Trowel Talk: How Important Is Customer Service?
I know that it has been a while since I was a small remodeling contractor, but has the state of the art really fallen this far?
After attending the Remodeling Show last fall (with my wife) I have been inspired (yep, that’s the word) to begin the process of remodeling our master bathroom at home. To help with this project I have hired a tile contractor who is playing the prime role to both a plumber and an electrician. The project entails removing an old tub, a vanity and sink, toilet, and the 1970s-era floor tile that has seen better days. All of which is being replaced with new to be a little more functional and create a more modern look in a somewhat dated colonial style home.
The first step was to select a contractor and pick out the tile and fixtures. We found a local shop that seemed to be a family business and we were told had been around for many years. We will call the company, “Jones & Sons.” After agreeing on the work to be done and the price, I put down a deposit to cover the cost of the materials. Not something I ever asked for of my customers, but a practice that seems to be common place among all of the service trades in this area-no big deal. Next we agreed on a schedule for work to commence about three weeks later.
Four days before work was to begin, over two weeks since I gave my deposit, I get an e-mail from the contractor saying, “the tile you selected is on back order, and it will be another three weeks before it will be in stock.” He didn’t know that when we sat with him and did the order or at least a day or two later? When you schedule a project, know beforehand if the materials to perform the work will be available. Homeowners have jobs, vacation plans, and a whole life to schedule too. Not to mention that my deposit sat in this guy’s bank account until the tile arrived a full month after I wrote the check - for some reason the term “ponzi-scheme” crept into my head.
A good contractor should have no problem establishing a line of credit with a reliable supplier where they buy materials. If the project calls for some unique items that require a special order from a source you don’t normally do business with, most people won’t mind putting down a deposit for the materials. But they do become suspicious of your credibility if you hold onto their deposit longer than originally agreed, or if you ask for more than what the materials would obviously cost.
PROBLEM #2 - SCHEDULING
When the project was finally ready to get underway, the contractor said that he and his crew would be at my home, “first thing in the morning.” I don’t know about you, but to me 10:30 a.m. is not what I call “first thing in the morning.” At least it hasn’t been since I was a teenager and had to cut the lawn first thing in the morning on a Saturday.
Have you purchased a large piece of furniture or an appliance that required delivery to your home lately, or even worse, how about scheduling a repairman to come out to fix your fuzzy cable TV after dropping a weeks’ paycheck on a nice big HD flat screen? What is with this “someone will be there between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.” nonsense? Yeah, of course; I’ve got nothing better to do than to take off an entire day of work and wait around for a service call that will take all of 20 minutes once they arrive. Whatever happened to making an appointment and keeping it?
This whole scheduling thing is apparently a concept that these guys never consider very important. They offered up one excuse after another of why the work was dragging on; “the electrician wasn’t able to make it today” or “the plumber was running late from another job” and my favorite “we had go back to the yard because they forgot something.” But they still forgot to bring enough material with them to finish the day out. All of these scheduling delays caused a simple three or four day job to stretch into seven.
Time is money. The more efficiently you schedule a job the quicker you get to the payday and onto another project. When you schedule work and don’t arrive on time or complete a process as schedule, or God forbid, don’t show up at all with nothing but excuses to hang your hat on, it shatters your credibility with your customer.
What we get away with on a new construction site just doesn’t play well when you are working in someone’s home, especially while they are living in it. The demolition of the tile and flooring got carried down my stairs and thrown out my front upstairs window, then piled into the back of a truck to be hauled away. What was left at the end of the day was bits of trash spewed across my bedroom, all down my staircase, across my entryway and a shovel or two worth of fine debris left in my driveway after they drove off. These guys owned a Shop-Vac, but they thought it was only for the immediate area where they were working.
My dad taught me that the most important task of the day was how we left a job at the end of the day. We were going home but our customer was living in our work site, so we needed to keep everything as clean as possible for them to tolerate it until we returned the next morning. “They’re paying us to do this work for them, they shouldn’t have to clean up our mess” he was fond of saying. The few minutes it takes at the end of the day to look around you and make sure everything near where you worked and walked is clean and neat costs very little. To aggravate a customer who feels that they have to go around with a broom and pail after you leave every night so that their kids can safely walk and play in their own home is an expensive lesson.
PROBLEM # 4 - PAYMENT
No one wants to bankroll an entire project if it means making payroll and paying suppliers or subs through the life of a large project; but to ask for a draw midway through what was supposed to be a four day job, give me a break! This told me the guy was working right out of his pocket, paying for materials when he picked them up, maybe paying his workers or subs daily; either that or he was worried I wouldn’t like the finished project and would hold the payment over his head. Either way, this threw up red flags for me as a consumer. Customers want to get their work done as inexpensively as they can but they also want to feel like they are dealing with a reputable company that isn’t surviving hand to mouth.
I use to love doing work for homeowners because it meant I usually got paid in full upon the completion of the work, unlike doing work for general contractors who usually don’t pay until 30 days after they are paid. Why alienate and worry a customer by asking for a draw halfway through a really small project? Instead, build a system to support your cash flow for a month at a time, more if you do much work for GCs. I was only burned once by a home-owner but I have done thousands of jobs. By the way, I am still waiting for that one family to sell their house so I can collect my lien.
PROBLEM # 5 - ADVERTISING
This tile contractor had no idea I was a former plastering contractor, so maybe my critique of his operation is a bit strong. But consider me a well educated consumer; if he had scheduled his work more effectively, cleaned up after himself before leaving for the day, and managed his finances in a way that he didn’t appear needy and desperate; well, my neighbor has the same bathroom I do and is looking for a contractor.
I got 100 percent of my remodeling work from homeowners through word of mouth. I never ran an ad in the local newspaper, or put up a yard sign, and I only had my business name and phone number published in the yellow pages - no expensive advertisement. A happy customer can get you another job or two, or three.
An unhappy customer will cause you to be shunned by all their friends, relatives and maybe even their neighbors. It’s not so hard really; just treat your customer as you would want to be treated yourself and your efforts will be rewarded ten-fold. W&C