Wyton explains. “Instagram I use most for building the brand of the business. We are on Houzz and Pinterest as well.”
Wyton has found Houzz to connect the business more with professionals, while Facebook and Instagram connect it more with actual customers. LinkedIn connects Prairie Barnwood with a lot more of the professionals as well, he adds.
“I would say the first point of contact is a click,” says Wyton. “Then from there it would be a phone call, an email or a message on social media. Word of mouth for us has been absolutely enormous. Over 50 percent of the customers would be either returning or referral.”
One important element of the customer service equation is finding out — or drawing out — what she really wants. Wyton believes that too often carpenters are overly technical with a client. “Its kind of like when you go in and talk to a mechanic or even a doctor that tells you that you have some disease in a different language. ‘Can you just dumb it down for me? Like what does that mean?’ ‘You’re going to have a cough for the rest of your life.’ ‘OK I can handle that.’
Overcoming what you know
“I think sometimes as carpenters we get in our brain the construction method and I think the customer is coming at it more from a design method. So, it’s just a matter of shifting our brains to really just seeking to understand what they want.”
Walking a customer through her options on the fly has its challenges. “For instance, I have a customer right now that would like a 180-inch dining table in solid oak. The price was huge. She got back to me and said, ‘it is probably out of our budget.’ But she helped me understand the overall look she wanted.”
In these cases, according to Wyton, he can come back to the client with different options in design or construction methods that can fit it into a budget that works for her.
Imparting sensible sales wisdom across the company counts at Prairie Barnwood, something that Wyton picked up from his grandfather. “He really taught me with customers to make a friend not a sale,” he says. “I think that that kind of spreads through the whole business. Just seek to understand what the customer wants.”
Wyton mentions Terri in the Prairie Barnwood office. “She works right on the front line with customers and implements these different techniques. Then even my delivery guy or the person in shipping can respond appropriately when customers sometimes question or critique the piece to him.
“Train him to just listen to the customer. Don’t defend it. Don’t argue with them. Just hear them out and understand exactly what their concern is. Once you understand it, then you can overcome it.”
Muskoka Cabinet is using technology to efficiently service its commercial clientele, from embedding RFID tags in its products to front end software development that tells the field installer exactly where the part or assembly is located, and when it can be expected.
“So, the person in the field can answer the customer and say it will be back this day — instead of leaving them to hang. A lot of places will just let the customer wonder when they are going to show up and finish the service off.”
Elias adds that it is very important to a customer to not have to ask all of the time “‘where this is or where that is or when you are going to finish.’ That is very important and good for our reputation.”
“Our whole idea behind everything we do is to have one person touch it and that’s it,” says Elias. “From an order department and a purchasing department, you can imagine how much it would cost to make a little one-foot-square panel if you have to go through all of those steps. “It’s a $10 part and you are going to spend $50 trying to get it in the hands of a service person?”
Referral programs that offer an incentive to customers are a popular way to extend customer service communications with some wood shops. Prairie Barnwood has set one up, however Wyton says his referral program hasn’t really been taken advantage of yet. Still, he’s committed to keeping it going. “It’s kind of like sending your wife a rose on your anniversary. Its more ‘I love you, thank you.’ I find the incentive program is more to just say ‘thank you.’”
Wyton thinks asking for repeat business or asking for referrals with a happy customer is “like sitting down and putting your hand in the couch after Grandpa was sitting there.
“There is going to be change in there.”