A couple of months ago, I started following an eccentric marketing enthusiast on Twitter. I quickly learned that her work on various blogs seemed above and beyond normal in most any regard. Within days, I was overwhelmed with the amount of good information that she, Alison Heath, offers to her readership. The content she publishes could easily be that of a senior veteran in the industry. She possesses solid institutional training and experience in a demanding and realistic environment and I am relieved for an opportunity to learn from a pro.
I am rarely impressed by people who just regurgitate info and offer nothing that resembles independent thought or creativity. I assure you, Alison is not one of these types. She is fully capable of constantly publishing her own original written works and has a gift for it. What really caught my attention was the application of her previous efforts in a high-end, custom furniture business, Hardwood Artisans. During her time there, she effectively developed a high-end, signature series of advertisements which you will read about later. The ability to do this requires a collection of various skills, too detailed to go into, but includes solid design sense, placement, scheduling and demographic targeting. The eventual feedback over time proved the quality of her work.Of course, it’s not just her marketing skills that are enviable; she has a sincere passion for woodworking form and function.
Not long ago, I received a random message from my friend Todd with a link to something she posted on her blog. I had to smile since I had just read the same info as we both commented on the value of her astute info. We are fortunate that Alison took some time to be part of this interview. She offers details and stories based on a considerable amount of experience and training with a concentration in effectively applying some of the latest technologies and techniques.
BHW: Not long ago, before changing employment, your experience with a custom furniture business fostered an environment that allowed aggressive, mainstream marketing. I would like to discuss these two subjects for a bit.
You have an advanced awareness of furniture functionality and design. What did it take to learn this and how much was intuitive for you?
Alison: I developed an interest in furniture around 2004 when I was looking for a dresser on Craig’s List. I found an Art Deco one that, even though it was just a production piece, really captured my imagination. I bought it and dragged it home with me even though the veneer was all chipped and the drawers had fallen to bits. To fix it, I took an antique restoration class through Arlington County Adult Education, which really taught me a lot, not just about the various periods I was interested in, but about what to look for in terms of construction. That was my first exposure to dovetails. After that, I was hooked. For inspiration, you can’t beat looking to the past.
To be honest though, I think years of art history education really helped to refine my eye. I learned very quickly what various woods look like and basic joinery in my initial days at Hardwood Artisans so I think I must have a particular intuitive affinity for wood and furniture construction. Being immersed day after day for five years couldn’t have hurt either!
BHW: Naturally, you worked this knowledge and experience into effective client application. Along the way, what did you learn as best practices when talking to potential clients about meeting their custom solutions?
Alison: The most important thing to do when meeting a potential client for the first time is to ask questions. Questions tell you more about how the client lives, what their primary concerns are and give you clues about what to emphasize in your proposal. I once had a customer who was totally fixated on under-cabinet lighting. There was no way we were going anywhere; not number of drawers, not cabinet size, not wood choice until we’d found him the perfect set of lights. It’s not about what’s important to you: it’s about what’s important to the customer.
Certainly you have to have knowledge since all the questions in the world won’t help you propose a solution, but the sales person (or business owner) who doesn’t ask questions and then listen to the answers isn’t going to move a lot of product. Throwing out a lot of interior design or woodworking jargon isn’t going to impress a potential client. At best, they’ll think you’re boring. At worst, they’ll think you’re a snob who’s trying to make them feel stupid. So even if a client says something that’s not precisely correct, you know what they mean. Just let it slide.
BHW: As is often the world of custom fabrication, did you often meet with clients in their home or work environment in order to ensure a complimentary design and fit?
Alison: Honestly, I really didn’t. Most of my sales happened right in the showroom, on the phone or over email, usually with pretty crappy hand-drawn sketches (by me) of what the piece could look like. If someone needed an in-home consultation or even a scale drawing, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of folks who were much better at that than I am, but it’s surprising how infrequently I needed to hand something off. And because we were dealing more with furniture than cabinetry, we relied on customers to take good measurements. If someone wanted us to come out and measure, we charged for it. You shouldn’t be looking for perfection in the sales process. You should be looking for the minimum amount of work that allows you to 1) make the sale and 2) build the piece the customer wants.
Of course, if you do gorgeous hand-drawn, hand-colored renderings so beautiful that a customer might want to hang them in their home as art or you can afford to offer in-home service to every client, then you’ve got a great value-add and a way to make the buying process remarkable.
BHW: Switching gears now…with all the projects in the portfolio, did you find that the merits of previous work could stand on its own for marketing purposes or was a more structural advertising approach required to generate clientele?
Alison: For the most part, in normal economic times, in terms of selling to individual clients in our main target demographic, the merits of the work stood on its own for marketing purposes, but the caveat is that we had to spend a great deal of money on advertising to push that product. A product shot in the Washington Post Magazine every week for the last fifteen years brought in 50% of our new business every year. If I told you how much that cost, you would be horrified. But when it comes to a recession like the one we’re just coming out of or to expanding business beyond that, (into a younger or more affluent demographic or the commercial market), the approach just had to change. The lesson here is that if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. You can’t just build pieces you like and expect people to break down your door for them. You need a mental picture of the person who will buy your work, you need to tailor the product to their desires and income and then you have to make them aware of the product by promoting it somehow (through advertising, social media, going to home or craft shows, etc). That’s marketing in a nutshell.
BHW: Knowing that, statistically and realistically, conventional marketing remained the priority for increased commissions, how did you best achieve a balance when integrating the successful portfolio and service examples?
Alison: That’s a really complicated question, mostly because I worked for a business that’s a lot bigger than those of most of your readers. Every year, I put together a 10+ page written marketing plan of who to target, how to target them, changes that had to be made to internal processes, products and interactions between departments as well as the traditional where to advertise, when to send newsletters, changes to the website, etc. Where I was most successful was in identifying gaps in the product line, tapping into underserved markets and still remaining nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. Basically, you have to be always on the move.
BHW: It’s often said that marketing is not about the item, but the sales approach. I find that providing clients such long-term, personalized custom work, that this saying becomes less applicable, even horribly misguided. What are your thoughts about this dynamic?
Alison: I’m not sure you can really say the answer is one or the other. Any time you’re looking at any kind of marketing, the quality of the service or product is extremely important. Work that isn’t of the highest quality probably does require a more refined sales approach. But the fact is that if you have an unappealing sales approach, even the best product can’t really help you past a certain point. So even if you don’t have a showroom, when it comes to shows, client visits or other sales contact with customers, at the very minimum, be clean, dressed in clothing without holes or stains and listen carefully. You’d be surprised how many craftsmen I’ve worked with that this didn’t come naturally to.
BHW: Throughout long term development and application, what was some of the more important and memorable feedback you received from clients about your marketing efforts?
Alison: In my previous role, I literally had people thank me for our advertising and customer newsletter. People would regularly tell me that they always look for the ad in the Washington Post Magazine. In fact, that weekly ad and the Hardwood Artisans brand were virtually inseparable when I first started and even after three years and better visibility in the marketplace, it remains an extremely important branding vehicle.
One story I ran in a customer newsletter about a year ago on the 3/50 Project generated at least half a dozen email responses right away and the good feedback continued even through this February, when I had a customer mention the story to me at the grand opening event for the new Fairfax showroom. I think any time you can get a client to thank you for sending them promotional email, you’ve done a pretty good job.
BHW: It’s apparent that you’re an east coast professional, enjoying the turmoil of an intense city life around DC. How much work focused on homeowners vs. renters vs. commercial?
Alison: There’s a lot of commercial business to be had around DC, but I don’t care where you live, focus on homeowners. Renters can’t afford your stuff and the commercial market is pretty well saturated with companies that do exclusively that kind of work. Unless you’ve got some kind of modular system worked out that you can produce quickly and cheaply, you can’t compete. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule and some of that kind of business may come your way, but I wouldn’t build a business plan around it.
BHW: Since there is as much vertical development as horizontal living space, are you a fan a Apartment Therapy?
Alison: As a lover of furniture and interior design, I think Apartment Therapy is just fantastic. The home tours are so inspirational for someone living in a small space. That said, as a marketing vehicle for high end custom design, you can mostly skip it. Focus your public relations efforts on high end regional design or small national craft publications because the average Apartment Therapy reader complains about the high prices at Room & Board. How do you think they’ll respond to yours?
BHW: It’s no secret that you’re a social networking powerhouse. You’re blogs and twitter efforts are enviable, mostly because I am impressed how you have organized yourself to be able to sift through tons of info efficiently. Can you describe the tools and processes you employ?
Alison: I’m an uber-geek and an information junkie. In high school I used to do extensive research for fun and my undergraduate education at Georgetown University just made me even worse. Really, I’m just a human filter for information, both online and offline. That said, the trick to a content curation strategy for using social media to build your business is figuring out what kinds of information the people you’d like to reach are interested in receiving. That’s assuming you know that your target market is using social media, which isn’t always a given.
BHW: You provide such a great variety of useful links and information, esp through your tweets. Some people couldn’t achieve what you do if they stayed on the internet 24/7. How do you manage to have a normal life outside the internet and still stay so absolutely current?
Alison: Feeds, feeds, feeds. I’d been using Bloglines to track content that interested me for years before Twitter was a glint in Biz Stone’s eye. Most of the links I send out to my followers come directly from a morning review of about 100 blogs via Bloglines and now Google Reader. Also, I guess I just read really fast and make lightning decisions about what would be good to share. It comes naturally. I’m also getting into StumbleUpon for turning up the best of the web, but that’s a lengthier process that requires more curatorial attention. The blogs I read are all good for at least one good link a week, which keeps me in good supply. It all takes about half an hour to an hour a day.
BHW: Your tweets and blog posts often contain a constant flow of useful-to-genius chunks of marketing knowledge. Regardless if you authored it or not, the information you provide is fairly astute and advanced. Is this because you are fortunate and lucky, well-schooled, uber-networked, or just have a passion for creative and powerful marketing techniques?
Alison: Actually, I think it comes from a well-honed understanding of my target market, mainly because years ago, I was just where they are now. My undergraduate degree is in international relations, so I had to learn marketing through experience. The content I try to provide is the content I went looking for years ago and had to work really hard to find in marketing textbooks, books by really talented marketers like Seth Godin, Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell, blog posts by guys like Mack Collier and random internet searches when I knew I had to learn something that I’d never done before. I just try to gather all that knowledge into one place so others don’t have to work as hard as I had to in order to find it. I guess you could say that it’s my own ignorance that keeps me grounded.
BHW: In all your professional years, do you have a funny instance or example of work you wish you could undo or never happened?
Alison: Oh, how to choose! Everyone makes mistakes. That said, hiring and managing staff can be a bitch. I got lucky when I hired my first assistant and we’ve remained friends even though we’ve both left the company, but I went through six sales people at Hardwood Artisans before I figured out how to hire one who wouldn’t quit or need to be fired. I’ve since had those who have done more retail management than I have tell me that this is actually normal, but I put myself, the business and the people I hired through a lot of garbage while I learned. It’s too bad that sometimes experience is the only possible teacher. I doubt I would have such trouble now, but then, I’m a good sales person, a good marketer and a bad sales manager so I doubt I’ll ever put myself into that position again.
BHW: Anything you’d like to add?
Alison: I have different talents than the people I’m trying to help, but they’re not better talents. I’m not especially creative or revolutionary and I’ll tell clients that. If you’re looking for a viral video, you’ll have to find someone else, but if you want to build up a steady, reliable clientele, you need good fundamentals, which is what I excel at. I’ve got a good eye, but it’s one of critique, not creation. I’ll never make the furniture I love, but I can certainly support those who do however I can.
Postling.com Spot Testimony
Recently, Alison was profiled on Postling.com, a site that offers a synchronizing tool for many of the more popular social networking tools currently available. You can see her testimony on the front page even. It’s no wonder they chose her though, seeing how efficiently she manages various blogs (iDESIGN DC) a Facebook page and Twitter with ease.
Our friend Todd posted an excellent guest spot with Alison. Check it out here. His post really compliments and completes the story involving Alison’s wisdom about our profession.
-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) || http://www.birchhillwoodcrafts.com