Wednesday, 17 Apr 2019 16:33 GMT

Business Owners

In a time of change, the sign industry is holding its own, but not without difficulty. Carys Evans explores how business owners run successful companies in a potentially challenging market

Navigating the market

For a complex and bespoke industry like the sign sector, there are numerous challenges. These are an aging workforce, a lack of trained staff, and a lack of young people aware of the industry at all, which means that the day-to-day running of business can be challenging and the future of sign can at times seem uncertain. According to the International Sign Association, the most significant workforce issues impacting business in 2016 was attracting skilled workers (67%), turnover and retention (29%), diversity of workforce (21%), and an aging workforce (13%).

A lack of support from the government in training and funding has also been highlighted by those in the industry as an area of concern. Associations such as ISA UK powered by the BSGA are campaigning and collaborating with schools across the UK to address this.

Over 500 people have completed the educational programme Make it Happen

Commoditisation has been flagged as another challenge, with many consumers opting for the cheapest option of what they believe to be the same product, from a different manufacturer.

Despite these challenges, the International Sign Association identified an above-average growth to the sign industry in 2018 with several areas such as printed, electrical, digital and architectural signage contributing to this growth. So, how are sign companies overcoming challenges and successfully running businesses in a potentially challenging market?

Lack of support

During a stint in estimation, Sam Armstrong, who has been in the industry for 17 years, says it became apparent that there was no support in the industry. Three years ago, having completed a leadership programme, she made the leap from full-time employment to start her own educational programme for the sign industry. Since Make it Happen began, the programme has seen over 500 people complete the course.

According to Armstrong, the biggest challenges for businesses in the sign industry are sales and staffing. “We obviously have many challenges and influences. Including relying on other areas that heavily influence us.

The Make it Happen programme is hosted at SignFab’s Leicester site and provides a complete introduction to the entire sign-making process

“There is a heavy reliance on other industries being busy and requiring our services in order for us to generate work. For example, if any of the finance, retail, manufacturing or construction industries are in decline, then sign requirements diminish. We rely on a busy economy for our industry to have any growth – all of that is out of our control and even the best businesses can suffer due to a slow economy or recession.”

Armstrong says that it is becoming increasingly difficult year on year to find suitable staff to fill vacancies on all levels. “The country simply has no answer to the requirement on giving a suitable education and training to either school leavers or out of work job seekers,” says Armstrong. “Until that gets tackled, we will all be chasing a shortage of labour supply.”

Sign companies struggle with clients making unrealistic price and time requests due to a lack of understanding of what goes into making a sign

A lack of support from the government for such a bespoke and specialist industry is another issue Armstrong believes sign-makers face today. She says: “The government is an easy target here. They could and should offer genuine incentives for companies who invest money on training for both existing employees, but also for taking on apprentices.

“They could provide subsidised or low-cost borrowing or banking support and incentives to companies who pay their tax obligations on time. All of the above would generate growth and wealth in a company and therefore increased tax income for the government from both the company and its employees.”

O Factoid: According to the International Sign Association, the most significant workforce issues impacting business are attracting skilled workers (67%), turnover and retention (29%), diversity of workforce (21%), and an aging workforce (13%). O

In order to run a tight and efficient company, Armstrong recommends looking at each department or area on its own merit. “All businesses can improve on time management and efficiency. You must keep searching for those improvements.

“Make sure employees are kept informed, feel valued and are made to feel part of the team – their growth and development is a sure sign that the company they work in will follow suit. Having a good, honest, open and genuine relationship with your suppliers has to be an absolute must – we all spend a lot of time working, let’s try and enjoy it.” She concludes.

Stay ahead of the game

Whilst Armstrong places the largest challenge in the industry at sales and staffing, David Catanach, director of the British Sign and Graphics Association, recently renamed ISA UK powered by BSGA, places the pressure on staying ahead of the game.

Catanach says: “There are many challenges but possibly top of the list will be both keeping in front of the curve and diversification. There are so many opportunities for sign companies to provide solutions to customers’ requirements; what matters is keeping aware of what’s hot and what’s not, what’s new and what’s old, what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s not always about the cheapest price. Customers seem to want more value for money and feel valued as a customer and simply showing them an interest in their needs in order to provide solutions that will work, always defeats those who just ‘order take’. I must add however that sometimes, simply taking the order and specification works just as well but if that’s all you do, then that is all you will do.”

Customers seem to think that you have on your shelf a 16m long LED illuminated light box complete with the graphics they require, ready to install tomorrow and all for a fiver

Clients making unrealistic price and time requests due to a lack of understanding of what goes into making a sign has been highlighted by those in the industry as a frustrating issue, and one that motivated Armstrong to develop educational programmes in the first place. Catanach says: “In my 30 years plus in the sign industry, this has forever been the case. Customers seem to think that you have on your shelf a 16m long LED illuminated light box complete with the graphics they require, ready to install tomorrow and all for a fiver.

“I am a firm believer in a professional approach to customers covering all aspects from design alternatives, different materials, explaining legislative and regulatory requirements and even down to factory visits. This all helps customers understand how a truly professional sign business operates and enhances your chances of not only securing the immediate business but more importantly, their future requirements.”

In order to tackle this aspect of providing an original service, Catanach recommends taking bold steps and creating a larger menu whilst keeping business profitable. He says: “Someone once said that if all you make is a three-minute boiled egg, that is all you will ever do, and you will miss many opportunities.”

Catanach recommends bravely expanding your service by utilising all the skills and competencies you have without resting on “the same old boiled egg”. Catanach says: “Never lose faith in yourself and your team. Worry about the things that you can influence, don’t worry about the things that are out of your hands. Strive for continuous improvement and professionalism. Learn from mistakes and try not to repeat them. Remember to make a profit from your labours and don’t lose faith, there are no secrets to success other than preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”

An informed purchase

Fastsigns has over 700 independently owned centres in nine countries, providing banners, building signs, vehicle graphics, and a wide range of interior and exterior signs. For Fastsigns UK, commoditisation is one of the biggest challenges. Commoditisation is the movement of a market from differentiated to undifferentiated price competition. The key effect of commoditisation is that the pricing power of a brand is weakened. When products become more similar from a buyer’s point of view, they will tend to buy the cheapest. “Products such as banners can be printed easily by businesses that operate with low overheads and are potentially using substandard machinery and substrates,” explains John Davies, UK managing director of Fastsigns.

John Davies, UK managing director of Fastsigns

“These companies can produce commodity-type signage at a very low cost and can be purchased by customers quickly, via the internet. The resulting products can often be low quality and have low durability. At Fastsigns, we work hard to communicate the premium nature of our product and service in this competitive online marketplace.

Having identified commoditisation as a threat, the firm has developed methods to overcome this, and chooses to sell via a consultative approach.  Davies explains: “Whilst our customer may think they just need a banner, they may not have thought about the other types of signage solution that could be used to meet their needs. Our expertise can help highlight alternatives. We encourage our customers to consider how each product can fit into a wider signage solution and the benefits this can bring.”

It seems that by keeping ahead of ever-changing customer tastes and consistently advancing technology, and ensuring staff are trained in the skills needed to create modern signage, Fastsigns is able to succeed in such an evolving market.

Digital signage has contributed to a growth in the sign industry

Davies says: “Digital signage, artificial intelligence and 3D augmentation are all becoming an additional feature of signs. These technologies can add layers to signage and provide the viewer with a very personal viewing experience. Knowing how to deliver these services to customers in an expert manner can be difficult to achieve if you don’t have the funding to ensure you stay at the cutting edge of the technology curve.”

Due to the franchise element of its business, Fastsigns is able to commit to research and development on a larger scale. This means it has the ability to offer customers a service that is in line with new trends in the market. “We also have the benefit of operating as an extension of an American company, where technology and trends are approximately five years ahead of the UK market. That means we benefit from these learnings that keep our franchisees at the forefront of an ever-changing industry, allowing them to continuously exceed their customer’s expectations,” adds Davies.

Be tenacious with your sale process and listen to what your customer needs and ensure that you offer unrivalled levels of customer service

In terms of the key to running a successful sign franchise, Davies advises keeping up with signage trends and ensuring skills are appropriate. “With the rise of digital screens, having animated content or interactive content is important. As with any business, there is competition. Commit to marketing, be tenacious with your sale process and listen to what your customer needs and ensure that you offer unrivalled levels of customer service,” Davies concludes.

Sell yourself well

Graeme Hoole is the managing director of Leeds-based The Sign Group. Although a relatively small team of 23, the firm operates a successful business and tackles any obstacles or challenges head-on, with the whole team mucking in. Hoole explains: “We’re only a small business, so the senior team are covering three to four important roles in the company each to keep us at this level. This can be very difficult when people are on holiday or there is sickness, but it’s no different to any other busy small business. “We strive to be a progressive company and pride ourselves on being a bit of a trendsetter with our products and the way we work. We get a lot of enjoyment out of developing new products and methods of manufacture. But because of this we tend to get lots of enquiries that are on the more complicated side which can take some time to get through.”

A project completed by The Sign Group

With regards to staying ahead in such a competitive industry, Hoole and his team invest time into research and development. “Complacency is a killer for full service sign companies, especially the larger companies that deal with larger high street retailers. There is lots of competition for the work and with current social and marketing methods, the main clients can find inspiration and examples of the sort of things they want to do for their brand so much easier and quicker than ever before.

“This can create issues when these sign companies are busy being busy, and not doing any research and development on new products or services they could be offering their existing clients. Everything runs fine until another tender comes live and at that point it will be the ones that have found time to look around and see what else there is out there, that dazzles the main client which will at least get their foot in the door,” Hoole continues.

Marketing your business is one of the keys to running a successful business, says Hoole. “Clearly define what you do (and don’t do) in-house and have a niche element to the business. With so much competition out there and the ease of how a potential customer can have a ‘Google’ to find other options, the sign company really has to stand out. What’s your unique selling point?

“The best advice I could give to any new sign company or established but ‘dated’ one would be to get involved with digital marketing. Send someone on a course, use the free (or cheap) online courses, if you have the budget use a marketing agency. It might seem like a leap to start with, but you’ll wonder how you lived without it years down the line.”