If you run a sign shop that’s also involved in awnings, you could be missing some golden opportunities to seed new business by servicing these systems that you’re selling and installing.
“I know a few companies try to sell a maintenance agreement along with the awning,” notes Mike Yopp, president of Z3 Graphics, a wholesale supplier of specialty signs and awnings to the sign industry. “But for most, I think it’s a missed opportunity; [it’s] business they could have that they’re just not going after.”
Often sign companies focus their efforts on getting that sale and overlook the long-term potential. “I think for a lot of sign shops, the trend is to quote and bid; an awning, for them, is a once-and-done project,” agrees Mike Gatti, manager for the Weblon Herculite® awning fabrics.
But it shouldn’t be that way. Awning maintenance offers the practical benefits of ensuring customer satisfaction by properly maintaining the awning and the fabric, making minor repairs before they become major problems, and periodically restoring and refinishing the fabric so that it looks its best.
“Offering cleaning and maintenance services—especially to commercial clients—provides an opportunity to get in front of those customers once or twice a year and become recognized as their awning company, whenever they need something in the future,” explains Gatti.
Talk It Up
“The best time to sell an awning maintenance program is right at the beginning as it’s being installed, but a lot of people seem to be averse to that,” says Scott Massey, president of Awning Cleaning Industries. “If you sell them on maintenance in the beginning and always keep it looking good, it’s much easier than if you’re brought in after the fact and asked to try and bring an awning back to how it once looked.”
Massey’s company provides fabric maintenance and restoration services directly to awning owners and as a sub-contractor to sign and awning companies. The sales pitch can be simple and direct: “All you have to tell people is if they want the awning to look as good as the day it’s installed, it needs to be cleaned and maintained on a regular basis, and you can provide that service,” explains Massey.
Those who see the merits of the plan but lack the manpower or equipment, can always outsource the work to a company like his. “Our trucks are unmarked, so when we are on a job, we’re are an extension of the sign company to that customer,” says Massey. “What they want to charge for that service is entirely up to them.”
Whether or not an awning installer offers a maintenance contract, customers should still be advised on how to maintain their awning and when professional restoration may be needed. “We usually get the call when an awning is already starting to look bad,” reports Theresa Miller, vice president of Global Sign Restoration, a specialist in sign and awning services. “When they’ve waited to the point where it’s threadbare, it has to be replaced.”
With regular cleaning and periodic refinishing, though, Miller says her company can extend a fabric’s life as much as seven years beyond the manufacturer’s guarantee. “We can reclaim the color and refinish it, so that it looks as good as new,” she says. “People are often amazed at what we can do.”
While the awning owner’s first instinct may be to reach for the pressure washer to clean the fabric, they’re best avoided. A pressure washer at full blast (and in the wrong hands) can damage fabric and peel graphics.
The recommended method: a mild liquid detergent, a soft brush, some elbow grease, and a regular garden hose. For tough jobs and problematic stains, special cleaning agents are available from the fabric supplier or aftermarket suppliers like the APCO line from Awning Cleaning Industries.
Customers and end-users should also be made aware of the factors that will impact the life and look of the fabric. The choice of awning material, the direction it’s facing, the pitch of the awning, the amount of sunlight, seasonal weather conditions, and traffic all impact how often it will need to be cleaned.
Even color comes into play here. “We always try and steer people away from light colors, especially white or yellow awnings,” reports Peter Vasseur, manager of Install This Sign and Awning. “They can start to look dirty almost as soon as they go up.”
Vasseur says the choice of fabric can be a factor in determining its useful life. “The fabric we use, Sunbrella®, is very durable; even if it’s only cleaned every couple of years, it continues to look good,” he details.
New companies are launching new fabrics all the time, but Massey advises caution. “Don’t be afraid to pay a little more for material from big name manufacturers who have been around a few years,” he says. “You want something that’s proven and you know will last.”
Even though Herculite materials Natura™, Coastline Plus®, and Vanguard® all feature a Rain Kleen® finish to prolong the life of the material, Gatti still recommends cleaning at least once a year (with professional cleaning for problem stains). “The typical fabric is designed to last seven to ten years, but proper cleaning and maintenance is critical,” he says.
One potential issue, not yet resolved, is how the increased reliance on digital graphics and direct printing to awning fabrics will impact the useful life of awning fabric and the replacement market. While the inkjet industry has made strides in the durability of inks and substrates for outdoor settings, direct printing to fabric (as opposed to application of adhesive-backed graphics) is a comparatively recent trend in the awning market.
And unlike vinyl graphics that can be removed and replaced, these digital prints are essentially part of the fabric. Even if the awning is properly maintained, once they fade or lose their color, that awning section may need to be replaced or the entire awning redone for a consistent look.
Which brings us back to why offering maintenance services can be such a smart strategic move. Even with periodic reclaiming of color and refinishing, eventually all awnings lose their luster, and the material wears out. Today’s aluminum frames can last decades, but the fabric will not.
Long-term repair and replacement of awning fabric is a given in this business. But if that customer hasn’t seen or heard from you since the installation or if the business has changed hands, then that sale is up for grabs.
If you’ve neglected the service aspect until now, those opportunities may not be lost—yet. “With today’s economy, everyone is trying to hold on to their money but still looking for ways to stand out and strengthen their brand,” notes Michelle Sahlin, managing director of the Professional Awning Manufacturers Association. “Recovering an awning or restoring one to its original color can be an effective way to give any business a new look.”
Business may already be waiting. “Go back to your records and visit customers you installed awnings for five or six years ago,” advises Sahlin. “See how it looks, then talk to the business owner, explain what you can do, and ask if you can submit an estimate to restore or replace that awning.
“This can become a big part of your awning business.”