A commercial on the radio recently gave me pause.  It was an HVAC company bragging about the fact that they never, EVER use subcontractors.  I instantly compared this standard to my own industry and I knew I had to write this blog.  I could see his point.  When it comes to your home heating device or air conditioner, you really don’t want several different “cooks” stirring the stew.  You want one point of contact and one company to assume responsibility.  That’s reasonable for that industry, but there’s no comparison for the sign industry.

For one thing, the HVAC co. doesn’t build the heat pump it sells and installs.  It buys them from a manufacturer.  It doesn’t build its own AC units, it buys them from a manufacturer like Rheem, or Trane, so a direct comparison to the sign industry just doesn’t hold.

I guess that radio commercial made me feel a little defensive.  It made using subcontractors sound like something slippery, or unprofessional.  Truth is, lots of businesses use subcontractors, and it’s perfectly normal, and even unavoidable in many instances.  That certainly holds true for the sign business.

I was quoting a channel letter sign a few years back, and the customer asked me if I would do the install.  “I have a good subcontractor with a bucket truck.”  I told him,  “We could use him, or  you can hire whoever you want to install the sign, but I don’t own a truck, I’ve just never wanted the insurance liability and hassle.”  I was then accused of just being a “SIGN BROKER”.. which kind of knocked me back on my heels a bit.  I tried to explain that his sign was a custom product and not  just sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting to be ordered and shipped to his storefront, but I’m not sure he got hold of that concept, even though I did get the job.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that the development of so many different technologies have broken sign making into so many different component pieces.  Defining all the different types of sign makers is a topic for another blog, but sufice it to say that most sign makers tend to be specialists these days.  An orthodontist differs from a dentist, as does an oral surgeon.  They all work in the same general field, but they have specialized functions within that field.  It’s the same in the sign industry.

That being said,  many sign companies advertise under the guise of  “WE DO IT ALL!”  or, “ALL KINDS OF SIGNS”,  That tends to give potential customers the impression that every kind of sign  on the planet is manufactured under that one roof, which will never be the case.  That doesn’t mean that the sign shop is lying, although the claim may seem a little misleading.  Chances are, you CAN purchase any kind of sign through that sign shop, but truth is, it would be impossible for any one sign company to have every type of sign manufacturing process under one roof due to the simple fact that there are so many.  So, why this expecation?

Where does this come from?  I think I know.  As consumers, we tend to have a higher degree of trust in a product if we are buying it from the person who MADE it.  Now like I said, advancements in technology have completely mutated the sign industry from what it was, even   20 scant years ago, giving sign makers with different skills and talents the ability to specialize in the field of his or her choice.  Maybe it’s best if I give you a real example.

I sell a good amount of relief routed HDU (high density urathane) signs.  I take the order, complete the design and provide the spec drawings necessary for the customer to get a permit for the sign.  I purchase the HDU from a local sign supply, then take it to a subcontractor who owns a CNC (computer numerical control) routing machine, and he cuts the design I provide into the material.  I then prime and paint the sign, then install to the customers satisfaction.  My subcontractor friend is a specialist.  He has two CNC machines, each worth around $50,000 each, and he spends his day running those machines to make a living.  He has no retail presence.  He doesn’t sell signs. He just gets up every morning and goes to work in his warehouse routing different types of materials with his machines.  That makes him happy.  His router work makes me happy.

Now the fact that I used a subcontractor for a portion of the process might come as a surprise to some folks, but it should never be seen as dishonest or underhanded.  Now if I told you I had a CNC machine on the premisis, then I would officially be a liar, but me not going into detail about every process involved in making your sign is NOT a dishonest sales ploy.  The fact that a subcontractor might be used at some point should be a given, and the main issue should be that you get the sign you want at the price you want.

Here is how I explain this to most customers:

“All sign makers USE subcontractors;  All sign makers ARE subcontractors.”

This holds true for most sign makers, most of the time, and here’s the thing to take away from this whole subject;

Do you get the quality you want at the price you want from your sign maker?  If so, I wouldn’t worry about the process.  Now if  there’s ever a problem with your sign, and your sign maker shifts the blame onto his subcontractor… then that’s a problem.  Whoever you buy your sign from should guarntee their product and take full responsibility,  no matter who else was involved.

Dan the Sign Man