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June-July  2004

Customized Challenge
Customized Door Market Offers Specialized Opportunities 
by John Yetter

As front door makes a strong impression. It may be a species of wood, specialized millwork or stain that sets the tone carried throughout the house in interior doors, trim and moldings. It may be a theme, such as colonial or mission style, or a unique design element. One thing is certain: the look and feel makes a prominent statement about the owner’s taste, and no two buyers think alike.

The trend in custom doors today is toward the high end of the market, and buyers want entry doors that set their home or building apart from the ordinary. An architect may guide the owner in the decision, but the choice is never a casual matter. Owners who want this first impression to have a personal and possibly dramatic impact can be comfortable paying from $1,500 to $25,000 or more for the entry door alone.

Buyers in this market are unlikely to select from a catalog. Because characteristics such as the evenness of the color and the quality of the joints are vital to selecting the right manufacturer, buyers want to see and touch samples in showrooms. Attention to detail and a focus on customer preference are keys to success in the custom door market. 

What Manufacturers Need to Consider 
Any manufacturer considering producing custom doors must have a wide range of capabilities and the shop-floor flexibility to meet challenging requests. Other successful strategies include clear communication about realistic ship dates and maintaining excellent supplier relationships. 

One of the biggest trends in custom doors today is uniqueness, and customers are willing to pay for it. For the manufacturer, this means opportunity and it also calls for intense commitment and flexibility. 

There have been recent trends toward a painted look in solid wood stile-and-rail doors and they are most popular in the New England market. But new materials are offering even more choices than ever before. One example is alder, a soft wood with a grain consistent with cherry.

South American mahogany is excellent for exterior doors because it is extremely bug, dry-rot- and weather-resistant. But a customer may want the interior woodwork in cherry or pine. So a manufacturer of custom doors must be ready to have the exterior-facing and interior sides of the entry door in different stains and even different species of wood.

To serve the very selective high-end buyer, a manufacturer must be prepared to create any width, height or thickness, any wood species and any configuration including curved, elliptical and round. If a shop does not have the capabilities needed to meet a design approach, the customer will go elsewhere.

With the multitude of decisions involved in the construction of a home or building, owners and architects often prefer to purchase the doors, trim, hardware and other elements from a single source. The ability to do a full range of work, including specialties such as hardware machining can be a strong competitive advantage.

Manufacture may be a bit of a misleading term in terms of custom doors, which take a critical eye and superior craftsmanship to achieve. It is crucial to recruit and retain employees who are true master craftsmen. In the custom door arena, fairness and competitive pay are vital to attracting and retaining high caliber employees. 
Ultimately, customer satisfaction is ensured by the beauty of the finished door. Employees with a focus on detail and a commitment to quality are motivated to design and build the precise door that each customer envisions.

Prepare for Emergencies
Lead times are the most important and problematic aspect of custom door manufacturing. The fact is that few customers order in a timely manner, and many jobs are emergencies from the outset. 

While this is not unique to manufacturing custom doors, it can be a more sensitive area, because buyers of custom doors often have a large personal and financial stake in having exactly the right door at the needed time.
Plant capacity is part of the answer, of course. More important, however, is clear communication and honesty. A custom door can take four to eight weeks or more, and telling the customer otherwise will only result in dissatisfaction weeks later. 

Establishing ship dates in the final sign-off documentation is a starting point. But customers—especially customers under stress—cannot be expected to read fine print. Communicating the ship date and demonstrating that you will move forward as rapidly as possible are essential. Customers need to know that you understand the pressure they are feeling. However, quality cannot be sacrificed for speed in the creation of a custom piece. 

Face the potential tough talk about the ship date as early as possible in the creation process. Consistent, clear communication from the beginning demonstrates integrity and helps build trust with the customer. A customer who respects your work, and has faith in your policies and procedures, will be more satisfied at the project’s end.

Build Excellent Supplier Relationships 
Lumber is the mainstay of custom door manufacturing. Clearly, reliable sources of high quality wood are fundamental to keeping projects on schedule, and also serve as pipelines for glass, hardware and shop supplies. 
Customers with special needs are the heart of the custom door market, so access to suppliers who will go the extra mile is essential. Your ability to fulfill customer requests is based entirely on your supplier relationships.

Depending on a single vendor is risky, but the total number will depend on your volume. To create and maintain strong relationships and loyalties, ensure that you buy a substantial amount from each vendor.

Remember that you may be a supplier as well as a buyer. For example, you may supply custom doors to millwork companies. The importance of a solid relationship applies here as well. Being known as a dependable, high quality subcontractor will expand your business.

Intense deadlines combined with a commitment to satisfy highly individual designs and personal tastes are the challenges of custom door manufacturing. Addressing these challenges calls for unique design and fabrication capabilities, highly skilled and motivated employees, flexible shop capacity and an excellent pipeline of materials. Above all, product quality must be matched by business ethics. In the very competitive field of custom door manufacturing, attention to customer satisfaction, superior craftsmanship and solid relationships are the ultimate hallmarks of quality work and success. 

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