A Tale of Two Contractors
Our experience last summer is a sobering reminder that each small business owner and manager should look down the road and muse, "What will each customer be saying about me when we are finished?"
If you own your own small business, or are thinking of starting one, here's something to remember: There is nothing as damaging as a very disappointed customer.
Take me, for instance. Last summer my wife and I hired a young, inexperienced restoration contractor after a quick google search when we had a pipe burst in our upstairs bathroom over the kitchen. We had just purchased a country house on 60 acres and the young contractor seemed like a nice enough fellow, so I hired him on the spot. Our renovation project was off and running -- or so I thought.
My lack of due diligence instantly qualified me for The Bonehead Decision Hall of Fame. I didn't grasp that this guy had been a great carpet cleaner and had recently gone into business for himself as an unproven restoration contractor. There's a world of difference between being a skilled employee with the boss responsible for details and customer satisfaction, and being the boss yourself -- responsible for employees, quality control, schedules, budgets, billing, collection and customer satisfaction.
You can guess the rest of the story: Our restoration project should have taken about a week, but he ended up pulling his equipment out after only 3 days. Our floors and walls were still damp! He said that the insurance company wouldn’t pay for him to leave the equipment any longer. He said that the insurance adjuster told him that everything was “dry enough”.
The root of our Renovation Hell was of course the inexperienced restoration contractor who was a “preferred vendor” of my insurance company, who I shall generously refer to as The Rookie Restorer. He cost us several months of wasted time haggling with insurance, and trying to find another contractor that could properly dry our home, $25,000 or more of extra costs, and untold personal anguish. Suffice it to say that we do not utter his name in our household.
So ask yourself this: How do you want your customers to remember you? Will their memories of your product or service drive repeat business and positive cash flow your way, or will they be unsatisfied and... vilify you (often behind your back, to avoid confrontation or retribution)?
Back to the story. At first we were optimistic. Equipment was dropped right away. We were assured that insurance would cover everything. Wet drywall, baseboard and floor were soon ripped out right away, and it seemed real progress was being made. We were steeped in fools' optimism.
After a day and a half with no communication and incredibly loud fans blowing 24/7 things started going suspiciously quickly -- even though the humidity levels seemed unusually high. We politely inquired.
"Everything will be finished tomorrow," The Rookie Restorer replied. We tried to believe him. Meanwhile we could not escape the humidity and noise. .
When the Rookie Restorer was at our home, he seemed to spend large blocks of time on his phone seemingly aimlessly scrolling and giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe talking prospective clients while little was accomplished at our home. We debated firing him, but he kept promising he would be pulling the equipment, giving us an alluring spin. "It'll all be dry," he repeated.
"Except for these things," he added nonchalantly (and then the things he forgot). We found one of our carefully written to-do lists we had prepared for him stuffed under a cushion on our couch. It wasn't much consolation, but we kept hearing of other homeowners who had also been ambushed by Reconstruction Hell; almost no one said they had had a good contractor experience.
To be fair, The Rookie Restorer did many things well (quality demolition, and cleaning up, as well as schmoozing his customers), but -- compared to being just a decent guy, as he had been before -- it was clear he was overwhelmed with the demands of being a small business boss and owner. The details to follow up on and take responsibility were inconvenient for him, and he was beginning to drown in a sea of responsibility he was not prepared to swim in. Our project was a gathering disaster.
Then The Rookie Restorer came up with an utterly ingenious solution: "We'll be done this Friday," he said with confidence as we stared wide-eyed. "I'll try to be back next month to start reconstruction." With that, he presented us with his certificate of completion.
"Two or three weeks at the most," he assured us, as we gaped. Then he merrily went on to his next project. He had conned us perfectly; we were just a career stepping stone.
Left undone was a sobering cascade of unfinished items, including uninsulated exterior-facing pipes in a newly-built bathroom that had taken five months and was now without a heat source (plumbing fixtures later had to be torn out at great expense), and a furnace and air conditioning system clogged contaminated and killed by the dust from cutting various materials inside the house with the system on. My wife had asked them about sealing off the work area, but... this was inconvenient for The Rookie Restorer. A new furnace and A/C unit, installed by another vendor, cost us the price of a good used car.
"He has a lot to learn," an expert old-timer said, shaking his head as he packed up tools on the final day of a major repair necessitated by The Rookie Restorer's haste.
Oh, did I mention that some of the drywall around the front door was scraped up and dented? And the carpet on the stairs was stained from the dirty equipment he hauled up?
There was also the billing. When we inquired, he assured us that insurance was taking care of it. The Rookie Restorer became a little indignant. How could we, mere groveling customers, question him, The Arrogant Big Boss (who kept everything in a manila envelope that we could request to see any time...)?
We're pretty sure The Rookie Restorer billed our insurance company for time he was sitting around on the phone, as well as for time he spent pitching work to new prospective clients. He seemed to view himself above the law.
Entitlement mentalities run deep and are hard to foresee.
The Rookie Restorer worked without a contract, perhaps so it would be harder for us to sue him for damages. We found out later he never obtained a permit for the demolition of our house. He also never tested for asbestos or got a air sample in our old home to verify that the work he performed actually returned our home to pre loss standards. Getting people to work with the customer's best interests in mind is very hard indeed, because you are relying on family modeling and good education, and resultant human behavior you can't control.
OK, The Rookie Restorer was a really good carpet cleaner and could be a pretty nice guy. But his demise had begun when he transitioned from employed carpet cleaner to self-employed restoration contractor less than two years before. He gave up what he was good at to do something he knew little about, and likely wouldn't enjoy -- being a boss and business owner.
After that, the comfortable days of working for someone else were over and now, as a small business owner, he was in a pickle. Doing what he promised became nearly impossible due to his inexperience, swagger and ego. Answering to customers, employees, deadlines and creditors was an unexpected hassle.
So was dealing with us. He didn't like being questioned, and behind our backs he told one subcontractor, "They can afford it," when the sub questioned ongoing delays. Later the sub told him off on our front porch, and refused to work for him again.
Just be glad it wasn't you coughing and wheezing as the calendar spun by as friends asked if we had gotten our house rebuilt yet.
Yup, it was good theater. Broken promises, naïve victims (that would be... us), greed emerging from the shadows, inconsistent ethics -- the usual stuff of good humans gone bad. We were stuck in the middle. And in a small town, we couldn't say much.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. I called a friend's husband, more expensive yet considered one of the three best restoration contractors in the county -- and told him that not hiring him in the first place was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Then I took a deep breath and asked if he could help us out.
He was quiet for a few long seconds, and then expelled the most merciful sentence I had heard all year: "Yeah, I can have a crew there three hours."
When those words permeated my aging brain I almost broke down and blubbered like a baby. Someone we knew and trusted was going to bail us out.
The Certified Restorer and his reliable employees turned the tide for us. They efficiently and expertly finished our house over the next three weeks, undoing the errors caused, or just left undone, by The Rookie Restorer. Damaged walls were patched, plumbing was protected, paneling was finished, doors were made to fit, and trim was finished and fine-tuned. The Certified Restorer was honest, organized, precise, cheerful, and always had our best interests in mind. He restored our faith in the contracting business, and in people.
The Certified Restorer's hourly rates ranged from $35 to $75 per hour, depending on the man doing the job. He also charged one way for travel time. The Rookie Restorer charged $40 an hour for both himself and his partner, and did not charge travel time. When all was finished, The Rookie Restorer cost us somewhere around $500 per hour, given the things that had to be done over and items left undone, and not including our wasted time.
The Certified Restorer was a bargain at any price, and a great example of investing in quality -- which in the long run always costs less, not to mention being smoother on the nerves. The moral is, quite simply, just find the best and most reliable professional you possibly can, and hire him or her.
Now that the dust has settled on our Renovation Hell, let's look at what entrepreneurs and small company managers, in addition to homeowners, can learn: Human behavior is a much-overlooked component of entrepreneurial success or failure. When it's bad, everyone suffers--customers and businesses alike. Never underestimate the role of ethics, right behavior and self-discipline for all start-up entrepreneurs and small business managers.
So, if you have your own business, or are thinking of starting one, ask yourself again the question that counts most: How do you want your customers to speak of you? The way we pan The Rookie Restorer, or the way we think of The Certified Restorer (who is nearly a saint in our family's consciousness)? Which of these scenarios will beget you additional customers at no marketing costs... ?
Our experience last summer is a sobering reminder that each small business owner and manager should look down the road and muse, "What will each customer be saying about me when we are finished?" Was the work excellent? Will the customer hire us again?
What your customers think of your product, service, pricing and attitude will foretell your future success or failure. Their judgment today will determine if you, or boneheads like The Rookie Restorer -- will be in business a few years from now. So seek out their comments as often as possible.
When it comes time to do some work on your own home, approach builder/contractor selection as if you are about to undergo the first root canal on the planet. Find someone in your area like The Certified Restorer to become Godfather to your project.
The fact that quality contractors like The Certified Restorer are hard to find in any community tells you all you need to know about starting and running your own business. Regardless of your product or service, you must stick to basics, seek excellence, and put the customer (and employees) first. Do this, and legions of satisfied customers will speak sweetly of you and provide all the marketing and repeat business you'll ever need.
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