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Ambitious Shop Owner Tempted by Mysterious Client's Proposal

Should he make a devilish bargain with her? We asked for your thoughts in “The Case of the Sign Salvation.”

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ONCE UPON A TIME, though not long ago, Abraham Faust, owner of Quik Signs of Venice in Venice, FL, leaned on the counter at the front of his shop, wishing there were some way he could magically transform his successful yet small franchise location into a large, full-service sign company.

A woman entered Quik Signs’ lobby. Faust had never seen anyone attired that way — a floor-length dress with innumerable folds, mostly black but with slashes of red. She looked at once ancient, yet also youthful. Her face betrayed that of someone no older than 25.

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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.

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

“Good morning,” Faust greeted her. “How may I help you?”

“Good morning, Mr. Faust,” the woman said, approaching the counter. “Yes, I hope you can help me.” She conjured a large envelope from somewhere within her dress folds, opened it and removed the contents. “I recently received this offer for several signs for my business,” she said, fanning out a proposal and some renderings. “I’m here for a second opinion, to see if you think this is a fair price for this sign project. Perhaps you will even bid on it.”

Faust held his expression, but cursed loudly inside. This was not the first “customer” to double-check with him the pricing from Goethe Electric Sign Co. in nearby Marlowe. One glance at the rendering confirmed this was a big electric sign project, the kind Faust would give anything to do and felt like hell that he was ready for. Nevertheless, he prepared to issue his rote reply: “I am not in a position to bid on another sign company’s specific proposal. I can help
you if it were a slightly different proj-”

“The reason I came here,” the woman said, interrupting Faust’s reverie, “is that I asked about your shop at Goethe Sign.” She looked Faust directly in the eye. “They said, ‘That franchise shop in the strip mall? This is way out of his league.’ And then another unkind thing or two.”

Faust looked down at the proposal on the counter. “They really said that, Ms. um…?”

“Ms. Mephistopheles,” she replied with a smile so perfect it was terrifying.

“Well, um,” Faust replied as he composed himself. “Normally, I don’t comment on other companies’ proposals, but let’s have a look at this one.” Faust was familiar with the outsource costs for this kind of project; he had looked into it many times, but never thought he could compete with Goethe’s in-house-production pricing.

However, something was strange about this proposal. Was it priced too high? Were the numbers even changing, right before his eyes? Could he bid this job? Still, it related to the specific rendering, which Faust could not use.

“I don’t know, Ms. Mephis-topheles,” he said. “Seems kind of high, but if that’s the design you want, I couldn’t use it.”

“Why don’t you leave that to me, Mr. Faust,” she replied. “If you can do this exact job for less and along the same schedule, perhaps we could sign a multi-year contract where you do more of this high-level work for my company.”

She paused and smiled again. “We are legion and all over the world, you know.”

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The Big Questions

  • What should Faust do? Turn down this offer?
  • Or go ahead and bid the job? What do you do when confronted with other companies’ designs or proposals?
Bill H.
Stanton, CA

It’s business, you bid the project, you get the project and perform like you have never performed before, and keep this client until you retire or sell the company.

Edward S.
Mt. Morris, MI

I would simply state: “We would really appreciate doing business with you and your company. However, without you showing us proof of your copyright ownership from this company, I (we) cannot risk a $200,000+/- fine for copyright infringement when we lose a lawsuit over design plagiarism. The risk of taking on your sign project outweighs benefits of doing it as designed. Again, thank you for your time and consideration. Have a good day.”

Bill E.
Orangeville, ON, Canada

Anyone that mean-mouths the competitor deserves to be outbid. Exact design or whatever.

Louise D.
Philadelphia

I would bid on the sign with different specifications than what she came in with from the other sign company. I never do the same design someone else did or the same design I did for one of my customers that another customer saw and wants.

Stuart M.
Yonkers, NY

I would not be too concerned with the other proposal. The question is can we do the job correctly and make money while providing a good product and service?

Patrick S.
Omaha, NE

If all you have to offer is a “cheaper price,” please remember that there will always be someone else down the street that will take less just to get the job. Your ethics tell you that you are uncomfortable at even the suggestion that you bid your competitor’s design. Yes, you could change something up a bit and not be in legal trouble. But your reasons for becoming uncomfortable are ethical, not legal. This customer is asking you to be cheaper and less ethical by waving a contract under your nose? How long until they throw you under the bus? Run; do not walk away from this! Stick to your ethics and build your business the right way!

Joseph L.
Port Chester, NY

When we were a smaller company, I would let the client know that we have plenty of work, our pricing will reflect our quality and though we look small in comparison, we’ve done many projects like this and larger before. Simply reviewing the estimate is not an option. My reply would be, “This project will impact my company dramatically. I’m prepared for that and pricing will reflect what I need to do to perform. I don’t need the project but if you give it to us, I’m completely confident we’ll get it done!” Being congruent and confident goes a long way as long as you can back it up.

Sonny F.
Lilburn, GA

Since he responded honestly that he couldn’t use the other company’s design, he should now be free to offer a different option and bid on the job. The fact that the other company dissed him and his capabilities will provide that extra incentive to expand his company in the new direction.

Jasper B.
Conway, AR

I would submit a bid to her for the sign as she suggested, with the requirement that she purchase the design, and give us a release to use the design. No other way. This is an opportunity to show that you operate with integrity and principles, and while they may not understand, they are asking you to be unethical, and to illegally use someone else’s property. Is that the reputation you want for your business?

Robert B.
Oakdale, CT

The only way we would touch that job is with a redesign, even if it was a minor one. Explain to the client exactly why (not our intellectual property copyright and ethics). If she wants an ethical company, she should understand. May not get this one job but may impress her to come back next time before going to the competition.

Jeffrey C.
Seminole, FL

Yes. Go ahead and offer a bid for the project. And make some changes to the proposed artwork. Anything can be improved on.

Frank S.
Candia, NH

I would bid on it, [though] design copyrights could be a problem. If you really need this account, give a fair bid and make money. They did come to you.

Abigale R.
Webster, TX

They are legion — what’s the worst that could happen?

Dennis S.
Nevada City, CA

I cannot speak for Faust, but this is the nature of our design-build industry. It’s my experience that most shops will bid other shops’ drawing work. I can say that I have never bid off another shop’s drawings. I don’t do it. It’s just always chapped my ass and I enjoy turning them away. These drawings this sign company has produced, they have at the very least, a few hours logged on the project. More than likely they drove to the location for the sales call, measured and surveyed the existing conditions, and maybe they even checked the sign code or asked the property manager for a copy. They definitely traded five emails trying to get usable artwork so their designer could work their magic. Yes, I am a bit uptight over this … I know my local competitors bid my beautiful 11 x 17-in. scale drawings. I don’t bid their chicken scratch; I probably should tho’. Lol, it’s my cross to bear.

Rocco G.
Pennsauken, NJ

Beware, Mr. Faust! Your immortal soul is at risk here. Even [the late]Alex Trebek couldn’t get you out of the Jeopardy involved with dealing with the devil herself. She’s tempting you with dreams of gold and glory. Methinks you should consult with Damien Karras before accepting this alluring contract.

Seriously, taking someone else’s exact design and re-creating it is forbidden. I’m no attorney, but isn’t that called plagiarism? And is our Hero capable of making whatever large electrical sign that der Teufel wants? Jumping into something you have never done before can be fraught with expensive mistakes. Certainly, there are wholesale shops that can do the fabrication, but what about the installation, licenses, engineering and all those things that come with larger projects? And if Faust decided to make it in-house, what about getting the sign listed? I could go on, but to quote one of the Batman movies, “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

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Ben P.
Seaford, DE

Great Real Deal. There is no one who is in the sign business, or for that matter, any type of design business who has not been tempted with this type of proposition. When you are first starting out trying to make a name for yourself, it is easy to talk yourself into going through with this. I know because I did. I would have to say there are very few if they were honest, who wouldn’t admit to falling for this. The key thing is do you feel bad afterwards? Because it is wrong. After selling my soul the first time, I never did it again. It was the only ethical thing to do. I have turned down quite a bit of work over these 40-plus years but have never regretted it. When you do the right thing, good comes your way. It is not long before you are the one everybody is trying to copy.

Steve B.
Dallas

Simple answer: If you’ve done something like this before and have reliable resources to complete the project, bid the job. If not, you could be in a world of hurt. An expensive job is not where you want to learn a lesson.

Lisa H.
Mabelvale, AR

When confronted with other companies’ designs and/or proposals, I answer exactly as the sign owner did in this scenario. If a client is insistent on getting a quote from me, I will treat it the same manner as any potential client requesting signage. Ask the questions; location, what are their needs, supplied logo, branding information, budget. Do the leg work, survey the site, take my own measurements, design the signage myself and furnish the price.

I would also recommend (and I do this sometimes) to educate the client on the difference in materials, and the pros and cons to each. I have run into that several times … The other company may use a different thickness or substrate and it’s beneficial if the client is educated on their options. At times, that has worked in my favor even if my price was more than the competitor because of this education.

Mike, Jr.
Glendale, AZ

Put the other shop paperwork down and let her know you will create all the official renderings and everything needed for permits, etc., but there is a non-refundable fee that will be deducted from the final cost of the sign project if it is ordered. If not, then that is the fee for the work and it is hers to do with what she wants.

Cindy

Trust your standards and gut feeling! There are those customers that feel the need to control, gouge and demean as a first impression. That shows their character. As a signmaker, I have found, those customers do not make for a happy life and usually the cost is too great in many ways. As for using another sign companies’ artwork and design, that is a moral issue solely on the company being asked to copy the artwork. No one likes to see their artwork on a sign they didn’t make or get paid for. I would kindly decline infringing on a job that seemed to be in the works but would say that if there was anything else that needed to be made, within my scope of work, then give me a call.

Frank F.
Georgetown, DE

Faust should bid the project. Faust should not look at the competitor price; just put a bid with normal markup and see where it stands. Being cheap makes you cheap and clients who just want the lowest price don’t want you to make a living or be there for the next project. Client claims they have global work so there are others quoting, plus the graphics would be their property not the competitor. Where the piece brings up the ethical question of using competitor-created graphics for national or global accounts, who owns it? This is perfectly OK to do and acceptable in the industry at this level. I know because this has been done to my company. We created the final sign graphics and specifications, which were shared to other sign companies. It’s the client who owns the brand and branding. Funny fact: When a brand is growing, price matters; after it begins to aggressively expand, they will pay more for meeting delivery dates in multiples.

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