A Different Model for Paint Contracting

I’ve often heard it said that there are two types of painting contractors—those who focus on the technical side and those who are more oriented towards marketing and sales. Of course, a successful business requires the proper combination of both.

For the contractor who enjoys painting, sales and marketing are a “necessary evil.” He recognizes that, without some level of marketing and sales, he simply won’t have the opportunity to paint. For the contractor who is more inclined towards marketing and sales, production issues can be a constant headache.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to the traditional contracting business that allows each type of contractor to focus on what he enjoys. Indeed, I did this for several years, and it proved to be a win-win for all involved.

In the model that I followed, I offered a sales and marketing service for other painting contractors. They retained ownership of their company and were responsible for all production. I simply helped them with marketing, and then did all of the estimating for them. I received a commission for all jobs sold.

For my clients, they didn’t have to spend a large part of their day (or evenings) giving estimates. They could stay on the job and focus on production. They became more efficient. For me, I didn’t have to worry about production issues. I sold the job and then turned it over to them.

I won’t claim that this wasn’t without some problems. First, I spent an incredible amount of time on the road. My clients were servicing a large part of Houston, so I was giving estimates over an area of more than 1,000 square miles. That began to take a toll on me. Second, my clients were sometimes reluctant to do the marketing necessary to generate leads. Because of this, it was sometimes difficult to keep them with the backlog of work that they wanted. Of course, these issues can certainly be overcome.

Some might think it odd, and perhaps even damaging to one’s business, to work with competitors. While I still had my own contracting business, our service areas overlapped very little. In fact, I often received requests for estimates that were outside of my service area, but I was able to sell these jobs for another contractor who did service that area. So I was able to earn a sales commission and the contractor wound up with a job he otherwise wouldn’t have even bid on.

There are certainly variations to this model, but the important point is to create a win-win situation. And this is true whether you are the technician or the salesman.

A system for developing systems

Most professional painting contractors understand the importance of developing systems for their business. For those who want to get out of the bucket, it is absolutely imperative. Unfortunately, developing systems can be a very imposing task, and many contractors don’t know where to start. However, it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. If they use a system, the process can be much easier and far more effective. In other words, use a system to develop systems.

To illustrate, let us say that you find your crews frequently doing work in the wrong order. They wind up wasting time and cause you unnecessary frustration. How can you correct this situation without being a baby sitter?   The first step is to identify the problem, or more specifically, the undesired result. In this case, the undesired result is wasted time. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is. The next step is to identify what actions (or inactions) are causing the result. The undesired results have a cause, and if you want different results, different actions must be taken.

Returning to our example, if the crew is doing work in the wrong order, the solution is to identify the proper order. For example, for an interior repaint this might consist of the following tasks:

  • Clear the room
  • Prep the surfaces to be painted
  • Paint
  • Clean up
  • Put the room back in order

Of course, there are many steps involved in each of these tasks. For example, prepping a room might involve drywall repairs, sanding woodwork, caulking, masking, and more. The process of painting a room might involve dozens of separate tasks and steps. And that is usually where the process of developing systems becomes overwhelming. Many contractors think that they need to develop a procedure for every one of those tasks, and they think that they have to develop all of them at once. If they feel overwhelmed, they might wind up developing none of them.

However, the chances are good that the crew is generally doing the work in the proper order. It is unlikely that they are doing the clean up before they do the prep. Usually, the problem occurs in a fairly narrow range of activities, such as in the prep. That is where you should focus your efforts. In other words, return to step one above–identify the undesired result and then identify the action or inaction that is causing that result.

Let us say that you figure out that during prep the crew is doing drywall repairs last. As a result, they wind up waiting for the patch to dry and the start of painting gets delayed. Your solution then, is to identify the proper order for prep. As an example:

  • Repair all drywall cracks
  • Sand and caulk woodwork
  • Remove switch plate covers
  • Mask

This order allows the crew to be performing other tasks while drying occurs. There are, of course, multiple ways of addressing this issue. Quick set could be used or multiple rooms could be prepped at once. The point is, identify the order that you want followed, and then document those steps.

Your preferences may seem perfectly logical to you. You might wonder why anyone would do the work in a different order. But the fact is, unless you have a highly unusual crew, they are not mind readers. They don’t know your preferences unless you tell them. They may have learned a certain order to do the work, and have never questioned it. They may not be concerned with efficiency. Regardless, until you tell them your preferences, they simply don’t know.

Once you have addressed, and hopefully eliminated, this problem, you can move to the next. For example, you may then find that clean up isn’t as efficient as it could be and should be. Develop a process for that issue.   In short, this system allows you to address the things that aren’t going right, rather than trying to fix things that aren’t broken. It allows you to address the things that are causing the most problems. And, as you reduced or eliminate those big problems, you can then move to smaller issues.   You wouldn’t try to perform every task involved in painting a house at one time. Don’t try developing systems that way either.

What is a quality painting job?

In 25 years as a contractor, I have yet to meet a contractor or a painter who didn’t claim to do quality work. But what does quality mean? Is, to paraphrase an old adage, one painter’s quality another painter’s junk?

One definition of quality is: a distinguishing attribute. It could be argued that a painter who refuses to use a drop clothe and gets paint on the customer’s furniture is producing work with a distinguishing attribute. But it is unlikely that this is what most painters mean when they speak of the quality of their work.

Another definition of quality is: a degree of excellence. This is what most contractors and painter mean by quality. But what is excellence? Does it mean laser-straight cut-in lines? Does it mean woodwork that is as smooth as glass? Or, does it mean something else?

I suspect that we could ask ten different painters these questions and get ten different answers. But since this is a written article, and not a call-in talk show, I’m going to stick my neck out and give my answer. And it may surprise you.

From my perspective, quality has little to do with the appearance of the paint on the wall. Certainly, walls with more runs than a cheap pair of stockings would not qualify as quality. But I assume that any competent painter can achieve an acceptable finish. When I speak to painters or contractors about quality, I mean something much different.

Painting is a service business. Putting paint on the wall is only one part, and a relatively small part, of that service. I expect a professional painter to do that reasonably well; it is the minimal skill that one must possess to even qualify as a professional painter. What then, do I mean by quality?

Consider the many different aspects involved in hiring a professional painting contractor. From the first phone call to the final payment, there are often dozens, if not hundreds, of individual events. Each of these contributes to the overall experience. If a painter fails to wipe his feet and tracks mud onto the customer’s carpet, the appearance of the paint is going to pale in comparison. If the crew is habitually late, the customer isn’t going to notice that the drywall repairs are invisible. If the painters look like prime candidates for the Betty Ford Clinic, the experience could be wrought with angst. In other words, painting well isn’t enough to provide a quality experience. And, from the customer’s perspective, the experience is as important, if not more so, that what is on the wall.

As another type of example: you take your significant other to dinner at an elegant restaurant. The atmosphere is perfect, the food is delicious, and the waiter is obnoxious. Which of these are you likely to remember? Will the taste of the food overcome the demeanor of the waiter? Or will the evening be ruined? In any service business, the product is only a part of the equation.

Good service won’t make up for poor painting skills. But poor service can ruin the best paint job.

Subs or employees, the issues are the same

Over the years, on many different boards, I have been asked dozens of times about my use of subcontractors. The questions vary, but the underlying premise seldom does. In short, many contractors (if not most) view subs as completely different from employees. In terms of essentials, this simply isn’t true.

Whether our production personnel are subs or employees, the basic issues remain the same:

  • Dependability
  • Quality of work
  • Customer service skills
  • Problem solving
  • And much more

In other words, production personnel are production personnel, no matter what label we attach to them. Certainly there are differences between subs and employees, but those differences aren’t essential. Those differences are merely details in how we pay, the control we exert, etc. These differences are certainly important, but they aren’t as important as some seem to believe.

The essential goal of our marketing is to generate leads. There are many ways to accomplish this. Whether we use the internet, the yellow pages, direct mail or any other medium is a detail. These are the means to our end.

The same applies to production. The essential goal of production is to put paint on the wall. There are many ways to accomplish this. Whether we use subs or employees, whether we pay hourly or piece work, these are simply the means to our end.

As business owners we strive to provide a superior overall experience for our customers. We have many, many options in what that experience looks like and how we provide it. Again, these are the means to our end.

While there are certainly wrong ways to accomplish any of our goals, there are many right ways to do so. For example, a marketing piece that says “Hey Bozo, call me if you want your house painted” won’t work well. But there are many messages that do work well.

Ultimately, our ends determine the means. What we want to accomplish determines how we accomplish it. At the end of the day, all that really matters is whether we accomplished the goal or not.

The issue of subs vs. employees isn’t the real issue. The real issue is how we solve the problems associated with production.

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