Technology helps tent renters keep customers in the loop.
By Jamie Swedberg
What’s the first rule of communicating with tent rental customers? Answer the phone when it rings.
“We have a rule that the phone has to be answered by the second ring or I’m off the wall, I’m up out of my chair,” says John Creedon Sr., president of Creedon and Co. Inc., a turnkey event company in Worcester, Mass. “Yes, we use e-mail, but the telephone is probably still our best way of communication.”
Assuming tent renters can manage to get the phone-answering thing right (and, unfortunately, not all do), there are still all kinds of ways a communication breakdown can occur between the business and its clients. Someone can mistype the number of place settings. A salesperson can forget to write down a special request for extra sidewalls. A customer can forget what size dance floor he asked for in the first place, and find himself unpleasantly surprised on the day of the event.
Technology makes it a bit easier to manage all this information.
“Events are a 24/7 business, so we keep up with the latest and greatest in connectivity,” says Donny Vasquez, vice president of sales and marketing at Made in the Shade Inc., West Sacramento, Calif. “Being in my early 30s, I’m obsessed with techie stuff. Smartphones, tablets and computers all help. We invest in all that stuff to run our company as efficiently as possible.”
Vasquez says Made in the Shade has found that it pays to let salespeople use whatever device works best for them, not just one standard choice. And the same goes for customers: They can communicate with the business in whatever way they prefer.
“Clients usually hear of our company through word-of-mouth referrals or they find us on Google™ [after doing] a search for tent companies in the area,” Vasquez says. “Then they’ll either email us or call. They can email us through our website. We have a ‘contact us’ form on our website that has fields that they have to fill out: their name, their phone number, the date of their event. So we do have some general knowledge before we send out a quote.”
Salespeople use an order checklist form when talking to prospective customers on the phone. The results of the conversation are filed in a folder as either “inquiry,” “tentative” or “sold.”
But that’s only the beginning. Vasquez says he’s usually juggling about 15 events at a time, constantly fielding emails and phone messages about questions, issues and contract alterations. He often does repeat in-person site visits to make sure changes will work.
With event details constantly in flux, not to mention an industrywide uptick in last-minute rentals, how can renters make sure nothing slips through the cracks? Steven Eisenstein, owner and chief event operator at Classic Tents & Events, Atlanta, Ga., e-mails proposals directly out of Party Track (an inventory management software system), often augmenting the proposals with layout diagrams designed in PartyCAD. When customers initiate changes, Eisenstein and his colleagues update the order in Party Track. The program annotates the order number with a version number to make sure there’s no confusion.
He’s also fond of his new customer relationship management (CRM) software, called SugarCRM®.
“Sugar, for us, is really a great tool for us to all communicate with each other,” he explains. “Any time we talk to the clients, we’re making notes in the software system. Then afterward, we take those notes and we make sure that we’re updating our Party Track. The good thing is, all the other managers can look into Sugar and find out what the most recent activity is. It also tells us if it’s just in the proposal stage, or if the contract’s gone out, or whether it’s tentative or what percentage it is of moving forward or not. It really helps us quite a bit.”
William Pretsch, owner of Mahaffey Tent Rentals, Memphis, Tenn., is also a CRM fan. His company uses Sage ACT!, which he describes as “like a giant Rolodex®.”
“Every time we talk to a customer—someone comes in the door or sends us an email—we put them into that database as a prospective customer,” he says. “That way we have their name, their phone number and all their contact information, and you can search by that piece of information. So if someone says, ‘Yeah, I called you guys a few weeks ago…’ we can just say ‘What’s your telephone number?’ We type that in and boom, up comes their record.”
The CRM program serves as a time-stamped record of all customer interactions, which Pretsch says has come in handy when, for example, a client botched a party and then tried to tell his boss it was the tent company’s fault. But it also helps salespeople in less dramatic interactions.
“If you’ve got to make a call to someone, you can look and see what’s going on with them,” Pretsch points out. “You can look at it and see, ‘Ooh, we had a late delivery there,’ so you’re kind of forearmed with that information. You’re not relying on your memory as to what happened. And someone coming new into the organization has access to a great deal of history with that customer.”
Get the picture
Perhaps best of all, technology can help tent companies communicate visual ideas to their customers, concepts that couldn’t be explained by verbal description alone.
“We’ll send them a CAD [file],” Creedon says. “We’ll give them a visual of how the tables are going to be set up, how the tent is, where the center poles are or, if it’s a frame tent, where everything is located.”
Eisenstein has a manager who ups the ante by showing customers PartyCAD layouts on her iPad®. “You can do a 3-D version and you can take somebody through the tent and … show them what the tent’s going to look like,” he says.
Pretsch agrees that the iPad is an excellent sales tool. Salespeople enjoy using it for email and other basic transactions, he says, and they find it easier to look at than a smartphone. But the customers also like the device’s novelty and visual appeal. He believes it helps to draw them in, to make them feel as though they are part of the planning process.
“One thing about an iPad is that it’s one of those things that’s somewhat collaborative,” he says. “You can sit with a customer and lay a tent out, and say, ‘Is this where you’re really thinking of putting the stage?’ You can move things around a bit. I don’t want to say it’s better than a laptop, because it’s not always. But it seems to be a little more attractive to folks.”