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Designing Award-Winning Signs: Collecting That Design Money

Using a sign design as a closing tool

Let’s face it, design work costs money and somebody has to pay for it. Someway, somehow the designer’s wages and time spent on designs and revisions has got to be covered by the sale of the sign or it comes directly off the top of profits. One of the easiest ways to cover this cost is to get the customer to agree to pay for it up front.

Easier said than done you say? Perhaps you’ve never been shown how to get a commitment from the customer on the first design revision?

For as long as I can remember, sign companies have given away their design work in order to win favor with the customer. Like they are some restaurant in a shopping mall with a booth attendant out front giving away little samples of chicken. Really? We should have enough “samples” of previous jobs to save us from creating a sign design just to win favor with the customer.

Somewhere this pattern of insanity has to stop, and learning how to finesse the “upfront design contract” will allow you to use your artwork as a tool to get one step closer to the sale.

Understanding how to use the design as leverage to close the sale is critical to both maintaining control of the sales process and for limiting your time investment. If you are not using their desire for a revision as an opportunity to secure a working relationship, you probably are giving up a lot more than just control of the sale.

Don’t let your customer use you as a tool

I certain sales circles, it’s called “being tooled” by the customer. It leaves the salesperson searching for answers as to why after 10 revisions, and 10 promises to buy, the customer went with someone else for their sign.

I have watched quietly from behind the design curtain as the well-meaning salesperson struggles to slow the out-of-control freight train of customer-requested revisions. “Toot-toot,” says the salesperson. “The customer promises to give a deposit once we make this one last change to the design… toot-toot.” The procession of mindless revisions has already started to take over the sale, and taken on a life of its own.

The reason this occurs, usually, is because the salesperson didn’t handle the customer or the sale properly from the first five minutes of the very first conversation they had. Typically it indicates that the salesperson did not establish a strong enough trust relationship with the customer up front. Instead, they probably acquiesced to the client’s requests by asking the designer to design a sign that follows the customer’s exact request that obviously won’t work, has clashing colors, or is just plain ugly. In these scenarios, the customer assumes that the salesperson is simply the facilitator for their unlimited use of the company’s designer to make all of their crazy sign ideas come to life, for free.

Experienced sales people will tell you that this approach to sales becomes a giant waste of time, money and energy that immediately gives away control of the sales process. Once you give it away, you may never be able to get it back.

Some salespeople are often too afraid to say to the customer, “No, unfortunately that idea won’t work on your sign, but this idea will work,” and as a result they become the tool that provides the customer with designs that are used to negotiate a better deal with the other sign company.

Here’s how to use the first design change request to close the sale

For me, regardless of how much I enjoy designing signs on the computer, it’s still work. It’s my job. So when I am speaking with a client, my goal is to close the sale with the least amount of artwork or design work time as possible. Try to think of designing in this way: If you substituted the word “Ditch Digging” for “Design,” and you were the “ditch digger,” you may very well change the way you sell, and what you agree to give away to the customer, if you were the one who had to dig a new ditch every time the customer changed their mind. Being the one who had to create the design as well as sell it, I guarded my time and I learned how important it is to “sell smarter” as a result.

Be the professional, not the tool

Whenever I am with a customer or client, I always present myself as a professional in the sign industry, and I never let the customer control the sale. As a designer, I do not want to design anything unnecessarily. With the very first word I speak to the customer I am working a well planned strategy of asking the right questions and getting the answers I need to close the sale with the least number of design hours. Technically speaking, every minute I spend on design is money out of my pocket. If it costs you $20 for every design revision the client asked for, how much differently would you work your sales game to prevent revisions from occurring?

Build upon a relationship of trust

Trust … I can’t emphasize this concept enough. Once you have established a relationship of trust with the customer, the sale is almost made. Once your customer trusts you, you are half way to the sale. Trust is needed if you intend to convince the customer that your design idea is their best option. This is the first step in eliminating the revisions merry-go-round.

Present your first design idea – but no free revisions

What I mean by no free revisions is simply this: In order to maintain a sense of value to your designer’s work, you must be willing to assign it value by asking your customer for something in return in exchange for the revision. How many hours did your designer spend on that design? Isn’t their time worth something? Isn’t your time as a professional sign salesperson worth something? Giving it away devalues it in the customer’s eyes.

Agree with your customer – but still no free revisions

“Yes, Joe, I agree that we could show the monument design with larger text and a curved roof peak, not the flat one it has now.” At this point, you have just agreed with the customer that a revision would help the sign look nicer, and possibly even meet their needs better. At this very moment, you are at a fork in the sales process that will set the course for the rest of the relationship. Pay attention and speak wisely at this junction.

Hook the design – close the sale

The minute the customer wants a revision, you have the opportunity to solidify the sale and get the customer to agree to “something,” such as agreeing to do business with you and your company. This is the time to bring up the “Up Front Design Agreement” and get them to sign it. Even better, ask for a design deposit that will be credited back to the cost of the sign once they have decided upon the design and price. This is the exact moment where your customer needs to make the choice to continue to do business with you, the sign professional, or not. Period. It’s yes or no with no half-way-in relationships. Are you their new sign person, or not? Or are you just one of the many who will gladly provide more free design work without any sort of up front commitment? This is where your relationship of trust must be strong enough that the customer feels comfortable making a commitment to doing business with you, and to give you a deposit. If they hesitate or refuse, it absolutely means you have more relationship building to do.

Once they agree, you’ve made huge progress toward closing the sale

If at this point your customer agrees, then congratulate yourself because you just trial closed your customer and they have agreed to do business with you. They didn’t agree to buy a sign from you yet, but that decision will be a much easier one for them to make when the time comes because they trust you.

Be the sign professional

At this point, you have their trust and so they should trust in your design recommendations for a sign that will work for their needs and budget. Hence, the elimination of the back and forth revisions that can occur when your customer is allowed to dictate and control the design process. You want their input and feedback, but because you are the sign professional, they will realize that you have recommended the best sign option they can possibly obtain for the money. And, if conducted in the right way, this method of solidifying the working relationship up front will result in a much smoother sales and design process moving forward.

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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