When the Red Flags Flutter

About a month ago, I received a phone call requesting an estimate. The caller wanted to schedule a time that would be convenient for her husband, because he was sure to have a lot of questions. I generally like customers to ask a lot of questions, and accommodated her request.
There was nothing remarkable about the initial meeting. After I submitted my estimate, they told me that they’d consider it carefully and get back to me. About two weeks later, the wife showed up at our office with a signed contract. And that is when the red flags started fluttering.
I wasn’t in the office at the time. The husband had handwritten some additional terms on the contract, and the wife wanted my office manger to sign off on the additions. My office manager refused to do so.
After I reviewed the changes the next day, I emailed the husband and withdrew my proposal. I explained that, in my experience, customers who make unilateral changes to my proposal are likely to be difficult to deal with. Had he discussed the changes with me, I would have likely accepted them, with an appropriate change in the price. But that isn’t what occurred.
The customer responded that he really wanted to hire my company, but if I thought that we weren’t competent enough to meet his requests, then so be it. I didn’t respond further, as I had nothing to gain by subjecting myself to
his taunts.
I don’t mind picky customers, so long as they are fair. And fair includes discussing their desires and expectations, not unilaterally writing them into the contract. A customer who is willing to make unilateral changes prior to the start of the job is likely to make unilateral changes during the job. That
is an invitation for disaster, and I don’t like disasters.
The primary source of conflict between customers and contractors is poor communications. Good communications help the customer understand what to expect from the contractor. Good communications help the contractor
understand the customer’s desires and expectations. Good communications help the contractor write a proposal that meets those desires and expectations, as well as price the job accordingly.
In this case, the customer had ample time to make his expectations known. He apparently thought that, if he dangled some money under my nose, I’d eagerly accept whatever terms and conditions he demanded. He was wrong.
It isn’t always easy to turn down a job. But it is a lot easier than dealing with a problem customer.

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.

Selling a Dream

When we purchase a physical product, such as a truck, spray rig, or ladder, we can see what we are buying. We can touch it, and often, we can even test the product before handing over our money. But in the case of painting jobs, we are selling a dream.

Certainly, we can show a customer photos of past work. We can describe the process and the final results. But all of this is intangible—there is nothing physical that the customer can actually see regarding the job they are buying. The customer can only envision what the final product will look like. And that can create a lot of potential problems. What if their vision is different from what actually results?

Obviously, we can’t crawl inside the customer’s head. We can’t see what they are “seeing” regarding the project.

Good communications can eliminate many of these potential problems. While these communications must go in both directions, it is particularly important that we allow the customer to communicate his needs, desires, and expectations. If we understand what the customer requires and expects, then we can correct unreasonable expectations and meet those that are reasonable. Equally important, we can bid the job properly by taking into account anything that is unusual.

I usually ask my customers quite a few questions to determine their needs and expectations. One of my favorite questions is “why”? This is an open-ended question, and it helps me understand their situation better. More significantly, the “why” determines the “what.” Why a customer wants something will tell us more about their true needs and desires.

Customers don’t buy painting jobs everyday. They often do not know the best way to achieve their goal. But often the customer may simply think that something makes sense and hasn’t considered the full context.

For example, let us say that the customer wants a hallway painted by a certain date. We may not be able to meet that deadline, but upon probing, we discover that the customer is having new furniture delivered and wants the walls painted before that. We can point out that the deliverymen may easily bump the walls and damage the new paint, and therefore, it would be best to wait until after the furniture is delivered.

While any damage caused by the deliverymen has no impact on the quality of our work, by delaying painting the hallway we help the customer achieve a better end result. By asking why the customer had a specific deadline we were able to discover what the customer really needed.

While this example is simple, the same principle applies to other aspects of a painting project. I view the role of a salesman to primarily be that of a consultant—helping the customer make the best purchasing decision. But before we can do that, we must first understand what the customer wants, needs, and expects. We must first understand what dream they have inside their head.

Why Customers Focus on Price

Painting contractors frequently complain about customers who focus solely on price, rather than value. While it is easy to blame the customer, contractors are often the ones at fault.

To put this in context, consider your own buying habits. Do you ever buy anything based on price? Do you ever shop around for the best deal on a spray rig, a ladder, or paint? There is nothing necessarily wrong with doing so, and indeed, it is often the most rational thing to do.

Suppose you want to buy a Graco 395 airless sprayer. Whether you buy the rig from your paint dealer or Spray Rigs ‘R Us, you will get the very same product. Wouldn’t you want to get the best price possible? When everything is the same, price is usually the deciding factor.

The same applies to buying paint jobs. If your company and the job you propose look just like your competitors, price becomes the deciding factor. However, if your company and the job you propose are better, and you explain the benefit of this to the customer, price often becomes less important.

Again, consider your own buying habits. Do you ever spend a little more because you know that you will get better service or some other value? I certainly do. I’m willing to spend more when I know that I will get more.

The same applies to our customers. They don’t buy paint jobs everyday. They may not know the difference between alkyd and latex. They may think that eggshell is a color. They may ask, as a customer recently did, if I recommend semi-gloss or latex. To such people, paint is paint and anyone can paint. If you want them to believe differently, then you are going to have to educate them. And that is where many contractors fall short.

Again, consider your own buying habits. When you choose to spend more, it is highly likely that you have been educated. Either the salesman spent time with you discussing your options, or you’ve had previous experiences with the company, or something similar. In any case, you had learned why it would serve you to spend more.

The same applies to our customers. If we want them to pay a higher price, then we must offer them more value, and we must explain/educate why that value is beneficial. If the customer doesn’t know the difference between alkyd and latex, they certainly aren’t going to know why you recommend a 100 percent acrylic for their exterior.

Certainly, there will always be some customers who will always focus on price, no matter what you say or do. But many customers want to buy value, they just don’t know what it consists of. It’s your job to tell them.

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