Designing Award-Winning Signs: Whose Job is it?

Determining where the role of the sign sales rep ends.

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It’s late on a cold and snowy Thursday afternoon when you catch yourself day dreaming as you stare out the front window at your parking lot. Everything is covered with a fluffy layer of pure white snow; definitely not the kind of weather you want to be forced to schlep out into. You see a familiar car pull into your parking lot — it’s one of the salespeople who just returned from his meeting with the property manager of a local shopping center. He is smiling big as he brushes the snow off of his shoes, shakes off his coat and heads for his office.

“They want to look at some options and pricing on a new 40′ monument sign, 10 directional sign refits and a couple of new tenant channel letter signs,” he says. You have done work for this client years ago, so hopes are high that your salesman will land the contract for this project also.

“I don’t have time to do the survey; I gotta go sell.”

The next morning your salesman sets up a meeting with the production manager, the estimator and you (the designer). First topic discussed is the upcoming survey for the details that will be necessary to move forward on the project. All eyes focus on the salesman who has typically been pretty reliable at gathering accurate information about his projects. (A survey of a project this size may require a salesperson to roll up their sleeves and get a little dirty.) All eyes remain on the salesman as he looks out the window and cries out, “That’s way too much for me to survey-it will take me a couple of hours of lost selling time to gather those details-and besides, I’ll ruin my shoes in this weather.” (Everyone chuckles as they look down at his shiny new Bruno Magli’s)

The salesman’s response was no big surprise, and it’s a topic that has been near and dear to you as a designer and coordinator. Who is responsible for gathering the survey and design details for a sign project?

Of course, that depends on the size of the job and also who is responsible for paying for mistakes caused by survey inaccuracies. (It’s usually the owner of the sign company who picks up that tab.) On some projects, the sheer size and complexity of the job requires a special survey be performed by your install crew. However, in this scenario (and for the sake of this article) the only tools the salesperson would need for this survey is a tape measure, a camera, a screw driver and about 60 minutes.

A bad survey = problems from the beginning

Starting the design process using bad survey data can cause havoc on the project down the road in ways that only “The Great Carnac” could predict. Providing accurate info at the start can make the difference of a profitable success story or a miserable battle to make things fit. I call it “the 10 minute insurance policy” because in almost every situation where details are missing, the sales person could have saved themselves multiple trips back to the job site if they would have simply taken 10 minutes more to get better details and the right photographs.

On projects of this size that don’t require a bucket truck to complete the survey, who’s job is it to provide the dimensions, details and photos necessary for the design and estimate process? Let’s examine the good and the bad of that conundrum.

Is this a task for the sales person? 

When placed upon the shoulders of sales, the initial perceived cost of the survey seems like it would be covered by the commission paid to the salesperson. However, if the salesperson is spending too much time gathering survey details, that can cost the company in lost sales opportunities; or does it? When examined from the perspective of the sign company owner vs. the salesperson, it’s easy to lay this burden upon the shoulder of the sales process because their paycheck is directly affected by the success of the project. Additionally, if the salesperson performs the survey, the costs associated with sending a salaried or hourly technician are saved by the company-the salesperson absorbs those duties as part of their commission and as part of their responsibility to the project’s success.

Who has the most to gain or lose?

It can also be said that the commissioned salesperson has the most to lose during the sales process, especially if they invest their time to perform a survey on a project they might not get. However, if the customer is happy with the proposal and the project goes smoothly, the salesperson stands to earn a hefty share of the profit of the job. Isn’t that what selling is all about? Isn’t that why some individuals are perfect for sales and some are not? The art of selling signs is part of the risk vs. reward tradeoff that drives the successful sales person to the next call, the next selling opportunity. Is it smart to bog them down with those silly details?

As a comparison, let’s look at the small sign shop owner versus the larger sign shop with multiple employees as it relates to who is affected by survey details. Ask the small sign shop owner and the answer is glaringly obvious-it’s all on the owner’s shoulders. Customer wishes and desires are usually more accurately noted and city codes are well understood before a design is created or work begins. If a mistake occurs due to inaccuracies, the sign company owner eats the project no matter which department made the mistake. The smaller the company, the harder the hit.

The larger sign company is better equipped to absorb a costly fabrication error. If a survey is completed incorrectly and they fabricate a set of channel letters too large for the available space, the cost is more easily absorbed. Regardless of the size of the sign company, the cost still affects the ownership group in the very same way, it’s just less painful because the ripple occurs in a bigger pond.

Who is accountable for the details?

Should salespeople be held accountable for their mistakes as well as their successes? What about our shopping center scenario where there are existing directional signs that need to be refitted with new faces? What if the salesperson records the overall size as the VO and you, super-designer, catch the error? Whose job is it to go back to the job site for a resurvey? Isn’t it the salesperson’s responsibility to make sure that every detail (within their reach) is accurately relayed to design and estimating? Shouldn’t the salesperson be sent back out in the cold to get that dimension or should salespeople be relieved of these survey duties so they can focus on selling?

How important is it that sales people are familiar with the signs, details, shapes and sizes of the signs he or she is proposing? Should the sales person be treated like an independent contractor and be required to provide accurate details so that their project can be completed correctly and within the customers requested parameters? Or, are sales people nothing more than employees with a risk vs. reward pay plan?

Ah … let the debates begin!

Matt Charboneau

Since 1985, Matt Charboneau has owned and operated Charboneau Signs in Loveland, Colorado. He is a consultant and designer for monument, channel letter and pylon sign projects. His book, "The Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide - The how-to guide on sign surveys for the professional sign salesperson" can be ordered on his website: www.CharboneauSigns.com or by emailing him at Matt@charboneausigns.com.

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