After 22 years of business, it is still a constant battle to live up to our company's motto and tag line More Than Signs, We're Building Impressions. That is a big statement and requires an even bigger commitment to keeping it a top-of-mind priority while going about our daily routines. It is easy to fall short of such a worthy goal. One missed detail or single mishap can cause a major setback. From there all you can do is claw your way back out, brush off the dust and move forward with the determination of learning from the bad experience and not repeating it -- sort of like the cleansing process attributed to a good confessing and repenting of our sins.
Some of those sins, when it comes to working with brand and image, are not always that obvious to the sinner. They might be totally oblivious to them. I can identify with that. Although I would describe our company and its divisions that generate design and production fulfillment of graphics, signs and structures as being top-class, we still take those backward steps now and then. There is always room for improvement.
Over the course of our existence we've also had our share of committing some of the deadliest of sins when it comes to providing and making impressions by way of our services and products. Allow me to confess seven of them in hopes that you'll be challenged as well as entertained.
You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Years ago that was my opening line to a commercial aired on cable television to advertise our business. Standing in front of the camera, it took me several attempts to spit the words out correctly. I learned the lesson first-hand that practice does make perfect. Had anyone seen me during those filming takes, they would have witnessed a nervous young man appearing to lack confidence and having difficulty saying what he meant.
Presentation goes a long way to establish an impression. From shoes to shop floor, all phases of appearance are fair game for judgment. There was a time early on in our business where I actually didn't consider the torn jeans and sleeveless shirts worn by installers in 90-degree heat as a bad thing. I was also blind from seeing how ugly and dirty our trucks were.
My first slap in the face causing me to wake up and look around came from an OSHA visit. I learned from them that if your shop is dirty and cluttered, not only does it look bad but it is potentially dangerous and brings suspicion. I also learned the value of being clean and tidy as a means to make favorable impressions through a client whose fabrication environment was somehow so immaculate you wouldn't be afraid to drop food on the floor then pick it up and eat it. Another time I received a call from a customer demanding I come see him and the large holes in his block wall of his brand new facility that now had chunks of cement lying on the floor left by our guys after drilling through the walls in preparation of channel letter signage.
Since then, we now place a high priority on keeping our work spaces and job sites as clean and respectable as possible. We wash the trucks and wear company provided apparel in order to present ourselves professionally. And we drill through walls a lot more carefully.
Had we been better communicators we might have done a better job of diffusing the blown-out wall situation before getting called to the mat. Since we knew that drilling through hollow core cinder block can cause “blow out” on the side opposite of the drilling, we could have involved the customer in a conversation that forewarned and presented options ahead of time instead of waiting for him to find the damage.
Communication is vital to conducting business that keeps you in business and propels your business to top-class status. From inside your own walls to the walls or within the walls of others when working with their branding and display, communication can be the determining factor for whether or not the job goes well. That includes speaking, listening, following up, remembering, writing, scheduling and including the customer.
Would you like it if your roofing contractor just showed up and started pounding away on your roof without your awareness that today was the day to start? We've done that. We even drove out of town before and showed up looking for the person in charge only to learn that she was out of town and we were not able to start without her permission. It was a total waste of time and we looked bad.
I've had calls in the past from customers thanking me for the nice sign followed by modest comments on how strange it was to return to the office seeing us installing their new sign then curiously inquiring why our being there that day was a total surprise. Come on. Don't these people know when they are on our schedule? Of course they don't. Not until they are informed.
Calling ahead and involving your client is a form of communication that should be part of your organization's process, policy and practice.
Slow down. You’re going too fast. Speed up. You’re moving too slow. Either way is wrong when it comes to impressions. There's a middle ground that encapsulates the essence of going about things in just the right way and pace.
I was driving the other day and noticed a competitor's bucket truck with a lone installer in the basket working at pulling old vinyl away from a tenant sign panel. Hours later I drove back by and he was still there in the same spot. I had to wonder what the customer inside the store was thinking.
When your work is too leisurely or expedited to hastily, you leave room for judgment and mistakes. Crawling along can feel painful for management or a customer to watch. Being too snappy can cause oversight.
I once had a general manager who proposed three signs to a customer. They chose to buy only one. Through our GM's hyper-swift chop-chop style of getting things done, he inadvertently wrote up a work order and had us build and install all three signs. We then billed for all three of those signs. The customer is now living happily with three signs. They only paid for the one. And that GM is no longer with us.
We all hate the go-back, even though they are necessary evils. The chore is to limit them and make the ones that are unavoidable a prerogative that outranks other to-dos on the day’s agenda. Highlight them so that they don't become buried and forgotten.
The forgotten go-back is embarrassing for everyone. Sometimes they are dangerous. Many years ago we had one of our installed signs fall from 50 feet in the air into a four-lane state highway. The culprit? There were two of them. An installer and an unfinished weld. Who would have known? I didn't. We didn't have a go-back planned for the job. Apparently, this installer decided his welding would hold for the day and he'd return to finish. That guy is long gone. Thank God nobody was hurt.
Be sure that you and your leadership team is thorough on the job, with after-action reports from work done in the field and that everybody elevates the importance of a go-back.
[Eat Here and Get Gas]
Here's an example of a highly effective sign that has become a landmark. Not all ugly signs become as famous. A sign needs to stand on its own. Design plays a big factor in how a business is perceived. Be sure to make design a high priority in the creation of a new sign.
Eat Here and Get Gas. The sign panel that displays this effective message happens to be a destination for travelers to take in food and fuel. The sign itself is a boring box on a pole with terrible letter font and a gaudy arrow pointing to the gas pumps. Sometimes ugly can prove to be a good design, but don't count on it. In this case we have hindsight and history on the side of the design for this Tipton, Ind., sign that sets along State Highway 31. I doubt the sign designer ever dreamed of the fame this sign would one day achieve. The added cartoon characters on the pole do make a creative pylon cover though.
My point here is that design presents you the opportunity to give more value and make more money. We like to describe what we do as providing creative visual solutions. Creativity and design separates you from average job shops or project-based competitors that compete on a bid basis. Bidding gets old. Margins are lower. Services become commodity. So make them special. Know the latest trends and uses of materials and make them your friend. Wow your customers by showing them how to take a sign concept and use it to change their entire identity and brand. Show your customers that you are a brand expert.
Asking for forgiveness is not better than seeking approval no matter how often you hear the opposite. You are not being resourceful or reliable by taking the easy road of assuming things will work instead of doing some additional homework or putting in more effort on the front end of a project. It's lazy not to. And it can bite your rear end. In our industry you see this happen time and time again in regard to signs going up before a permit is obtained. The problem with having to ask forgiveness is that like a sin, the damage is already done even if granted forgiveness. The negative impression sticks around like a sore spot that doesn't go away so easily.
If the grass is soggy, put boards down on the ground for the heavy installation trucks to drive on to avoid making ruts. If it is too windy to paint on site, don't wait for the wind to blow drips of paint 20 feet through the air to land on vehicles or people before realizing that it is not a good idea. If the sign is supposed to be installed for a grand opening tomorrow, don't wait to start the project today. And don't tell the customer, "Oh yeah ... don't worry ... it's all under control and coming along just fine."
Yes, we've done all of that at some point in our history.
So there you have it. I just bared my skin and shared my sins. I'm not proud of them, but I'm also not too proud to admit them. The important thing is that we all commit sins. When we do, they reflect upon us and our work. There is value in looking at ourselves in the mirror in order to take stock. An honest look will expose weaknesses, highlight strengths and identify what else you can do for the sake of building your impressions.