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?"
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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 contractor after being impressed by a house he built for one of his friends. 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 carpenter and had recently gone in business for himself as an unproven general contractor. There's a world of difference from 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 renovation project should have lasted three months, but ended up taking seven. It bled our checkbook and drove us crazy during what should have been an enjoyable summer. Our planned June move happened in late October.

The root of our Renovation Hell was of course the young contractor, who I shall generously refer to as The Rookie Builder. He cost us several months of wasted time, $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. Things were soon ripped apart around the skylights-to-be in our bedroom, and it seemed real progress was being made. We were steeped in fools' optimism.

After a few weeks things started going suspiciously slowly -- even though the bi-weekly bills kept streaming in. We politely inquired.

"Everything will be done by July 1st," The Rookie Builder replied. We tried to believe him. Meanwhile progress crawled along as the days slid swiftly by.

The Rookie Builder seemed to spend large blocks of time on the phone talking with suppliers and prospective clients while little was accomplished at our home. We debated firing him, but he kept promising he would be done in two weeks, giving us an alluring spin. "It'll all be finished," 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 Renovation Hell; almost no one said they had had a good contractor experience.

To be fair, The Rookie Builder did many things well (some carpentry, and cleaning up, as well as schmoozing his customers), but -- compared to being just a good carpenter, as he had been before -- it was clear he was becoming overwhelmed with the demands of being a small business boss and owner. The details to follow up on and take responsibility for 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 Builder 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 finish remaining items." With that, he presented us with his final bill.

"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 still had no heat source (plumbing fixtures later had to be torn out at great expense), and a furnace and air conditioning system clogged and killed by the dust from cutting various materials inside the house with the system on. My wife had asked them to cut materials outside, but... this was inconvenient for The Rookie Builder. 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 Builder's haste.

Oh, did I mention that some of the drywall was not straight and had pock marks? And several doors did not close?

There was also the billing, which never included copies of invoices for materials and sometimes did not add up. When we inquired, The Rookie Builder 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 Builder billed us for time it took him to try and prepare his bills, as well as for time he spent pitching work to new prospective clients. He seemed to view himself above the law. He felt it his right to take home left-over scrap lumber or plumbing equipment we had paid for.

Entitlement mentalities run deep and are hard to foresee.

The Rookie Builder 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 building permit for our house. 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 Builder was a really good carpenter and could be a pretty nice guy. But his demise had begun when he transitioned from employed carpenter to self-employed general 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 up large checks every two weeks while the calendar spun by as friends asked if we had moved in 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 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 be there in three weeks."

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 Experienced Pro and his reliable employees turned the tide for us. They efficiently and expertly finished our house over the next three months, undoing the errors caused, or just left undone, by The Rookie Builder. Parts of walls were torn out, plumbing was protected, paneling was finished, doors were made to fit, and trim was finished and fine-tuned. The Experienced Pro was honest, organized, precise, cheerful, and always had our best interests in mind. He restored our faith in the contracting business, and in people. Now we can close all the interior doors, not just half of them.

The Experienced Pro'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 Builder charged $40 an hour for both himself and his partner, and did not charge travel time. When all was finished, The Rookie Builder 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 Experienced Pro 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 Builder, or the way we think of The Experienced Pro (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 Builder -- 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 Experienced Pro (ghsconstruction.com ) to become Godfather to your project.

The fact that quality contractors like The Experienced Pro 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.

Frank Farwell is founder and past president of the WinterSilks catalog (www.wintersilks.com), which won its industry's national customer service award in 1995. His book, "Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road," (John Wiley & Sons) was an initial nominee for the 2011 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year Award. It is sold in most English-speaking countries, and at Amazon.com.

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