At some point in your experience as a retailer, it becomes obvious that small commercial jobs are relatively lucrative. The large jobs are usually gobbled up by large distribution firms or by the manufacturers that sell direct. But neither of these players have the time or inclination to worry about the local beauty shop that's planning a new addition or remodel, the new car dealer who's coming to town or even a rehab at the local high school. But YOU have the inside track on these jobs — if you have your eyes and ears open.

I belong to one of the local Rotary clubs where I live. And on the basis of what I learn at meetings each week, the club's annual dues are worth many times what I pay. Rotary strives to attract the best and most diverse group of business leaders in the community and, in turn, its members command the respect of the community through the types of service projects that the club performs.

I wouldn't miss my 7 a.m. roll call each Thursday to meet with the members of my club. Besides being treated to interesting speakers from different organizations in town, you get access to the knowledge of virtually every segment of the business world.

Through these meetings, I can gauge the pulse of the local business environment. I draw leads on how the real estate/building sector is doing, which new businesses are looking at property in the industrial park and what companies are looking for commercial lending to expand. I even get a few hot stock tips now and then!

When I started out on my own, I met with several Rotary members to glean some pointers on how to start a new business. Within a few short meetings, I'd gathered enough ideas to write a book — and these were tips that I hadn't found anywhere else in print. My point is that the payback of membership in these community and civic organizations is tremendous. (And there's always a probability of getting new business from fellow members, too!)

Professional organizations

The specifier community represents another avenue for locating new commercial business. These professionals do business in virtually every town. However, if you're in a very small town, you might want to approach local professional organizations to find out more about these specifier contacts.

Interior designers usually belong to the American Society of Interior Designers (, the International Interior Design Association (, or both. Designers who specialize in commercial work typically belong to IIDA, but ASID also has members who work in both areas. For the architectural community, the American Institute of Architects ( is the group to locate. It is important for registered architects to belong to this organization.

To obtain information on your local chapter's officers and meeting schedules, visit the various websites listed. Each organization welcomes vendors as industry associates, which is a highly effective means of getting acquainted with the members and building working relationships. Hosting a chapter meeting in your showroom is a great way to introduce yourself and what your business does.

Marketing via design clinic

This, then, leads us to the topic of design clinics, which can be very successful marketing events for you. You provide an in-store, invitation-only program for specifiers that features a vendor or noted designer discussing design ideas that make use of your products. This speaker can also be a professional member of your staff, or a designer who uses your showroom. You may want to discuss such presentations with the professional organization. They may qualify for Continuing Education Credits (CECs) that members need to maintain their memberships or state licenses.

As you plan the design clinic, remember is that it is not supposed to be a sales event. Rather, it's an opportunity to make contact with customers and build relationships with them. You're trying to demonstrate the value that your store offers through product selection and customer service. So, the clinic really represents an investment in the image of your business.

Rest assured that these events do pay off! Attendees usually return and make purchases. Design clinics also help you do the following:

Increase your store's credibility. Specifiers will perceive you as a design source, rather than just a place to obtain product.

Expand your database. The clinics will allow you to add names to your database and give you a reason to follow up on inquiries.

Target the audience you want. In addition to current customers, target the specifiers you would like to reach. Use an upscale mailer and limit the attendance to what your facility can accommodate comfortably.

Tune in employees. Be sure to discuss with your employees the purpose of this event. Their job is to mingle with the customers, answer questions and make contacts. Be sure they wear name badges.

Enlist vendors. Contact your vendors and solicit their help. They can provide information on new products. This will strengthen your relationship with them.

Stay on top of your housekeeping. Be sure your showroom looks and smells appealing. Thoroughly clean the premises! Add fresh flowers. Bake cookies.

Offer quality presentations. Be sure the designer who is speaking knows how to make an interesting presentation. He or she should provide design tips that complement your product offerings. Don't try to teach the designers how to design -- teach them about your products!

Generate publicity. Before the event, be sure to do your job with PR. Include a photo of the speaker, or of your showroom, for added interest.

Show your appreciation. At the close of the event, thank attendees for coming and give each a small gift. Design clinics definitely influence specifiers' perception of your store. If you properly manage the event, you can build confidence and trust among existing customers and new prospects.

Taking on special projects

Special-area projects are a way to lend a helping hand to the community and reap some excellent publicity. To be most effective, these should suit your interests, personality, resources, and schedule. Below are some general ground rules for these projects.

  • Select a special interest (like youth, the environment, the homeless, illiteracy, etc.) that is particularly meaningful to you.
  • Decide whether you prefer to work alone or with a group such as a local trade association, other community organization, nearby companies, or members of your own staff.
  • Establish the length of your involvement — be it one time, part time, occasional, or ongoing.
  • Determine the nature and degree of your contribution. For instance, will you donate time, money, labor, products, or other company services?

    You'll need some ideas to get the ball rolling, So you might consider:

  • establishing a community awards program at your place of business.
  • hosting a silent auction in an effort to raise money for a local charity.
  • donating a used car or truck to charity.
  • donating money earned during house tours or home shows to a local charity.
  • participating in the building of a home and then auctioning it. The proceeds can be given to charity. Or you might want to remodel a space for a disadvantaged family.
  • donating building supplies to a national charity.
  • helping to rebuild or repair buildings after natural disasters.
  • partnering to refurbish community centers and other buildings.

Any of these projects will garner attention in the community. (Don't forget to have your publicity organized BEFORE you start such projects.) It may take time, but the investment is worth a lifetime of contacts and brand imaging. Put your best foot forward and build a reputation as a caring member of the community.

In my next installment of Showroom Management, I'll change pace a bit with a column on custom and hand-painted tiles. I hope you'll join me then.