My Education in Fashion
One of the things my father taught me was the value of investing in higher quality clothing. He told me there are three reasons to spend more on your clothes.
1. Better quality shoes, shirts, pants, and suits will last much longer than less expensive options because of the superior construction process and materials that go into them.
2. Even though it may seem very subtle, you can see the difference. When you wear a more expensive suit or a pair of shoes, it’s like you’re driving a Mercedes instead of a Honda. Your customers and other people notice your appearance and automatically raise their opinion of you.
3. You just feel better about yourself and are more confident when you know you look good.
I grew up in Findlay, Ohio, a small town where a “high-quality men’s shirt” just meant a shirt with buttons. In my early 20s, when I started my career, I decided to explore higher quality menswear.
Once I made my way to Chicago, I went to the men’s department of Saks Fifth Avenue. They had a long glass counter display with a wall full of shirts tucked into wooden slots.
The older woman behind the counter asked if she could help me. She was the type of sales person you can only find in a specialty store these days. I told her I wanted to learn more about men’s dress shirts and how to make smarter purchase decisions.
Her eyes lit up – she had a willing pupil right in front of her.
She spent the next hour showing me a number of shirts, from their least expensive one to their most expensive. The price tags were concealed, and we didn’t talk about color or style or price.
All we talked about was the fabric and the construction.
She placed eight white dress shirts on the countertop. To my untrained eye, they all looked very similar.
First, I got an education in the different types of fabrics and weaves. She took each fabric and weave and showed me how the least expensive fabric differs from the more expensive ones. She talked about the raw materials, like where the cotton came from and how it was turned into fabric.
I learned that the more expensive the shirt, the more care, and attention went into everything from the source of the cotton to each step that converted the raw cotton into a finished fabric.
She then showed me the correct way to touch and feel of fabric in order to gauge its quality. If she hadn’t taken the first step in educating me, I would have just thought that the more expensive fabrics felt and looked better, but I wouldn’t know the story behind it and how it was made possible.
Those stories matter. If I were just evaluating the price of the shirt based on the feel and look of the fabric without understanding the story behind it, I would be much less likely to pay more for it.
The next step in my education was the construction of the shirts. She unbuttoned and unfolded all of them and turned them inside out. Starting with the less expensive shirts and working her way up the price scale, she showed me how the shirts were assembled and how the pieces were sewn together.
She then showed me the extra steps and attention to detail that went into making the higher quality shirts. These little extras either made the shirt look better on you or gave it a longer life.
Next, she turned the shirts right side out and showed me how the way the shirt was constructed affected its appearance.
She compared the details on the outside of each shirt. She had me compare the quality of the buttons, how the buttons were sewn on, how the cuffs are constructed.
All of the shirts had the same style of spread collar. Her last step was to have me compare how each of the collars looked on the shirt. She then turned all of the collars inside out to show me what gave some of them a better appearance.
After this crash course in men’s shirts, I was ready to make a purchase. And I didn’t buy the cheap ones.
The Lesson: Educate First
Most people start with the color, style, and price when they’re comparing men’s shirts. Those are important considerations, but because of that salesperson at Saks, it was the final part of my decision process, not the start of it.
You should take your building material customers through a similar process. But the sales and marketing approaches of most companies start with things like the color, style, and price. Then they work backwards to try to explain why their product is of higher quality or more expensive.
Why do building material companies avoid educating their customers?
Whenever I work with a building product manufacturer, no matter what my assignment is, I always make them show me how their “shirt” is made.
Even if the product is viewed as a commodity like steel studs, foam insulation, MDF board, house wrap, vinyl siding, or another type of product where the customer sees very little difference, I make them show me how they make it.
When they do, I can always find places where they do a better job than their competitors. Almost all companies with products that are very similar to their competitors make the mistake of thinking that their products are more or less the same.
But a steel stud is not just a steel stud.
Foamboard is not just foamboard.
And three-tab shingles are not just three tab shingles.
Companies who make products where it’s easier to see the differences, such as windows, also make this mistake. They will rely on the features of their products, like a thicker frame or a frame with a better material. They tell the customer what they’re doing differently but not why – or more importantly how – they arrived at this solution.
Here’s the Process I Follow
This is the process I follow to uncover why my client’s “shirts” are better than their competitor’s.
1. Get the History of the Product
I find the oldest, wisest person at the company and ask them to tell me the history of windows (or whatever product they sell). When were they first invented? What purpose do they serve? What were they made of? What were the pros and cons of the first windows?
For the next part of my history lesson, I have them take me from that first window to the windows of today. With each product, there have been advancements that came about because of changing needs, better materials, or some other reasons. I want to see a timeline that shows that progress.
2. Get the History of the Company
The next history lesson I ask for is about the company itself. When was it started? Who started it? Why did they start it? What was their vision? I then want to see a timeline from the beginning of the company until today that includes both company and product changes.
3. Get the Science
Then, I ask for the eighth-grade level science lesson in how the product is made, all the way from the raw materials to the finished product. All the while, I ask a lot of “Why do you do this?” “How come it’s done this way?” type of questions. Something interesting always comes up here about how the company discovered the “secret sauce” that makes their product better.
This secret sauce is often downplayed, but it can be an important differentiating factor.
You can have a recipe for chocolate cake or a loaf of bread that just about anyone can follow. But the bakers who have been making cakes and loaves for years have learned the secrets to doing it better.
They may follow the same basic recipe, but over time they have learned the secret to making it better, whether it’s the ingredients, the processing, or just some special technique. And while they may not share their secret with you, they can usually tell you enough that you can understand why they have a better product.
The vast majority of building material companies assume that the customer sees their product the same way they see their competitor’s product. They don’t take the time to identify these small but very important differences in how they make their products
Even if they do recognize these differences, they don’t see any reason to share this with the customer. And if they do share this information, it’s usually in a matter-of-fact way that assumes it won’t be important to the customer.
4. Tour the Plant
Next comes the plant tour with the plant manager. Starting with how the raw materials are sourced and received and ending with finished products being shipped, I want to see each and every step.
I see two big mistakes when I take plant tours. The first one is when most steps in the manufacturing process are presented like they were just a list to rattle through. “Here’s where we unload the trucks, then we cut and bend things, inspect them, and package them for shipment.” It’s like they don’t realize anything is unique about what they’re doing (“Isn’t this how everyone makes a shirt?”)
The second mistake is to stop at every station and tell me how big it is, how much it costs, or what kind of capacity it has. I really don’t care. What I care about is how each of these steps in the materials, machinery, and process makes your product better than your competitor’s product.
Most of the time, I have to drag this out of the plant manager like I’m a two-year-old constantly asking “Why?” – “Why do you do this? Why did you get that new machine? Why do you use this material? Why do you assemble it that way?” And on and on and on.
Often, a funny thing happens to the plant manager after this constant pestering on my part. He now sees his plant in a new light. After spending so long focusing on capacity utilization, reduced downtime, fewer rejects, more capacity, and lower cost per unit, they often lose sight of the fact that they also make a better product.
Tell Me Why Your Shirts Are Better
From these four steps, I have now identified the story behind your product and why you make a better product.
If you take it a step further and use this information to better educate your customers, you’ll see greater sales success and more customer loyalty.
Could you send out an email like Eton Shirts?
Can I find this story on your website?
Have your sales people educated your customers about why your product is worth more?
Contact me if you’d like my help finding your quality story.
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