Etiquette for Dealing with Customers

A discussion about how a hardworking cabinetmaker can learn the social skills for interacting with customers from other walks of life. July 12, 2012

I need help with etiquette. I deal with a lot of doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. who are well educated and well mannered. They all have proper etiquette and I am lost when it comes to that. I am not much of a people person but I am trying. I don't think they expect more from me, but it is embarrassing when someone walks up and shakes my hand and says "nice to meet you" While I stare at them like a deer caught in the headlights and try to figure out a reply.

Or after we are through and they say "I will let myself out" am I supposed to walk everyone to the door? I have no idea. It is bad enough these people are coming to meet at my dirty shop and I am wiping the dust off of a sample or have a project half assembled or I am drawing out a sketch for them on a scrap of wood. I know I am running a hillbilly operation but the least I can do is learn how to interact with people. Any guidance is appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
Treat them how you would want to be treated. Treat them with importance as they are important to your future, their considerations are your focus and should be treated with importance. Be cheerful, cheerfulness disarms people.

From contributor W:
By posting this thread it would be obvious to me you are not as hillbilly as you may think. I see you are thinking about this carefully and with forethought. I am an overweight, loudmouth (hearing is going can’t hear my volume so well), overbearing, and if I were out of myself I would sometimes see me as arrogant.

What I have learned is if they come to see a cabinetmaker then they have come to the right place. I have worked hard to get this experience and it is helpful as it is cabinetry they are seeking. In other words (and as a girlfriend on her way out the door once said) "just be who you say you are" (never forgot her) and be as polite as you would have someone treat your mother. All the other stuff is solvable.

I purchase graph pads from Lee Valley and they make a good heavy paper and it stands up well to shop use. A lot of my initial work is hand drawn and I keep this in a file with the clients name on it. When asked to go see a job I get a file folder and a few sheets of my graph paper and keep all notes on it. I purchased a real good digital camera and learned how to use it and this has saved my butt more than you know!

If I know a client is coming I will blow off all dust and I purchased a couple of chairs (good ones) although I have seen many a lawyer in a black suit wish he had worn something different! For the size and expectations of our experience one would think we would have a nice lobby (we do we just do not use it, very few clients ever see it) and a girl serving espresso, yet the way I see it most who went to fancy or pretentious in the office expense department are out of business and the cabinetmakers are still making hay.

From contributor L:
I agree you are being very thoughtful about this and the fact that you ask for help shows a great deal of intelligence and caring for your clients. Keep asking questions from other woodworkers, and to repeat what was said already, treat your customers the way you would want to be treated. With respect, they may be doctors and lawyers but they are not cabinetmakers or furniture makers, that is where your expertise comes in to play.

There are many groups that you can join that can help you a lot with the development of your business. I am a member of the Cabinet Makers Association and they are great with these questions and very supportive. We all come from different walks of life with one common goal - to do our work in a professional manner and to be treated professionally by our clients.

From contributor W:
You treat your business as serious as you think they do and you will have their respect.

i>From contributor C:
Great advice and I add these:

- Firm handshake.
- Nice to meet you too.
- Thanks for your time.
- Thank you notes in the mail with business card.
- Remain the confident expert.
- Do as you say you are going to do.
- Communicate well.
- Clean and organize your shop.
- Make your office neat, tidy, and organized.

From contributor G:
I might add that the epitome of bad manners is self-importance. Who do you like talking to? Who do you not like talking to? I will bet that you will find that people who treat you with importance are the ones you like talking to and I will bet you do not like talking to people who are full of themselves.

From contributor P:
Did you ever think they are thinking the same thing when they are on the way to your shop? I would just be yourself and act professional. The one thing that drives me up the wall is when I walk into a shop and the music is on ten. No matter what kind of music is on when it’s loud a client does not want to spend 20 grand with you if you run your shop like that.

From contributor Y:
Good responses. You are showing a bit of lack of self-confidence. That is probably good but learning your craft and becoming self-confident will go a long way, just don't overdo it and reach the point of arrogance. You will never know it all. You don't have to. You just need to know when to say you don't know and go looking for the answer. Always make eye contact. Just because someone has more education doesn't make them better. They may not know that. I had an employee with a PHD, and about all he ever managed to learn to do was sand. OK guy, just not the sharpest tool in the shed.

From contributor M:
You may be overthinking this. Most of these people are just like us. They may have just had opportunity or ambition to pursue more white collar work. I recently worked for a doctor and we got talking about this same thing. He quickly set me straight and said what he does is no more important than me being a cabinetmaker. I have been fortunate to have worked for some very wealthy but appreciative clients.

As for knowing what to say, this can be overcome. Maybe you will never be a "natural salesman" but a combination of confidence building, training, and good old trial and error will increase your personal skills. I would recommend the book "The Sales Bible" by Stephen Young or "Sales Bible" by Jeff Gitomer. When I read Jeff’s book I had to overcome my reluctance to trying some of his phrases. I felt like I was giving a "prepared sales presentation" and sounding like a slick salesman. You just need to learn to rephrase things in your own words and personality.

Also, there is almost no substitute for just getting out and around people. I went from almost being sick standing in front of a small crowd to now doing it comfortably, mostly through teaching children and youth in my church. Also as a child I hid behind my dad as he talked. One more trick - when at a client’s house look around for common ground to start or add to a conversation. A picture or painting, their vacation plans or place , hunting or fishing trophy's, other hobbies, a detail on a piece of furniture, a previous client’s job (be positive and careful with this) their family or hometown, an intriguing part of their job, something happening in the community, anything along those lines. These people are just like us. Some are confident, some are shy, some like their jobs, others silently wish they could be us. Plus, a firm hand shake and look in the eye when meeting or departing or saying "nice to meet you" or "thanks for the opportunity to quote this for you" are good things to do.

From contributor S:
I am also a very informal person so I usually meet clients at a neutral location like Starbucks. I also bring my designer who tends to soften my rough edges. When I meet clients at the shop I schedule it for early in the morning (before it is too hot and before I get involved with the day’s disasters) or in the evening after the guys have left and the shop is quiet (then I usually make sure beer, wine, and brandy is available).

I try not to talk too much (I usually do anyway) and I try not to get to technical. I also usually walk around the shop with the client and show them the machinery and work areas. I have a lot of pictures of work in progress for people to get an idea of what is involved in making their cabinets. Then we go eat somewhere.

From contributor D:
Sounds like what you really need to develop is your "soft skills". A smile and warm greeting is a great way to start .Your reputation and experience are only part of the equation. The way we communicate with potential clients may very well be the best tool we can use. You don't need any pat lines, be real. We can learn much from the written word but there is no substitute for "soft skills" or the ability to concisely communicate.

From contributor Z:
All the responses to date are great and the question shows that this site is a great place. It's like coming home at the end of the day where you can drop all the roles and be yourself. I am proud to be a part of such a group and this post has made my day.

I have had two experiences that were eye openers for me that I think are relevant. I used a business coach for a month and he helped me realize some of my strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with them in an effective manner. This was after being in business for 24 years, but I had moved to a new country and had a new market to learn about (USA from Canada).

The second experience was when my wife and I were invited for a meal by some new friends in our new American community. We were the only newcomers at the table and the only trade professionals. Most were doctors or lawyers, many tops in their field’s and as the discussions were flowing, I was asked what I did for a living. When I said I own a cabinet shop, all the female eyes turned to me and I had everyone captive for an hour describing our work and history.

I learned there and then, not to underestimate my skills or knowledge. Some of those people have become good clients and all have become good friends who we invite for dinner and see regularly at our synagogue. We all respect each other and how many initials follow our names are irrelevant.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the helpful tips. I just want to be able to meet with clients and have confidence knowing I am acting and speaking as expected. I don't need to woo anyone or suck up. I don't want to be a cheesy salesman, if the clients are meeting with me they are 98% sold. My clients usually only meet with me to drop off a deposit or look at samples.

From contributor G:
There is a difference between a cheesy salesman and treating people with respect. I suppose you first have to respect yourself before you realize this?

From contributor O:
I have been doing sales since I was young, and early on people sometimes didn't give me respect at first. I would earn it by knowing what I was talking about and being just plain old friendly. As I have grown older I have come to realize that these clients have been recommended to come see me because I am an expert in my business. They expect me to be confident and professional but at the end of the day I always try to just keep it light.

From contributor K:
Be sincere and show discretion.

From contributor W:
I had a commander I worked for in the Navy, and I once asked what I should do about certain decisions with others in his absence concerning command. His response was “diplomacy, tact and firmness, and in that order show me that and I will stand behind you.” Never forgot that one.

From contributor H:

I grew up in sales and was president of a large marketing company before I bought the business ten years ago. I always meet clients here at the shop because our work sells itself. We keep a very clean shop environment and I treat people just like I would an old friend coming in the door. Offer water, coffee, or whatever beverage they want.

Most rich people are just like the rest of us and don't like it when you treat them like they are special. Everyone is special that walks through our door. I always have a few laughs and never get uptight regardless of how famous people are. Our designers get beat up a bit by a few clients but they are always fine with us and what we can do for them. You will be fine.