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Learning to Adapt to the Changing Market

Season 2: Episode 16

podcast 081023 BTR Heirloom Engravers

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Wade Dickinson has been passionate about engraving since he was a young adult. He opened his business, Heirloom Engravers, and started taking on various clients, from large scale companies to individual projects. In this episode, Wade talks about his personal business philosophy and how he has learned to utilize online forums for communicating with his clients despite his initial reservations. He’s joined by Sarah R., a reviewer who made a pivotal recommendation for the business.

On the Yelp Blog: Get Wade’s tips for making human connections and lasting impressions on customers.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. On Behind the Review I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions.

This week, we are excited to feature Heirloom Engravers, located in San Francisco, and recommended by my Yelp colleague Sarah R. Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.

SARAH: I was surprised to find out that he was the owner. I thought he would have a whole operation there of people and office managers or receptionists or anything like that.

But it was him, the owner, which was really cool. And I think he handles all that stuff. It couldn’t just be me because every time I reached out, it was him. But he was really responsive and nice. And the second go around when I reached out for my personal-life gifts, he even made a suggestion and I took it cuz he knows what he is doing.

EMILY: That’s Sarah R. describing how hands on Wade Dickinson, the owner of Heirloom Engravers, was the first time she reached out to them for a project. Let’s hear Sarah’s review.

SARAH: I first used Heirloom Engravers during the pandemic to get some mugs engraved as a gift for the team I support. Wade, the owner and operator, is so easy to work with and so kind. He offers helpful suggestions and is very responsive. I liked working with him so much that I came back again a few years later to get some special flasks engraved for my bridesmaids. They did a beautiful job and I will be 100% using them again.

EMILY: What an amazing review. It’s so beautiful that Heirloom Engravers was able to be a part of Sarah’s wedding. It’s not easy running an engraving business, especially through the pandemic. I sat down with the owner of Heirloom Engravers, Wade, to hear about his experience with building up his business years ago, and being flexible in altering his business model through many evolutions to modern times. Let’s hear how Heirloom Engravers went from an idea to a successful business!

WADE: I had the idea to form Heirloom Engravers, and it wasn’t really entirely my idea. It was a customer that called me and needed some very high-end work done and they had an engraver in their store. And this was Tiffany’s in San Francisco. And they had an engraver, but he was not very fast, and he wasn’t good at big orders.

So she started bringing me work and then I discovered that out there was this world of high-end clients that were not being served. And pretty soon the whole corporate division for Tiffany’s and then eventually, almost all the engraving on the West coast for Tiffany’s as well as Gumps, Neiman Marcus and Sax. Once we had Tiffany’s as a reference, the rest of the world of engraving just sort of fell like dominoes, it was pretty easy. The main thing was it was always high standard. We will deliver on time, and it is going to look good, and there are no ifs, ands, or buts. And if it isn’t right, we will fix it. We will take care of it. We’re not gonna make excuses. We’re gonna do it with a smile, and we’re not gonna give you any attitude. For years we couldn’t really hire other engravers. We had to hire people and grow them from the seed into good engravers because when we tried to hire someone who was a talented engraver along with it came bad habits and attitude that were unacceptable to us.

EMILY 3: Wade’s business was a part of some large scale orders for some big brands back in its early days. But that wasn’t because Wade had a huge team of workers. To Wade, good work and good customer service are his top two priorities when running a business. That’s why he’s very careful of who he hires, and he prefers to work with a very small team. When Sarah said that Wade was very hands on, there was a very specific reason!

WADE: It’s just me and Isabella, my assistant. But here’s the thing. I can probably produce more very high quality engraving in an hour. The shop is clean, neat, and organized. The equipment is absolutely immaculate. I’ve got a pantograph that’s 40 years old, and when you sit down at it to work, you would swear it’s brand new because it’s in absolutely perfect condition all the time. And we have more kinds of ways to engrave things here than anyone else that I am aware of.

We do everything except laser engraving. We don’t do work with a laser. It’s great quality for some things, but if I were to laser engrave somebody’s Rolex watch, I would not be in business for very long. It’s just not the right process. We are able to do an order of a thousand pieces in the small shop like this, or we can do the individual orders just fine.

And we love the big orders. We truly do. But the small ones are the bread and butter. $100, $180, $300. You get 10 of those in a day, it’s a pretty decent day. And then if you get the 300 or 400 piece order, five times a month, that’s great too!

I’ve been very cautious about bringing more people in. There are 16 engraving stations here in 442 square feet. Every one of them has its own way to work. You have to have the right touch. You have to have the right speed with your hands. Or if it’s a computer engraver, you have to set everything just right or you not only gonna break the item that you’re engraving, you’re gonna break the machine. So every one of them you could spend years learning.

EMILY: Wade’s industry is a trade. It’s a skilled profession and craft that takes education and hours of repetition and experience across different machines and techniques. As a business owner in any business, you have various levels of skill needed to run your business. And there are some things only certain people can do – yourself included as the owner. Keep that in mind as you grow and expand. That may not always mean hiring a handful of employees. It could look like finding the right employee or contract worker to take certain things, so you can double down on your individual skills and contributions to grow production or output. We’re going to take a quick break. Be right back. 

EMILY: Wade recognizes how important it is to just be kind. He gets a variety of orders and customers each day and he makes it his personal mission to make their lives or days better.

WADE: They’re coming here. They need my service, and it’s something that I love to do, and they’re happy to pay me for it. Which is something I love to have happen. So why would I ever give them attitude? Why would I ever, even though these days I’m about the only one you can find to do most of the work that I do. There were 27 shops within 30 miles of here when I started. They are all gone. There’s not a single one of them left. So it’s either us or no one. And we could be jerks about it, but there’s no point in doing that. It’s not the way I wanna go through life.

I have an amazing assistant who, when I was having her shadow me the first few weeks so she could learn the ropes and waiting with customers, we’d get back in the elevator and come down to the shop and she’d say, ‘you were so nice to that person. You were so kind and she’s falling apart, and you took care of her for 20 minutes and picked her back up.’ And I said, well, that’s part of our job. When someone comes in with an urn that they need to have engraved. Someone’s ashes that they love are going to go into it. Maybe it’s a pet, maybe it’s a person, maybe it’s a father, maybe it’s a husband, maybe it’s a son, you know. They need us to reach out to them and take care of them for that little bit of time, and they need to walk away feeling like, okay, this isn’t so bad. I can get through this.

And, and if we can give that little bit of light to somebody that’s in that position, that’s what we ought to be doing. They’ve called us and the bottom line is they wanna pay me for something I love to do, so I’m gonna do it.

EMILY: Wade’s philosophy for his business and his love for personal interaction doesn’t go unnoticed. Wade has touched many lives with his hospitality and his work. As an engraver, Wade receives many orders that request engraved items that represent a loved one. He shared one special interaction that remains in his memories.

WADE: It’s a personal world and there are plenty of statistics that say young people would much rather do things online and not have any personal experience, but when you sit down and talk with somebody, young or old, I engraved a necklace, I don’t know, 10 years ago. But I’ll never forget this young lady. Her boyfriend who she was living with for four years had died.

They were planning on getting married. In fact, the date was on the calendar. They had already sent out invitations and he died in a terrible accident. And she wanted this bracelet or this necklace with his name on it and a private message from her to him that she would always wear around her neck.

And she was there with her mom and she was in pieces. And I remember saying to her, you have no reason in the world to believe this, but I promise you, there will be a morning when you wake up and you will not be thinking of this first thing. And you’ll get through the whole day and suddenly you’ll realize, hey, it’s better. I’m gonna be better.

She, of course, burst into tears and said, ‘I don’t believe you, but thank you so much for saying it.’ But I got a card from her like four years later saying, hey, that morning came. The morning came, and it’s day after day. Now I’m better. I’m doing so much better. Thank you for your kind words. I touch the necklace every morning when I wake up.

It’s a personal thing. I could have been cold. I could have been acerbic. I could have been a jerk. She had nowhere else to go to get that engraving done, but it’s not what I want to do. It is not the world I wanna live in. I wanna live in a world where people take care of people. So that starts with me and it ends with me and then it will come around to me and my kids and the whole thing. So it’s all personal and don’t let anyone fool you. It doesn’t matter how business like they think they are, if you tell them, and you mean it – cuz it’s the truth, ‘man, that’s a beautiful dress. That is astounding.’ And you really mean it. I don’t care who you’re talking to – or ‘that’s a beautiful tie, where did you buy it?’ And they’re having a bad day, but you share a small thing about yourself, and about themselves, you’re making their day better. You’re making your day better. And you know, I’m gonna probably make some more money off of it, but the bottom line is it’s just who I’d rather be.

EMILY: It’s clear that Wade connects on a personal level with as many customers as he can. In addition to being kind to the customers that ask for his help, Wade has also learned new ways to grow as a business owner.

WADE: I realized, okay, the world has changed and I have not, and I need to change with it.

Then this young lady from Yelp calls me up, needs some engraving done. And she comes in the shop, we go over the whole thing and I asked her, can I get some advice from you? She said, yeah, sure, no problem. So she helps me out and she said, well you haven’t claimed your business. What is that?

So I claimed my business, and started posting pictures and started this year and last year, especially running ads and marketing directly to the people that are gonna walk right in and pay us retail pricing rather than the wholesale pricing, which is what I charge everybody else and all the businesses that is. So that has worked out extremely well, now that a lot of the effects of the shutdown are done. We’re marketing directly to promotion companies who put on events for businesses. So we’ll bring a hot stamp machine and all the peripherals that we need to an event and we’ll stamp luggage tags or journals or something, for the customers while they’re there at the event. And they wait for it and they wanna talk to us about the machinery, they wanna know what we’re doing. It’s all old fashioned stuff, and we’re happy to do that. And then I actually, because of my retail background, I can engrave and talk at the same time.

The whole deal is you’re putting on a show and you gotta put on a good show and you’ve gotta be friendly and happy with these people. So probably about 50% of the business income is events. And we have one of the biggest events I’ve ever done coming up. We’re flying to Austin. We’re shipping two gigantic machines, in a giant crate, and all the peripherals. Spending four days there. And we’re gonna engrave 1600 water bottles with people’s initials.

It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever put together for the business. I’ve never had anything with so many moving parts to get all nailed down. I have a giant list that’s down to two items and I’m pretty happy about that.

EMILY: I actually found out that our lovely reviewer Sarah R. was the customer that advised Wade to claim his page on Yelp. It’s crazy how many different ways you can market your business. As the market changes, it’s important for the business to change with it!

SARAH: I told him when I met him too, that his business wasn’t claimed on Yelp and I asked him why. And I said, you should really do that. You are great and you can do all these request-a-quote things, and I think it’ll make your life easier.

He’s got all it. He’s got all the bells and whistles. A true Yelp fanboy. And when I came back with this new personal project – they’re gifts for my bridesmaids. They’re engraved flasks. They’re very beautiful. There should be a picture with my review. He told me, he was like, was it you who told me I should claim my business? And I said, yeah, probably! He’s like, “oh my gosh, my business has tripled since I did that. And it’s been amazing. And working with Yelp has been so easy!” And it was really cool to see that.

EMILY: After talking to Wade, I confirmed that he’s a huge fan of Yelp. Since claiming the page, he has seen a lot of positive changes.

WADE: When I use Yelp myself and they get right back to me, I love it. Most young people don’t even know about this service. They’ve never used it before. It’s never been a part of their life. And so to get back to them within minutes and say, ‘Hey, thanks for asking. Yes, we can do this. Here’s the price, here’s how long it takes. And if you’re driving when you get here, feel free to pull up to the curb and we’ll run out to you. We’ll take care of you that way.”

That came right out of the pandemic. I mean, that was, it’s what, 15 extra steps. So what on my end? But on their end, it’s huge. So I try to get back to the Yelp questions right away. And then Isabella will sit down and read the question off and I’ll say, yeah, give the standard answer. Or give this one or no, add this part of it in. Depending on the item that they want done.

And it is hard to manage. I have to admit that before I actually got online with this, when emails came in from Yelp or Google, I simply ignored them. I just thought if they don’t have the wherewithal to pick up the phone, I don’t have time for them, you know? And I’m dating myself, I know. My daughter and my niece, I gotta credit them. They just said, you’ve got it backwards. You’re throwing away money. You’re throwing away customers. Alienating your public. And you have always loved working with your customers.

I just thought, man, these kids are right. I gotta get on top of that. They come to my phone, also my smartphone, and I bowl on Wednesday nights, so last night I sat down and I answered the Yelp question while I was bowling. And got back right away because I think it’s important to do. And I do answer every review with a thank you or whatever, letting them know that I appreciate it, cuz I really do. It’s really a nice thing that people do this.

EMILY: Wade’s experience is relatively common in many ways! Lots of small businesses are still powered by pen and paper reservation systems and call in for questions or order placements. But as Wade discovered – he was simply missing out on connecting with TONS of potential new clients, just because he wasn’t used to using an online listing platform. I’m so glad he gave it a shot, and I LOVE to see how active and engaged his is now. Even responding to customers questions and job requests while at bowling league!

The pandemic has helped many business owners get over their fear of being online and connecting with customers digitally. I see more and more businesses today sharing the behind the scenes of their business online, and the engagement from customers is undeniable. People want to support people! And they want to see the people behind a business. For Sarah, it’s almost all about Wade.

SARAH: He is definitely a huge selling point for the business. He was so sweet. I was telling him about the flasks gifts for my bridesmaids. He’s like, ‘oh, you’re getting married! That’s so nice.’ He’s like, ‘let me see the ring.’ And so I showed him the ring. He’s like, oh, you know, we could get something engraved on that for you, or maybe on your fiance’s ring.

He actually just felt like a real person, which was cool. I think the business is very small and he’s been doing it for a long time and he likes doing it and knows what he’s doing. It’s just nice to talk to someone who is very comfortable in what they’re doing and how they do it, and even who they are. So it’s just nice to speak with a human about these things, especially when it is, or it can be – very personal.

I don’t really know anything about engraving. I don’t know that many people who do. So when I showed him the flasks and I showed him the design I wanted on it and he said, oh, that’s gonna be beautiful. I think we’ll do this, we’ll do it this big and we’ll do it this way of engraving. So it’ll be like subtle but beautiful. I said sure, I don’t know. I trust you Wade.

EMILY: Even Wade, an extremely experienced businessman, focused on customer service, can make mistakes. During our conversation, he shared a story with me about a time he felt he had entirely dropped the ball. It was really vulnerable of him, and I wanted you to hear it.

WADE: I get online, and I’ve had one, where they were mad at me and I remember the day. I was just in a horrible mood and I was so busy and I was sharp with her. I was not polite and I apologized and I said, if you come back in, If you see your way to coming back in, I promise you I’ll change that experience.

I haven’t seen her yet, but as far, it’s long enough ago that she’s way down on the list. And honestly, I kind of think that if you only see great reviews for somebody, they’re probably fake. So it’s okay to have that one that’s not great in there, but man, it still burns and it still makes my face turn red that I treated somebody like that, just because I was having a bad day, it’s unacceptable. So I’m not glad I did it, but I’m glad that I’ve got the experience to remind myself. And especially when, like in November and December, where Isabelle and I are up and down the stairs in the elevator all day long and we’re exhausted! And at one point we’re riding down the elevator together. We’ve each got five jobs we’ve taken in. I mean, we had customers lined up at the curb and in the store. And we’ve got no time to get anything done. And we know as soon as we get to the shop, there will be more people calling us from upstairs. And I said, but Isabella, We are making great scratch, we’re making good money, and this is what we’re here to do.

So smile, keep smiling and be awesome because that’s what we gotta do. And that’s what we did. It’s not that hard to do, it’s better than the other way.

EMILY : It’s an amazing thing to be able to admit your mistakes and learn from them. I have no doubt that Wade took this experience as an opportunity to learn how he can better interact with his customers. Mistakes are inevitable, but it is important to learn from them and grow.

Reviews, both positive or negative, can play a crucial role in a business’ development. So it’s important to engage with them!

SARAH: It definitely matters, good review or bad review. I think it says a lot if you write a good review. It makes sense when the owners respond and say something. Hey, appreciate your business, it means a lot to me. I think that happened to I reviewed a new taco place in the marina. I wanted them to succeed, so I wrote a good review and the tacos were good, and margaritas were excellent. And they responded as well! But, it makes me feel nice.

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