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A Demanding New Client is Pushing a Sign Company to the Wire

Various ways to handle the customer in “The Case of the Attention Grabber.”

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DAVIS CLAY CARRIED himself as something of a big shot in Glen Burnie, MD, just south of Baltimore. A former three-term state senator who represented the area, Clay was wealthy, a self-made man, as he liked to remind his constituents. His business interests ranged widely, though he had not sought to do any business for them with local sign company B&B Enterprise — until now.

Clay was investing in a new six-floor professional building that was nearing completion on the outskirts of town. As is the case with so many new building projects, ordering the hundreds of interior signs and the exterior monument had been overlooked for months longer than they should have. When Clay’s office finally reached out to B&B Sales Executive Omar Riddle, the size and deadline for the job would make this one of the shop’s largest sales of the year. After he hung up, everyone at B&B recognized Omar’s celebratory whistling of “The Farmer in the Dell.”

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at editor@signsofthetimes.com.

Illustrations by Karina Marga Cuizon

Kim Gregg, B&B’s lead designer, immediately began churning out mockups for all the sign types. The estimating department did the best they could keeping up with the changes and additions that kept flooding in for the project. Everyone in fabrication was informed to finish up the projects currently underway ASAP.

At first, Clay’s assistant Les Freeman coordinated with Omar, but then informed him Clay wanted to meet with him and one of the owners of the company, Aleesha “String” Bell. String agreed to meet them two days later and did, with Omar and Kim providing ideas and sketches. Several basics were covered and the meeting concluded with everyone feeling good and knowing what to do.

Just two days later, however, Clay himself called String and asked for a second meeting involving the same people. “I think we made a lot of good progress,” Clay said on the phone. “But I think we need to flesh out a few more ideas in person as soon as we can.”

Being amenable now would help lead to more work, String reasoned. She agreed and the group met again the next day — for twice as long and covering many of the same details as in the first meeting. This time, although Clay and Freeman left happy, String, Omar and Kim did less so, despite Clay’s vow that if this project went well, he’d “make it rain” with more in the future.

Nearly a week passed without another meeting request, though with plenty of calls and emails with new or different directions. String, Omar and Kim were starting to wonder when, if ever, the constant demands for attention might slow down. “He thinks our time is infinitely elastic,” String said to the others. “But it’s not — ”

String’s cell rang. She didn’t even need to look to know it was Clay again.

My thanks to Jeff Thomas, Cross-road Sign Studio (Lynnwood, WA) for this idea. — Rolf L’mao. If you have an idea to suggest, send it to editor@signsofthetimes.com.

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The Big Questions

  • What would you do if you were String? Try to head off more meetings, nipping this in the bud? Or, ride out the rest of the project, which wouldn’t take forever, to solidify remaining in Clay’s favor? Or something else?
Justine B.
Rice Lake, WI

I feel you continue to try your best to work to this customer’s expectations to complete the project you already have so much invested into as far as employee time (which can be the most expensive part). If you can, add in the extra time it takes with them into the cost as you continue to bid out the project as it changes. You hopefully seal the deal and get the job. Once you do, you will know how this customer will operate in the future and can bid future jobs accordingly.

Joseph L.
Port Chester, NY

MISTAKE #1: “Kim Gregg, B&B’s lead designer, immediately began churning out mockups.” Why were you working without money and allowing the client unlimited design time? The largest project I ever had was half the volume we did in a full year. I got the job because I congruently said, “I don’t need this job. It will be interruptive to my normal work. I’d love to do it, however, and we’ll get it done on time and budget if we’re awarded it.” I also let them know that we’ll need a deposit to begin. This motivated the client to choose us and set the stage for them to follow our terms, not theirs. SOLUTION: Avoid getting sucked into a situation where you say, “Oh, we’ve spent too much time already and saying no to unreasonable requests may now cost us the job.”

Sabrina D.
Wilmington, NC

We let clients know the amount of consulting/design time included in their quote. We only offer preliminary design work in rare cases for established clients. When new clients are leery to pay half of a large estimate before they see a design, we let them know they can start by paying for just the design. We explain that design is a large portion of the project labor. For scenarios like the one listed, we touch base before they have exhausted the estimated design/consulting time to let them know how much time we have put in and what we can do with the time they have left. We suggest that they choose to add design time, but let them know we are happy to provide them the digital files of what we have created with the time already devoted. That usually solves it. They either are happy with how the process is going and thus decide to have us requote to include more time, or they bow out. Setting boundaries provides clarity for both parties.

Andy B.
Merchantville, NJ

Promises, promises… Time to get a deposit.”

Nancy F.
Ohio

I am not seeing any talks about PM and money. This should have been chatted about first thing. What is our lead time? How many signs are we chatting about? Your design or mine? Price! Contract! Deposit! Website progress reports. Meeting schedules with client. Don’t call me; I’ll call you with updates.

Steve L.
Clayville, NY

Entering into large-scale projects will always create a series of variables. One that can be addressed right from the jump is your company’s time upfront. We often write into our contracts a number of permissible revisions before we begin charging the customer. The language may read, “Quote allows for 2 initial design concepts and up to 2 revisions. Further revisions will incur additional design fees up to $95/hr. or $150 per revision.” While not ideal to have so much back and forth, it can be a necessary evil with certain customers. And while you’d prefer to spend your time in more productive ways, at least you can recoup some time costs with those types of provisions written into your contracts.

Ian M.
Bristol, RI

I have had similar situations and I have found that the best thing to do is to professionally convey to the client what your company needs of theirs for the project to be successful and everyone’s expectations met. I find that this makes things go more smoothly if you are in control of the situation. If you are to lose a big job because the client cannot work within your parameters, you are best not to have the job as it will surely cost your company reputation if they are not happy, and potential non-payment and litigation. A big job is no good if it is not profitable and does not help your company achieve its goals.

Dennis S.
Nevada City, CA

I think we have all been in this situation. It is not uncommon for the potential client to keep asking for more free design work. In these large comprehensive design packages we initially offer a basic design premise, many times just cut sheets from prior work showing each sign-type, only changing the design minimally. We submit this basic design package along with the bid/contract. In the contract notes and exclusions we will include something to the effect of ‘three rounds of design revisions included, design fees billed at $85 an hour thereafter’ or whatever your threshold may be. We even include things like sprayed color samples are $40 apiece. We have a long list of exclusions even in our design contracts.

Craig Alan N.
Cleveland, OH

The Small Business Administration (SBA) has an “Open Your Business” checklist. No mention of outdoor signage is listed, no questions of ordinance requirements, especially budget for any part. It’s been 30-plus years, I haven’t looked, but don’t think I would have to: Certainly it’s the same. No anticipation of proper, correct, effective, legal representation in signage is thought of till the desks move in, monies are gone, and miracles are expected by the fabricator for little or nothing, because it’s “why” we do what we do.

Derek C.
Kent, OH

I’d charge him for everyone’s time without blinking. More importantly, I love seeing another obvious fan of The Wire, lmfao!

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