Designing Award-Winning Signs: Collecting Design Fees

A change is needed to keep shops from giving away valuable time and energy

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It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday and you are at the office tallying up your designers’ time sheets for the last two weeks. You notice that there have been a lot of missed sales lately and as a result, your bottom line is not what it should be. Those missed sales means that the company invested time in providing the customer a design and no revenue came into the shop. It was pure overhead. If only there was a way to change the industry so that customers expect to pay a design fee up front rather than expecting it all for free. What have you done to implement this practice with your sales team? Have you tried it and failed or tried it and succeeded?

So, are you a nay-sayer to the concept of charging a customer upfront for artwork or does it ring true to something you and your sales team have wanted to implement for years but never really knew how? Are you looking for a way, a process, a series of talking points that will help you change the expectations of your customers without scaring them away? Why hasn’t this crazy-nutso idea of collecting a design deposit been a normal aspect of doing business with a sign company? Architects do not give away designs, they collect a deposit on the concept of the job and then they create the drawings. How does the entire sign industry get stuck in a vicious circle of giving away the single most important element of the produced product? How about learning one way to get paid up front for the design work, and get a soft commitment in writing from the customer stating that if the price is right, they promise to buy the sign from you.

If your potential customer does not trust you, you will never get an upfront deposit
The Sandler Selling System discusses trust within the first few pages of the book. Trust is everything, and without it, all of your hard work and your designer’s hard work will be for nothing. Typically, the potential customer who doesn’t trust you, but asks for more revisions, is someone who is probably tooling you to find out just how honest the company they are going to use is. Without trust, it’s not about your sale or you, it’s about them and their ability to get as much free design work out of you and your designer as possible.

How do you build trust? I mean real trust!
How do you show interest in a customer? One tip I have is to use your mouth 1/3 of the time that you are listening. In other words, you have two ears and one mouth so use them accordingly. Listen, speak clearly and keep your comments and compliments short and to the point, but be casual and natural. Don’t force yourself, it will be very evident. Take sincere interest in their story. Show interest in their company and do your research up front on the company. The more you can talk about specifics of their company, the more they realize you have done your homework, and that their project really does matter to you. Your only goal at this point is to convince them that you really do care about their company, their advertising opportunities (their new sign) and them as a person who is in charge of the project. Ask and mention things like their role within the company and how they got put in charge of the sign project. Discuss the size of the company and the number of employees, talk about the smart choices they have made concerning their new sign.

How do you know if they trust you?
It’s pretty easy to tell as they will talk about whatever personal circumstance that they are asked about. I like to bring up their position, and I get them to describe their role within the company. People typically like to talk about their accomplishments, so be ready to compliment them, or their talents with utmost sincerity.

One very important test of trust
I like to establish the most trust and openness that I can, and then I ask them the $64,000 questions: “So, have you always been in charge of the signage for the company?” And they will say yes or no. Either way, you ask the customer if the company was pleased with their last monument sign that you know they had installed on another property they own just down the street. (You discovered this when you researched the company.)

If they liked the sign, liked the other company and liked the salesperson, that’s when you drop the nuclear bomb question: “Well, if you were pleased with the last sign company, then why am I here?” I like to believe that this question makes huge progress in the customers trust level of you. By asking that question you present a question that forces them to reveal their hole card; it forces them to be real, upfront and honest. If they ignore the question, or answer in vague terms, it’s a clear sign that they do not trust you, and probably never will. At this point, you are truly better off to excuse yourself politely and leave. Consider the wasted time, gas and hassle in jumping through a bunch of design revision hoops while the customer uses your drawings and estimate to double check that their favorite sign company is being honest with them on their pricing. Without an upfront design agreement, you are dead in the water, so it’s better to leave than to waste any more time there with a customer who doesn’t trust you. Focus your time on other accounts so you can find one where the trust factor is possible.

And when building trust doesn’t work
Sometimes the person in charge of the project simply will not friendly-up. They are tight and buttoned up and would never give out personal or corporate details or information. For these folks, believe it or not, the trust might be there, they just don’t show it. Don’t let that slow you down; ask for the deposit anyway, at least four times or more if necessary. Don’t forget, this is a closing step and once they sign the upfront design agreement and pay you a deposit, you are half way to making the sale.

How to ask for an upfront design deposit and agreement
This is where your disposition will make the difference. I like to say it in a very casual way, as if it is just a normal part of the sales process. If you do it right, they will say, “Ok,” and sign the agreement and cut you a check. That’s in a perfect world. What sometimes happens is you get a little kickback on the deposit. This is where I usually say some form of the following: “We are the professionals in our industry (which means you will show them what an effective monument sign looks like). As sign professionals, our reputation, our skillset and our attention to detail is what sets us apart from our competition. If a sign company is giving you free designs, keep in mind that nothing is free, and the costs of those designs are buried into the sign cost. Our design work is proprietary and beyond the traditional sign drawing-on-a-page. Our philosophy is one of transparency, trust and professionalism. There is always a cost to every aspect of business, so we believe that collecting a design deposit allows us to put 110 percent of our designer’s energy into your project. This is how it’s done at large companies such as ad agencies, architects, landscape companies and other small companies. So, would you like to use a check or a credit card?”

Keep on asking and asking until you almost cross that line of being a pest. You may need to refresh the trust factor in order to get a signature. Don’t be afraid of going back to the beginning of the introduction to rebuild your trust factor.

Mention how you empathize with their work challenges of finding the best sign company and account executive. This is easy because you should already know what they do for their company (because you asked earlier). I like to use an analogy that utilizes a frustration they have about their position in the company. I do this to make my point about the design deposit and why it’s necessary. You might say to them: “It’s similar to what you go through in your position here at the company when (blah blah blah) occurs. As much as you would like to give that (whatever) away to your customer, you can’t. You and your company understand the cost to the company and you justify why your (whatever) cannot be given away.” Right?

So, our company has evolved over the years to be one of (your city or town’s) premier professional sign companies. So here is the design agreement for you to approve, and all I need is a check or CC authorization. 100 percent of your deposit is applied toward the price of the sign you will purchase from us.” The key to this is to ask for the deposit without one bit of hesitation. I mean it should roll off your tongue like you are asking for a burger and fries — it’s no big deal. Practice this in the mirror 20 minutes before every appointment and make sure you come across as smooth and confident. Just ask, and keep asking as the conversation allows, until they give you an emphatic “no” or the client signs the agreement and gives you a check.

In the end, the more you incorporate this into your company’s sales process, the higher the closing rates will be and the more money will be generated to assist with the designer’s paycheck.

Everyone has a slightly different take on this, but regardless of technique, the trust factor controls your appointment. It’s what makes all the difference in your closing rate. 

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau (shar-bo-no) started his career in the sign industry in 1985 as Charboneau Signs. He initially focused on hand-lettered signs, windows, and vehicles while also providing logo design and graphics. As years passed, he expanded into the world of electric monument signs, combining his eye for graphic design with his mechanical aptitude. He utilized the internet to provide his design services to sign companies around the country, providing remote assistance with design, fabrication, and installation drawings of all types of electric signage. In 2007, he became a contributing writer and the technical advisor for monument signs at SDG magazine. In 2017 he published the Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide. In 2019, he started Storm Mountain Signs and the Sign Design Institute, which offers design training for new sign designers. He is reachable at [email protected] or 970-481-4151.

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