ADA Signs: How to Stay Compliant Without Sacrifice

With ADA compliance laws on the minds of many sign manufacturers, it is important that compliant signs are both functional ­ in terms of the letter of the law ­ and still attractive ­ in terms of getting people’s attention and drawing new business

By: Dawn Nikithser

This was not always the case. When the laws first became a reality, manufacturers often erred too much toward functionality, sacrificing aesthetics. “At first, we saw a lot of ugly signs,” admits Kimberly-McDaniel, in the marketing department of Scott Sign Systems, a Florida-based sign manufacturer. Like many others in the signage industry, Scott Sign Systems does a great deal of work with ADA signage and they are well aware of the problems facing that part of the industry. Whether someone is interested in new signs or in retrofitting existing ones, the balance of form and function should always be maintained. Over time, the industry has learned how to keep this balance. “The law has been around so long now that most manufacturers can utilize the fabrication limitations associated with the law and incorporate them into signs that look good as well as help all individuals and not just those visually or physically impaired,” Ms. McDaniels explains.

Now that the laws have been in existence for some time and the question of aesthetics has been resolved, the industry faces new problems in ADA signage. There has been a strong trend of companies manufacturing their own signs, trying to meet the terms of compliance while saving money and time. This dilutes the market for sign makers and creates more competition. Now, competition is not just coming from within the industry itself, but with customers who have decided to move into manufacturing their own signs. Further, there are some manufacturers that are skipping out on their distributors, preferring instead to sell directly to the public. Certainly, these new competitive angles create more availability but they also create more problems. Costs and turnaround times must be kept low; better materials must be offered. And relationships are suffering as a result.

Kathy Wilson, Sales and Marketing Manager of the Braille-Tac division for Minnesota-based Advance Corporation, sees this new area of competition as both troublesome and necessary. Clearly, there is industry demand for such arrangements but they can be problematic, especially in terms of previous business relationships between manufacturers and distributors. The sudden competition makes some manufacturers feel they are being treated in an unfair manner, making them hesitant to do business with some distributors. Alliances must be carefully tended, says Ms. Wilson. “Our company is continually sought out by sign distributors that rely on manufacturers to preserve the integrity of the bidding system and not directly sell to [the distributor’s] customers. A reputation for integrity can mean a great deal when distributors are searching for partnerships that will enhance rather than decrease their profit margins.”

When it comes to self-manufacture, many customers do not realize they might be sacrificing their compliance. It is not easy to stay abreast of changes or additions to the laws; this is where dedicated sign manufacturers can regain customers. For example, a customer might be aware of the ADA regulations with regard to Braille and decide to manufacture their own Braille signs. But what that customer might not know is that proposed changes to the existing regulations are going to make “dome top” the only acceptable Braille signage. Ms. McDaniels explains. “Unless you are inserting a Braille sphere ­ we call them Braille Dots or raster Braille ­ into the background, it is difficult to create a perfect dome.” Some states will let slight imperfections pass but others will be more stringent, which means additional time and materials to create perfect Braille, which means increased pricing, difficulty in the manufacturing process, and a decrease in the visual appeal of the sign. And that means customers could find themselves back where they started where compliance verses visual appeal is a concern, sacrificing one for the other.

Given these kinds of situations, knowledge with regard to regulations and any proposed changes is important in keeping good relationships with present customers and attracting new business. Make sure that your customers are aware of how the regulations can affect them; if they are considering self-manufacturing, it is important to inform them of how the additional costs that could come up can mean spending more money rather than saving any. Reliability is important; if customers know they can count on on-time delivery of quality products, they have no reason to shop elsewhere and little reason to bring manufacturing in-house, where there would be an impact on their time. Ms. Wilson breaks it into three key areas: “First, [companies] need to have current technical publications about the guidelines and standards that govern the type of signs they sell and how these laws are enforced. Second, they should be aware of the wide array of manufacturers in the industry and the different types of raw materials available.” ADA signage companies must stay on the ball, constantly reviewing new samples, going over proposals for accuracy and timeliness, and closely monitoring services and production times to ensure quality for their customers. Ms. Wilson’s third piece of advice seems obvious but remains vitally important: “Know your competition.”

It is also important to offer variety, in terms of products and services. Show customers where they might be missing opportunities with their ADA signs and offer to help them grasp those opportunities. Ms. McDaniel offers an example. “If you have a current customer that is purchasing ‘Grand Opening’ banners, [up-sell] a logo for their front entrance or an ‘OPEN’ sign for the window. That same Grand Opening customer may need signs to go inside their office, including signs that require ADA compliance.” This tends to be easier with existing customers; there is already an established relationship and a professional trust. They expect you to know the industry better than they do, so prove that you do by explaining what opportunities they might be missing and how seizing those opportunities can enhance their business.

Attracting new business need not be a terrible task, though. Remember that old contacts often lead to new ones. Don’t be afraid to remind customers to recommend your services, especially if they are satisfied customers. That is a great way to make sure your name is out in the community and to keep that name attached to a strong, positive reputation. Recommendations mean a great deal; people trust each other and that trust can be extended to you.

Look to technology; maintain an awareness of new developments and techniques. “Technology changes everything, even how we make signs and graphics,” Ms. McDaniels reminds us. “We [in the sign industry must] look to new solutions for existing products as well as trying to define what is needed in the market place.” Further, be aware of the target market and their current needs and use new technology information to sell target customers on new signage.

Many companies meet ADA compliance with engraved signs but that is not always the best way to go. Other materials, including photo polymer, zinc, and magnesium, result in signs that last longer, look better, and allow for more creative expression. But there are more costs involved in the manufacture of such signs, costs in labor, materials, equipment, and time, as well as an increase in what can go wrong. “Even shops that have [the right] type of equipment can sometimes go outside for the manufacturing and be more profitable,” says Ms. McDaniels.

There are many ways to meet ADA guidelines and to keep and attract business in the process. ADA signage is needed by virtually every business out there, making ADA distributors, vendors, and manufacturers a vital part of the sign industry. Yes, it can seem confusing at first, admits Ms. Wilson but that does not negate its importance. “ADA products will continue to meet the changing needs of the ADA regulations and provide access to individuals with disabilities” and it is important for signage companies to do the same. After all, signs are everywhere, needed in myriad walks of life and kinds of business. McDaniels sums it up, “Signage plays such an important role in everyday life, getting people where they need to go and directing them on information they need in order to get through the day. It’s fun to be a part of an industry that provides a product that people can’t live without even though most may not think of it that way.”

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