Marketing 101 for a Small Cabinet Shop

A two-man cabinet business builds a good product, but needs more customers. Here's a raft of advice on how to build name recognition and make personal contacts. November 29, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
My friends and I have a custom cabinet shop. We did it on the side for many years, but just recently started it as a full time business. We have been at it for a little over a year. We are on Google and Craigslist, and have gotten jobs here and there, some big such as 25K kitchens and some just vanities. The problem is most of our customers want our product for Ikea prices. We use top of the line 3-4 inch boxes and we dowel everything. I don't understand why we are not getting enough jobs where people who contact us actually can afford to pay. We get calls all the time about wanting a kitchen for 3K when it would be 10K. We really need to get some more customers, and we know our quality is top of the line. Our existing customers are very happy and we have gotten some referrals, but it just isn't enough. If anyone here could help us with some advice on how to get the bigger customers, or just more in general that would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor W:
I bought an existing business about five years ago. It's a mish-mash of niche commercial work with decent margins. Over the past five years, I've done what you've described to get business and the results are just what you described - very poor. There are good customers out there to be found, but when you go looking for them on craigslist, etc. you're basically looking for a needle in a haystack. The only way to find good customers is to go out and introduce yourself to contractors, architects, and designers to work with.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. How would we go about doing this? We have never worked with anyone else really.

From contributor L:
Are you following your business plan? Who is your target market? Doing anything for a buck will likely keep you at the bottom of the feed chain. You might think your quality is top of the line, if true it needs to be priced that way. If you don't price to be profitable you are just buying work and headed for the door. There are shops that succeed at every price point but you have to produce to match your costs to the level your target customer will pay. Get out and meet people that might have a use for what you can profitably make. New residential construction tends toward the lower end, remodel work can pay better. Commercial work has time frames and credit terms that are tough for a new, very small shop. Take every opportunity to meet people. Hand out your cards any time you can. Spend most of your free time contacting remodelers or whoever you have decided is your primary market.

From contributor L:
I left off something we have used to our advantage. We have established working relationships with other shops in the area. You can share work, have them do machining that you may not be equipped for, etc.

From Contributor O:
What is your target market? Or in other words, how much do your kitchens sell for? (often called "price point"). Is that the top 5% of kitchens in your area, or the top 50%? Thatís a big difference. You decide where you want/need to be, and then figure a way to get there.

Think of it this way, there are only so many likely customers for your work in any given area. Those are the only people you need to market to. Putting an ad on CL will get you the bottom feeding tire kickers and only them - destructive rather than constructive. A person building a $2M house does not look on Craig'slist for a kitchen, I assure you. If they do, you do not want to work for them because they are foraging for the cheapest, hungriest, desperate shop there is, then they'll take advantage of them.

You definitely need to market to your niche, and maybe broaden the geographical area you serve. You will also need to be sure your designs and colors, and such are all up to date and stylish. Working with design professionals will help you get to your market, and keep things up to date.

From contributor F:
Forget relying on the internet stuff! Beat down the doors of every spec house and development going up within driving distance. Get on bid lists of local larger construction companies if you're interested in commercial work (some of it is much simpler than residential). Put a press release in your local paper (old school, but you'll still get tons of viewers). Set up a booth and a home improvement show. Also, I would stop focusing on things that customers really don't care about (dowel construction, 3/4" carcasses) and start focusing on things they do, like custom designs you can offer them that IKEA can't and quality hardware. If there is work in your area, your work should be selling itself. If it's not, re-think what you're doing.

From contributor C:
You are very close to Ann Arbor. I would start there. Try to find the facilities manager (there are probably several) at U of M. Might as well swing for the fence right off the bat. If you could get in with a customer like that, it could support you for years. They are often open to starting slow with unknown suppliers, but things build over time. They could also be a good resource for other possible work in the area. Itís worth a shot.

From contributor D:
Join the local chamber of commerce or other local business groups and make a commitment to get exposure this takes time and can be a slow process but the direct face to face marketing really works. Your time investment will pay big dividends once folks know you be patient. You will make many new connections. Stop at building sites introduce yourself and leave your card and ask for an opportunity to bid. You have nothing to lose. I think Craigslist and the likes pretty much attract bargain hunters in general. We still get business from the yellow pages every now and then and repeat and referrals are the best source for me. Talking to the other shops in your area can open new doors, again you have little to lose.

From Contributor S:
After 20 years in the business I think I've tried just about everything out there.

Here are a few observations:

1. Get yourself out there. Network, meet people - whatever you want to call it. You can have the greatest product offering imaginable but if no one knows about it you have nothing.

2. Meet with builders, interior designers, kitchen designers, contractors, etc. These are the people that will feed you work if you can establish their trust. You will make less on the work than what you would by seeking out customers directly yourself, but these people usually have a much wider range of customers and much higher advertising budgets. Piggy back on their presence in the marketplace.

3. Understand that builders and designers will usually stick with people whose work they trust, even if the people building their cabinets aren't doing that great of a job. There is a huge risk for them in promoting a sub trade with whom they do not have a long standing relationship with. However, if you come along and can demonstrate that you can solve some of their problems for them you'll find that they will be willing to switch over to your shop.

4. This is probably the single most important thing. It's not what you actually are itís what people think you are that will get you the highest dollars. I've seen this myself dozens of times. The greatest craftsman wanders up and offers the Designer his or her services, only to be turned down in favor of a smooth talker with a great presentation who can barely deliver the required quality. The fact is people are fooled by the exteriors. Yes, it will only last so long and those who can't deliver will lose out in short order, but in order to get the chance in the first place you've got to fill the people's expectations.

5. Learn how to generate and present testimonials. It is said that the closing rate for a new customer is 15 to 20%. Yet that rate jumps to 60 to 80% if the customer comes to you via referral.

My shop and team build exceptional quality cabinetry and provide over the top service. Yet it's only been in the last few years that things have really taken off for us. The changes I made were in line with the philosophy of trying to present an extremely professional face to our customers. For example I have stepped back from the initial stages of interaction with the clients and my wife, who has exceptional relational and sales skills, guides the clients through the initial stages of the contact and rudimentary design. I get involved at the latter stages or if the clients require technical input as to finishes and hardware or construction specifics

We could not afford to hire a dedicated designer to our staff, so we partner with several independent designers who then work for us on an hourly basis yet it's all kept under our company umbrella. The customers want/expect to interact with a designer and they really don't care or ask if the designer we've brought is employed full time by us.

We have invested in small printed runs of glossy brochures, testimonials and handouts that go along with a folder printed with our company logo that is presented to the customer on our first visit to their homes. The pictures and testimonials are chosen specifically for their wow factor. Because the print runs are small (25 to 100 copies). We can change or improve them at minimal expense

We have invested in print advertising, with a small local area lifestyle/c ommunity magazine. We pay around $450 to $600 per month for a 1/4 to 1/3 page ad. After one year we are finally starting to see a return in that our name and work have been in front of people numerous times and we have built up an image in their minds as to what we are. People who now decide to renovate their kitchens are turning to us as we are top of their minds due to the repeat exposure.

We have a small but functional showroom, really the size of a bedroom in our shop. It's clean and dust free. We have a six foot run of base and upper cabinetry, along with a closet display which doubles as storage for door samples. The base cabinets are all drawers and demonstrate about 25 different types of drawer hardware. The upper cabinets are built from melamine and pre-finished birch plywood. Their doors feature both soft close hinges and regular hinges. We have laminate, quartz and solid surface samples on hand. We have about 75 different door styles/materials and four or five different stain chain sample sets. With this setup we can demonstrate 90% of the options or decisions the client needs to make for their new cabinetry in as little as five or ten minutes. We break it down and walk them through a logical sequence of options. We've found that once people pull out a few drawers and run their hands over the insides of a cabinet or a door sample or two they're ready to deal with the actual layout and design. If the clients really lack visualization skills and need to see 15 different kitchen vignette's and 400 different door or finish samples then they go to a big box/factory type store down the road. We can't afford to offer that and would rather lose the 15% of the clients who require that level of choice presented to them.

The next step in our marketing plan starts this coming month. We will be implementing a "staff uniform" featuring golf shirts, fleece vests and t-shirts with company logo. These will be worn by our installers and shop staff. Customers in our market area are impressed with these things and have an expectation to see it. Since taking these steps we have legitimized ourselves in the eyes of the potential client. The fact is after watching all those hours of Home and Garden/DIY/Renovation TV the clients are expecting to deal with a person who reflects the professionalism they think they are seeing on the TV. They are expecting you to reflect the professionalism of the company that did their sister's or neighborís kitchen but whose cabinetry they can't afford. In short, if you can earn their trust by providing that image and buying experience then the high quality of cabinetry you end up providing will completely blow them away. That will lead to referral sales - another cornerstone of our sales plan.

To put it in perspective let me share this: five out of six of the highest paid, most well-known cabinet makers in our city do not even own a tablesaw or any other wood working equipment. I doubt some of them would know how to turn a tablesaw on if it was put in front of them. Yet people flock to these cabinet providers to give them tons of their money to be provided with cabinetry. People believe these cabinet makers will provide them with the best cabinetry and are willing to pay big money for the privilege.

What sets these cabinet makers apart from you? They have great looking showrooms, are good designers, and good at advertising. Eighty percent of the people don't care that the person they are handing their money to will not actually be building the cabinetry. In short, they meet their clients expectations of what the kitchen renovation process is supposed to be. Whether or not they can deliver is second in the mind of the customer. Remember, for 90% of us, buying something is an emotional decision. Capture the emotion, be it as a salesman or a craftsman, and you have a sale.

From Contributor Y:
Start focusing on local search engine optimization (SEO) to target customers in your area. To do this, incorporate the areas you serve into your website and blog posts. For example, I just searched for "cabinets ann arbor mi" and you didn't show up. Sure, you're based in Canton, but Ann Arbor is a large city near you, so you should show up for it as well. There's a right way to do this and a wrong way. Don't create a bunch or crappy articles, that used to work, but it doesnít anymore. Write or create something useful, thatís the only way.

If you prefer to write, write about how to choose the right cabinets, style, or wood for a job. Talk about the architecture and style of the area. I don't know about your industry, but you do, so I'm sure you could think of a thousand relevant things to talk about.

If you prefer to make video, get a $100 video camera (or use a smartphone) and make a five minute video every week about something related to your specialty. Upload it to YouTube for free and add it to your website, etc. You'll be seen as the authority and people will want to work with you. But make sure it's just not a general video, make sure it targets your region, etc. How to choose custom cabinets in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The internet is big, so you want to be specific and target the people who are most likely to be your customers.

Also, make it easier for your customers to buy from you. Maybe include a quote request form on your website. Offer free phone consultations. Offer whatever it takes to get the customer to make contact with you, help them figure out what they need, then give it to them.

Also consider investing in a better website. Don't pay thousands for it, but make it look professional because it's the face of your business online. A website is also the most cost-effective marketing tool you have if you do it right. It's also the only real estate you own online since you don't own your Facebook or Google pages, or any other listings. If you do end up getting a better website, consider investing in professional pictures of your work, at least for the homepage of your site, to show customers the true potential. You don't have to do it all at once, but things to consider over time.

If you put up the videos mentioned above on a good website with a nice form and the perception of your business will increase dramatically. Nobody wants to work with an amateur, but a lot of great artisans and business owners have websites that make them look like amateurs. There's a lot more to say, but I hope that gives you a few ideas. You could easily spend thousands on marketing, but the things mentioned above are free or super low cost. Nothing works overnight, it all takes time, but some things work better than others. Just remember that there are people out there that need exactly what you offer, but why should they choose you over the other guy? The more expensive the product, the more I need to be convinced. If the other guy looks more professional than you, you know who I'm going to choose.

From contributor J:
First thing, listen to the several people who told you to figure out what you do well and what you want to do. Then plan to do that, and only that. I checked out your website. Not bad, exactly, but it doesn't sell either. It seems like you might have built it, or at least written parts of it, and if so I'd like to suggest that you don't sell well either. No blame here, you build nice cabinets and that's great. Let someone else sell them or at least help you present them better.

Try hooking up with SCORE. They are a national free help/volunteer group, and in my experience are good at marketing and sales issues. There are probably other groups and quite possibly they are also free, maybe through your county, your local Chamber of Commerce, or a college near you. Interview them, tell them what you need and see what they can do for you.

Have someone who sells take a look at your website. Go through it with them and let them explain strategically what you need to do in order to sell. It's a different way of thinking. It might not feel comfortable at first, but try to get used to it. Your prices are probably skewed also. Try to develop an objective sense of what you make compared to what others do. You need some distance for this, and poverty doesn't help. Look at their quality vs yours, on every point - design, hardware, workmanship, materials, finish, installation, engineering and customization. Get a sense of what others sell for how much. Try to get outside help on this part too.

From contributor C:
First off, don't mention Ikea in any of your marketing. Don't compare what you do with what Ikea does even in your own mind. They are not your competition, or shouldn't be or you will go out of business. Target people who are not even considering Ikea as an option. Every custom cabinet shop out there claims to be high quality and most of them are telling the truth. It is difficult to market a product on anything but price when there are many quality options already available. Find out what your real niche will be and focus on promoting that.

Are you open to changing your product line? Keep your ears open while meeting with designers and architects and find out what they are not finding a source for in your market. You might see a need for what you are currently offering. You might do better offering something other than cabinets. Don't discount boring products/services. Sometimes the margin on the less creative work is much higher. The shop I grew up at used to glue up sign blanks out of 2x cedar for a custom sign maker. We also planed/sanded cutting boards for a lady that sold cutting boards she made from exotic wood scraps. Sure we were doing the most boring part of the process but it was a fairly regular source of work and the shop charged them time and materials so we always made money on it. Another service we offered and did a fair amount of was modifying existing cabinetry with full extension roll-outs. Again not much creativity involved but there was also very little labor/materials involved and people love the functionality.

From contributor R:
I like to say it is more important to sell the company than the product when dealing with high-end customers. The photography and colors are pretty weak on your website, too many words. No one wants to read a book these days, hit them with glitzy photography! The images need to pop and it needs to look like high end work. You don't want lots of beige on the web pages, you need deeper color accents and you want the colors to look expensive. You don't want a dish towel hanging like in one of the pictures. You need expensive staging in the pictures - it needs to look like a dream. It doesn't want to look like any kitchen in any house.

You need to get your name out in the art and society sections of your communities. Donate something to art auctions, sponsor a polo match, sponsor something at the golf club house, you get the picture. Find designers that deal with these people, and give each designer a gift for just talking to you. Of course the old saying of it takes money to make money has never been truer. A couple of hard working guys doesn't impress a lot of people any more, unless you are in a community that loves its local craftsman. In my area, those people are about .01% of the public. On one page of your website you mention that you hope to become a partner with the client. Don't use words like hope, instead say ďwhen we become partnersĒ. Always exude confidence. Some guys don't like working with designers, but for me they already had the customer sold on using me and gave the customer some confidence in me. It was just up to me to meet the designerís image she sold to the customer and then close the deal.

From the original questioner:
Thank for all the input! We have uniforms, even though it's just two of us. We have top of the line saws and tools, it's just the meeting with others in the trade, that we need. I think this will help a lot.

From contributor C:
I like Contributor R's post, but remember there are creative ways of working with a limited marketing budget. I have performed services/maintenance at locally owned restaurants in exchange for a house account. You can charge them a little more than what you would if you were working for cash but it still is a deal for them so most owners will go for it. You can then use your account to buy gift certificates that you can use in your promotional efforts. Give them to designers or raffle them off to potential customers who show up at your open house event. Thatís just an example and there are many opportunities to market without spending much money if you are in the position where you have more time than money.