There are common processes that are a part of every business. These include marketing, sales, estimating, quoting, work orders, scheduling, production, delivery, invoicing and reporting. Whether small or large, every business needs to consider how these tasks flow together in order to effectively deliver its products or services. Streamlining your shop requires you to identify each process and investigate whether it is creating a bottleneck, so you can improve the overall process flow in your shop.
This article will take a high-level look at several basic processes of a marine fabrication shop with four to 15 team members, the ideal shop size for running efficiently and effectively. With more than 15 team members, the communication and administrative overhead increases dramatically for ownership.
Overhead costs can be reduced by having only two or three team members, but the trade-off is that wearing too many hats can be exhausting, it is not maintainable over the long-term, and the business becomes too dependent on the individual members administering the operation.
I will discuss these processes in terms of the customer journey. It’s important to remember that businesses are ultimately delivering more than a product or service: they are providing “an experience” for their customers. Your customers are coming to you because they love boating, and they are choosing you to help them enjoy it even more!
The customer journey starts with marketing, which is essentially the process of attracting the interest of potential customers to your products or services. Successful marketing can be accomplished in many ways, but the most powerful marketing channel for high-dollar services (like marine fabrication) is word of mouth. People want to be confident when making large purchases—hearing a positive experience from someone they trust creates that confidence, while hearing a negative experience creates avoidance.
I mentioned that you are selling more than just a product or service; you’re offering the customer a satisfying experience. Every interaction (or lack of interaction) at each step along the way contributes to your customers’ experience and could ultimately be the story they tell their boating buddies.
What can you do to influence the way the story is told? To start with, ask yourself some internal questions: What does our business want to be known for? What product or service is our specialty? Who are our best customers?
When talking with current and prospective customers, simply accentuate your best offerings and highlight the kind of people with whom you work best. Generally speaking, that will be the kind of work and people that customers will refer to you. There’s an old business saying, “The customer is always right.” I don’t believe that saying is true; the customer is not always right. But the customer always deserves to be treated with respect. The more you adhere to this philosophy, the better your chances of having your customers spread positive word-of-mouth marketing.
The sales process starts once someone shows an interest in your products or services. Be sure to follow up quickly; don’t let an inquiry go unanswered even if you don’t want to work with them. Remember, you want to focus on the customer experience and first impressions count!
The first step in the sales process is to qualify each customer: Do you want to prioritize certain customers ahead of those you are currently serving? Some shops have a tremendous backlog of work already in the pipeline and are in the fortunate position of not having to take on every job. If that’s the case, then learn how to tell customers they may not be a good fit for your shop in a way that honors them and ensures you still have the potential to service them at a future time.
Next, you want to determine where their level of commitment is and evaluate how you can best serve them with your current products, staffing and scheduling capabilities.
When customers look like a great fit, you want to quickly provide them with an estimate—timing is of the utmost importance at this stage. They may want to compare your shop with others, and many times turnaround and reliability trump price. If they are only shopping for the lowest price, they may not be a good fit for you. However, responding to their inquiry in a timely manner will ensure your shop is considered a viable option, and not negate you before you even get a chance to serve them.
If the customer responds favorably to your estimate, the next step is to provide a firm price quote. Estimates often include general details that are used for internal purposes. They typically give customers a ballpark price range and time frame. A quote is official and requires many more specific details. It’s a commitment to provide a service for a fixed rate at a fixed time, and it’s your next chance to differentiate yourself from the competition and enhance your customer’s experience.
Once a customer has accepted your quote, issue a preliminary deposit invoice. This makes it easier to track whether the customer has paid you the deposit, reiterates specific timing commitments, and is the best way to ensure everyone is on the same page moving forward.
Once your customer pays the deposit, it’s time to start working on the project. Consider such tasks as verifying and ordering any needed materials, gathering them into your designated staging area, and scheduling the project among your current workload and staff availability. Be careful to limit your shop’s overall “work in progress” level to a manageable number of jobs. This allows you to shorten your overall lead times and still ensure that every customer is on pace to receive a quality project in an acceptable time frame.
Once a slot opens for this new project, notify the customer that the job is in progress. This is another small touch that enhances a customer’s experience.
After production is complete, pay attention to specific logistics with regard to promised delivery and installation. This is the final opportunity to make a great impression and subtly encourage customers to consider using your shop for repeat business down the road.
Once the project is complete, thank the customer for choosing to send this business to you. An effective method is to send an email with a before and after photo of the project. This also serves as a reminder to pay your invoice and encourages the customer to perpetuate the positive “word-of- mouth” marketing cycle, which should help promote future business for your shop.
All of these processes must work together smoothly for your shop to deliver an experience your customers will think is worth every penny. The key to effectively streamlining your business is to map out your entire workflow process by process. Focus your limited resources on improving an individual process that is holding you back until it’s not, before shifting your efforts elsewhere. When you improve each of these processes, you improve the entire workflow and you can satisfy more customers with the same effort.
Torey Heinz is the founder of Teagles Consulting which develops software to streamline your business and simplify your life. He is a software developer, has a background in metal fabrication and spent a few summers working in his aunt’s marine canvas shop.