Letting go of perfect

A frequent lament among painting contractors is that their employees do not perform the same quality of work as the owner. The owner finds himself frustrated and often gets rid of his employees and works alone.

While there is nothing wrong with having high standards, those standards must also be reasonable. And from a financial perspective, those standards must be profitable. It does little good to provide a perfect paint job and go broke in the process.

I hasten to add that I am not advocating poor quality work. I am saying that the quality and the price must mesh.

Few customers are willing to pay for a perfect paint job (if a perfect paint job is even possible). Fewer still would even notice the difference between a 10 and an 8. Yet, the man hours required to go from an 8 to a 10 are exponential. In other words, to get to a 10 might involve 30%, 40%, or more man hours than an 8.

If a customer is not willing to pay for these additional man hours, nor will they notice a difference, why do so many contractors insist on providing a 10? I suspect some of it is pride of workmanship. And I suspect some of it is poor business skills.

No business can be all things to all people. A painting contractor that specializes in apartment repaints is not likely to appeal to the owners of expensive homes. The markets and skill sets are different.

The market for perfect paint jobs is very small—both in terms of demand and willingness to pay for it. However, there is a large market for an 8. The contractor who provides an 8 and charges accordingly will have a large potential market and be paid appropriately. The contractor who provides a 10 and charges for an 8 will appeal to that market, but be underpaid.

If he continues down that path he will be forced to work alone or with a small crew in order to maintain his standards. He will likely be unable to grow his business. That is, until he lets go of perfect.

Control the job site

We’ve probably all had customers who seemed to take over the job and dictate our every move. It can seem impossible to get any work completed and the job appears that it will last forever.

Even though we are a “guest” in the customer’s home, it is imperative that we take control of the job site. We are the professional painting contractor, and we should dictate how the job will proceed.

Controlling the job site actually begins before the crew ever arrives. It begins with the salesman and how the job is sold– that is, the terms, conditions, and promises. The salesman must establish reasonable expectations and the customer’s responsibilities.

The Project Manager must reinforce these expectations and responsibilities. He should review them with the customer at the start of the job and at appropriate points during the job. Once he gives control of the job site to the customer, he will have a difficult struggle regaining it.

Controlling the job site does not mean being rude or combative. It does mean being firm. The contract should state customer responsibilities, and it is the responsibility of the Project Manager to enforce them.

Open and frequent communications can go a long ways toward maintaining control of the job site. Keeping the customer informed about the job progress, expectations, and problems will breed confidence. And a customer who is confident in the leadership skills of the Project Manager will be less likely to take over control.

The minutes matter

The typical direct costs– labor and materials– for a paint contracting business are about 50% of revenues. Overhead– advertising, insurance, owner’s salary, rent, depreciation, etc.– are paid out of the remaining 50%, and what is left is the company profit. A net profit of 10% is a reasonable goal.

It is generally assumed that a painter will have 6.5 productive hours, or 390 minutes, in a day. Half of his time, or 195 minutes, goes to direct costs, approximately 156 minutes goes towards overhead, and 39 minutes contributes to company profits.

But what if the painter doesn’t actually produce for those 390 minutes? What if he makes a few extra trips to the van, or wanders around looking for a tube of caulk, or somehow manages to waste a few minutes here and there?

That wasted time reduces the company profit. In other words, each wasted minute costs the company money. If the wasted time exceeds 39 minutes, the painter isn’t even covering the company’s overhead. Which means, the company can’t pay its bills. (More likely, the owner won’t be paid his full salary.)

If this scenario occurred one time it wouldn’t be a big issue. But what if it occurred almost daily? What if it was repeated by 3 or 4 or more employees? Very quickly the company could be facing a significant financial problem.

The fact is, the company’s profit is typically earned in the last hour of the day. Anything that reduces productivity, by even a minute, reduces the company profit.

This isn’t meant to imply that we should be slave drivers. We must have reasonable expectations. And we must also provide employees guidance in the most efficient methods for completing their tasks. The success of our business requires it.

What kind of primer should I use?

As a long time participant on various forums for painting contractors, there seems to be no shortage of questions and discussions regarding the right primer to use, the best caulk, or how much everyone is paying for paint. While technical issues certainly have some merit and can be helpful, they seldom matter in the long-term.

It is a statistical fact that 90% of small businesses fail within 5 years. Painting contractors don’t fail because of the primer they use or what they pay for a gallon of paint. They fail because they don’t know how to run a business.

Forgive me for being blunt, but the odds are that you will be out of business within 5 years. If I made a $100 bet with everyone reading this that they would close their business within 5 years, I would make a fair amount of money. And it’s a bet I would be willing to make, except it would be hard to collect.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The painting forums can be a great resource for technical issues. I occasionally run into something that is new, and being able to tap into the experience and knowledge of other members is incredibly helpful. But solving an occasional technical issue isn’t going to make or break my business.

However, if I don’t generate enough leads, I’m going to have serious problems. If I don’t sell jobs at the right price, I’m going to have serious problems. If I can’t manage my crews and run my office, I’m going to have serious problems. In other words, if I don’t take care of every piece of the puzzle, I won’t be around to worry about Mr. Smith’s door peeling.

I realize that each of us has different goals and defines success differently. But whatever your goals are, your business is the means to that end. And your business will not succeed if you don’t have a good handle on the business side of the operation. If you don’t market and sell you will be a statistic.

Building a business is not easy. Statistics prove it. But it can be done, and statistics prove that as well. Building a business requires focusing on the right things—business things. Things like marketing, sales, and administration. In the end, business isn’t about primer or caulk. It’s about business.

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