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So Your Looking for Machine Shop Work... What Got Us Going

How hard we've found getting customers is
The good news is, finding customers is more painless than we thought it would be. The bad news is that it's still very difficult. Throughout our time with the company, we've tried everything from cold calls to online marketing campaigns and have found success and failures in each. We've learned a lot throughout the years as we constantly adjust to an ever-changing market. The last couple of years have required us to get creative and try new things, however, I believe every shop should be doing these things and adapting constantly even if the market isn't as unpredictable as it is today. We hear story after story of people unable to find work and are baffled by the fact that in such a terrible market, companies like ours are growing strong.

From my perspective, it appears that some industries are slowing down while others are ramping up. So it's true, many people will likely feel the slowing market, but that's why pivoting is so important. The work is out there and in many situations, more work than you could probably handle.

I fully admit that it is difficult to bring in the work and as a business owner, it is very difficult to make the time. But time and time again, I've gone hunting for work and saturated our shop in just a couple of weeks. These are my tips and the keys to our success.

1. Nobody likes it, but it works... Cold Calling
We've tried and succeeded at many types of marketing. This one has done well for us. When things slow down, I put together a list of potentially interested companies. These include OEMs, other machine shops, and inventors (more on that later). There's a lot to unpack here. First off, "where do you find this list?" you may ask. There are lots of databases of business online but I visited our local public library and used the A-Z database. My library had it free and gave me a list of hundreds of OEMS and manufacturers in the area with certain criteria of my choosing. I simply imported that into shop management software and began calling people up. "Who do you call?" you might ask. I always asked to speak with someone in purchasing or a buyer. I would say "We are a supplier of machined parts and would love to see if there is anything we can do for you. Could I please speak with a buyer about this?". I got lots of voicemails and of course lots of rejections. Just when you feel like giving up, you'll get that one customer who's swamped and has been looking for help.
I've read that it takes about 100 calls to get 1 good customer. I've also read that on average it takes 9 attempts to connect with the right person. The good news is that in this industry, you are not trying to sell someone something they didn't know that they needed. Instead, you are hunting for those who are looking for exactly what you do! Those who say cold calling is dead might be right in the former example, but in this scenario, I could not disagree more. We find that we get 8 solid leads from 100 calls and that's just calling once or twice. 4 of those usually turn into repeat customers. This may not be the result that everyone sees. I believe that the following are responsible for some of our success and might be some things to consider.

  1. We almost always offer lead times under 2 weeks (depending on the job of course).

  2. We have fast direct communication. When someone calls our phone, it rings me directly. Customers have mentioned that this impressed them.

  3. Almost every customer we've ever had has visited our website and most have commented that it made a big impression on them.

  4. We turn things around fast. If a customer sends an RFQ, we try and have it out within 24 hours or 48 hours at most.

  5. Lastly, we offer feedback and collaboration. Often customers are apprehensive and uncertain if you are the right fit for them. We welcome them to tour our shop, we offer to come to visit them, we offer things like free design work, give free ideas if it is a prototype, or we'll have them take a look at the quality of our parts. We do this so they can get to know us and see where their parts will be made, how their parts will be made, and who will make their parts. This way, we're not just another vendor on a list.


2. Emailing is simpler... What about that? Cold Emails
Cold emailing is not something we've had great success with and I get it. I get 50 - 100 emails a day. On top of that, my junk mail fills up all the time. It's parred for the course when you run a company because everyone knows you are the decision maker. If your job title was "Senior Buyer" you become the target of thousands of people trying to sell you something. On top of that, dozens of companies have begun specializing in providing these emails to anybody and everybody so buyers and business owners get inundated with emails. Emails also tell you almost nothing. I've received emails that sound spammy and turn out to be genuinely good companies. The problem with emails is that all you can do is shove words in front of someone and hope they 1. receive it 2. care to open it 3. read the relevant information 4. believe what it says is true 5. see the value in what you offer 6. and take the time to reply or whatever actionable item you are requesting from them. The only way to find customers this way is by giving them something that allows them to trust you immediately. For example, if someone referred you to them. Or maybe if you've been buying their products. In general, email marketing seems best focused on companies that already trust you.

3. Social Media Marketing. Sit Back and Watch the Money Come In... Right?
Honestly, this one surprised me. I threw an ad out on Facebook one day. It was just a picture of a part we machined with a phrase like "looking for shorter lead times?" I didn't expect anything from it, but then I started getting contacts. I got submissions through a form that was attached to it but I also started getting customers reaching out to me through other methods saying they saw my ad. I did get a lot of random people who had no intention of looking for machining and sadly you have to pay for those just like any other lead. However, I got lead after lead. Right now I spend about $50/ lead whether it is a good lead or not. In the past week, I've spent $450.00 on mostly junk leads but I've got 3 new customers with ongoing work. I'll keep paying that every week because the ongoing work is worth far more than what I've paid to acquire those leads. Remember that test ad that I ran? I started with just $5.00/ day and got tons of qualified leads. I am certainly NO marketing expert. I'm a business owner that is wearing many hats. I am someone who likes to try many things and see what works. I continue doing this with new ads. I'll target new demographics, try videos instead of photos, etc. Of course, it's expensive but when the customers find you, you've saved time and it's incredibly gratifying.

4. Word of Mouth - Yeah, I Had to Add This One
Everyone says that word of mouth is one of the most valuable methods of marketing. They are 100% correct but it's 100% unhelpful if you don't have happy customers to spread the word. It's kind of like those videos and forum posts about finding work for your shop and they tell you to ask your existing customers for more work... not helpful. The one thing you can do (equally cliche and overstated everywhere), go above and beyond with the customers you get. They will eventually spread the word. This is a long-term investment and should be done. That's as much as I will say about that.

Great, but where do you find the time?
We would not be able to market like this if we didn't have the workforce to handle the actual manufacturing. We run a small tight ship. I don't touch the machines anymore. My focus has shifted to finding work and running the administrative portion of the company. If you're looking to find new customers but are also trying to run the company and make the parts, my best advice would be to find help. Either find someone to be on the floor to machine the parts or find someone to help you market. There are tons of freelancers on Upwork, Fiver, etc. Honestly, though, you could probably hire just about anybody willing and able to learn about how manufacturing works to run social media, create and test ads, call people, etc. You want to make sure they have a good attitude and a good personality and you should make sure they are rewarded well for the work they bring in. I have no experience in marketing or sales before starting this company and it has been a learning curve for sure but I'm so glad we've been able to grow how we have without selling our soles to big agencies. It's a grassroots beginning and hopefully if you are in a similar place, you will see the same success (or more) that we have.

Conclusion
If you are responsive, respectful, friendly, and willing to put in the work, you will be successful. You'll have pains along the way and yes, it's still awkward at times, but you've just got to put yourself out there and be the best person and best company that you can be. People are sometimes blown away at how friendly, responsive, and easy to work with we are. I'm honestly surprised that it's not more common. Be good to your customers and they will be good to you.

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