Nine secrets to building a sign business that lasts

By signcraft

Posted on Monday, February 1st, 2021

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Succeeding in the sign business for 35 years is a major achievement. Brian Schofield, with much help from Karin Levin, has made that happen at Lines and Letters in Bridgewater, New Jersey. They know the pitfalls that can end a sign business or keep a shop owner from making what they deserve.

Outstanding design skills—which Brian has—are important, but there is more to it than that. Along with the usual business fundamentals like keeping your books, managing your expenses and knowing your overhead, there are some key issues that are fairly specific to making custom signs.

Brian recently shared with SignCraft how he and Karin address some of those issues. The results are clear: They still enjoy the business after over three decades, they still turn out great-looking signs and their customers keep coming back. Listen in on Brian’s comments and see how they might help you to reach the same milestone:

Be professional.

You can’t expect customers to respect you as a professional if you don’t act like one. Return your calls, show up on time for appointments, be realistic about scheduling, provide excellent service and complete jobs on time. Those sound like simple things that everyone knows, but you’d be surprised how many people overlook one or more of them. All this may sound easy, but when you are a small shop like us, with two people, it is difficult to stay on top of all the “housekeeping.” But if you do your best, your customers will appreciate it.

Use, or learn, the fundamentals of sign design.

The old-school fundamentals tend to get lost on a lot of today’s graphics, particularly on wraps. As a result, the main message is often lost as well. The fundamentals haven’t changed just because we use more technology. The reader still has only 2 or 3 seconds to comprehend the message on a vehicle.

Contrast is still the essential tool for controlling and organizing copy. Clutter behind lettering still makes it less legible. The reader can still only read one thing at a time. You want them to get the critical message first, then the next most important message, followed by the less important stuff. You do this with contrast—by using size, color and letter style.

Price your work carefully.

One of the big challenges of the sign business is putting an accurate number on what you design. You’re trying to be creative and come up with new ideas, but if you haven’t executed the idea before, it can be hard to price it accurately. I think most of us tend to underestimate production times and often underprice our work as a result. The object isn’t to get every job—it’s to get the job at a price that will let you produce it profitably.

Signs are not retail items that you buy, then mark up and sell. They are custom-made products. Custom work is not a cookie-cutter thing. You’re trying to do something unique because that creates extra appeal and value for your client. You don’t want to be repetitive or predictable, and that can make estimating difficult. Keep track of your time and materials the next time you fabricate a set of custom posts—it may surprise you.

We use SignCraft’s Sign Pricing Guide and it helps us stay profitable. I wish more shops would use it—some of the prices I hear are ridiculously low. A lot of sign work is underpriced because people don’t realize how much time is in it, and they don’t know what their hourly rate should be. The worksheet that goes with the guide will help you determine your overhead and convert that to an hourly rate that will keep you in business.

Sell your knowledge and design skills.

In the sign business today, customers give you a lot of what I call “arm’s-length art.” That’s a design that looks good on the screen at arm’s length, but you know will not be effective on the street as a sign. It would work okay on a menu, but not on a vehicle. I’m always reminding people that we have to keep it simple and trim it down, because most viewers only have a few seconds to look at this sign or vehicle.

I am convinced that less is more when it comes to sign design and vehicle lettering, and I can show that to them with examples. If there is too much glitz and glam on the truck that goes by, you may take a look—but you probably won’t get the critical information.

Everyday you have to put on your “psychological services hat” and explain all this to customers. It’s part of being in the sign business. You can’t always get them to see it, but when you can, they get much better results.

Get paid for your design work.

Don’t give away your design time—and your designs. If you’re going to let a customer have a design, even for review, you must be paid for it first. Once a design leaves your shop, it’s easy for the client to shop it around. You’ve already done a lot of the work of having a sales discussion, educating the customer and creating a design. If the customer takes it to another shop, all that’s left is for that shop to quote a price on production. You won’t get paid for what you’ve done.

Expect a certain amount of pushback when you ask people to pay for a design. Many customers have the notion that since the design was done on a computer, it was just a matter of a few clicks. I explain that it takes time to consider their image and who they are trying to reach, then to do several roughs as I work towards an effective design.

If they seem surprised that they have to pay for the design up front, I explain that it’s a part of the process. Design is the first step, then we move into production. We often use the analogy of building a building. You start with the architect and get the design, then you go to the builder to have it produced.
After we discuss the design and their sign, we may want to consider other opportunities to use that design to help them build a brand for their business. But it all starts with the design.

This approach can be a challenge because your competition may not be separating design from the execution of the sign project. This is a long-standing issue in the sign business. But you can overcome it if you’re delivering design that sets your work apart.

Get a deposit.

Many years ago we started taking deposits for logo design and layout design for vehicle lettering and signs. It’s one of the best things we’ve done. Pricing custom work can be time consuming because you are often asked to quote an exact number for the cost of the sign without having the layout or design figured out.

Bracket pricing—giving a range instead of an exact figure—is a good approach. It lets the potential customer know the “bracket” of money he or she will expect to pay, yet emphasizes that the price may change upon final design. Once the bracket pricing is agreed upon, we take a 25% deposit then produce a layout to present/review/approve. Upon approval of this, we produce the final layout and finalize the dollar amount for the sign or vehicle lettering. By getting a deposit upfront, you are covering your time spent working on the layout, and you know the customer is committed to doing business with you.

Communicate with your customers.

Return your calls. If there’s a question or problem during production, it’s always worth a two-minute phone call to keep the client informed. People appreciate that. They’re more understanding than if you wait till the day you were supposed to deliver the sign that the supplier was back ordered on the material you needed.

Keep learning.

SignCraft includes many informative and valuable articles in every issue, as well as showcasing individuals and companies with their work and words of guidance. It’s important to keep learning.

Remember the object of your business.

You need to cover the time you spend inside these four walls. Whenever you are working, the clock is running; the overhead must be paid. Whether you’re talking with the customer, working on a design on the computer, applying graphics or fabricating signs you have to be compensated for that time.

The object, at the end of the day, is to make a living making signs. Karin and I both keep our eyes on the ball in this regard. You need to turn a profit to stay in business. It’s one thing to put a smile on a customer’s face—but you also want to put money in the bank. That’s necessary if you want to still be here the next time they need a sign.

You’ll find feature articles on Brian and his work in many past issues of SignCraft simply by searching the SignCraft Article Index for his name.

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