Systems and Perseverance

In my last post, I talked about shifting our focus from our goals to the steps we will take to attain them. In other words, viewing the means as the ends.

This perspective can be particularly beneficial when we are pursuing a goal that does not show immediate results. Viewing the means as the end helps us to persevere. It helps us continue the steps necessary to attain our goal.

As an example, I often meet a lot of resistance when I teach contractors my sales system. A big part of the resistance comes from the fact that I suggest that the contractor raise his labor rate. They don’t believe that they can sell jobs at a rate that is 50 percent to 100 percent higher than what they have been charging.

If they continued doing things as they have in the past, their concerns would be valid. But sales do not occur in a vacuum. Increasing one’s price involves more than simply putting a higher number on the estimate. Obtaining higher prices must be a part of a sales system.

The sales system that I teach involves a series of steps that are relatively easy and inexpensive. They are designed to immediately and significantly differentiate a contractor from his competitors.

Once they overcome their fears and implement the system, contractors discover that customers are not as concerned about price as much as the contractor believed. They discover that their closing rate remains the same (and often increases) despite the higher price.

Our goal as a salesman is to sell paint jobs. But if we focus on getting the sale, rather than the process to obtain it, we do ourselves and the customer a disservice. And we get fewer sales. However, if we focus on the system—the steps necessary to achieve the desired result—good things usually happen.

Focusing on the means makes it easier to persevere when things aren’t going well. And perseverance makes it much more likely that we will get the results we desire.

The Means as Ends

Goals are important. They establish where we want to go. However, when our progress is slow, it can become easy to abandon the goal. Often, the reason is because we focus on the goal and not the means for attaining it.

Achieving a long-term goal takes perseverance. It can be hard to maintain the drive over a period of months or years, even when we might be making progress. The goal remains in the distance. We can overcome this by shifting our focus from the goal to the means.

As a simple example, consider someone who wants to lose 30 pounds in 6 months. He may weigh himself daily, hoping to see progress. If he doesn’t lose weight as quickly as he’d like, he may get discouraged and abandon the goal. But what if he focuses on the means?

Let us say that, instead of eating fast food for lunch, he decides to carry his lunch each day in an effort to eat healthier and lose weight. His goal is no longer 6 months away—he now has a daily goal. The means become an ends.

By shifting the focus, he can now see progress each day that he carries his lunch. He knows that if he keeps doing that, he will eventually lose weight. And he finds it much easier to focus on what he can do today rather than focusing on the weight he hopes to attain in 6 months.

The same principle applies to any long-term goal: if we keep doing the right things, we increase our chances of experiencing good results.

We should certainly plan for and think about the long-term. But it is often easier to accomplish long-term goals by focusing on the short-term— the means.

Growing Pains

If you are like most contractors, you dream of growing your business. You may want to get out of the bucket and turn production over to others. You may want to hire a salesman or office manager. You may want to add another crew. Regardless of your own particular goals, growth can be a painful experience if it isn’t managed properly. And the key to properly managing growth is having systems.

Growth necessarily entails delegating tasks and responsibilities to others. If we want to get consistent, desirable results, then we must have systems in place to ensure that our employees are taking the proper actions.

When I first began delegating responsibilities, I often lamented the fact that my employees didn’t do
things the way I wanted. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize why—I hadn’t trained them to do things the way I wanted. I assumed that they would somehow know. That erroneous assumption led to a lot of growing pains. Systems won’t eliminate all of the pains associated with growth, but systems will minimize those pains.

With systems in place, we have a process for handling the myriad issues that accompany growth.

For example, if we add another crew, we need to sell more jobs. And to sell more jobs, we need to generate more leads. When we sell more jobs, we have more customers to keep informed. We have more paperwork to keep organized. Without systems, we could easily find ourselves dealing with an endless stream of emergencies, jumping from issue to issue in an effort to put out the latest fire.

But with systems in place, we have a process for generating leads, for selling jobs, for communicating with customers. Fewer things fall between the cracks. We can be proactive and manage the company’s growth, rather than be reactive to the crisis du jour. And that is a lot less painful.

A Lesson in Customer Complaints

Nobody enjoys a dispute with a customer. However, no matter how diligent and conscientious you are, disputes will occasionally occur. While these situations can be stressful, they can also represent an opportunity to improve your business.

Several years ago, I had a three-month dispute with a customer. I will spare you all of the gory details, but a brief summary of the dispute is necessary.

In early July we began an exterior repaint. A few interior rooms were also included in the job. During the job, the customer added a number of small items–another small room, some baseboards, and similar items. The supervisor provided a price for each item verbally, and the customer agreed to the prices. Because this was occurring several times a day, the supervisor did not write a change order for each additional item. Instead, he planned to write one change order later in the job. When he did write the change order the customer refused to sign it, saying that he wanted to review it.

We were also going to install a new door, which the customer would supply. However, once we were on the job, the customer informed us that the door would not be available immediately.We agreed that we would complete the other work and return to install the door once it arrived. The crew completed the work and asked the customer to inspect the work so that they could take care of any touch up items. He refused. That evening he called our office and left a message that he had a few questions.

Over the next several days I left him multiple messages, but he did not return my calls. I finally emailed him and he informed me that he was on vacation and would return the following week.

Upon his return, he provided a short punch list. We returned to install the door and take care of the punch list items. When the crew finished, he again refused to inspect the work or make final payment. Two weeks later, he submitted a new punch list, twice the length of the first one.

Up to this point I had tolerated his delays and lack of communication. But the new punch list was unreasonable. His refusal to inspect the work while the crew was there– despite the terms of our contract–was creating scheduling problems. His refusal to pay–despite the terms of our contract–was an indication that he might be trying to stiff us.

Over the next several weeks we exchanged emails and phone calls in an attempt to resolve the matter. He demanded that we complete the items on his punch list before he would pay any more. At one point he suggested that we deduct $1,300 from his balance of $3,000 to call the deal even. This was absurd, and I told him so. Our last phone call ended with no resolution. I promptly contacted the Better Business Bureau and requested arbitration to resolve the matter. The BBB contacted the customer and three days later I received a check in the mail for the balance due.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this experience.

The first, and most significant, lesson is the importance of following procedures. Procedures are useless if they are not followed. In this instance, having the customer sign for additional work before completing that work would have avoided some problems. While the failure to do so was understandable under the circumstances and certainly not the primary cause of the dispute, the dynamics of the situation would have been considerably different.

The second lesson is the importance of a good contract. For example, our contract calls for the customer to inspect the work at the time of substantial completion, and provides the customer with an additional 5 days to inform us of any uncompleted items. The customer abused this policy, refusing to inspect the work at the time of substantial completion (even though he worked at home) and then taking 2 weeks to inform us of uncompleted items. Further, our contract calls for binding arbitration in the event of a dispute. Not only does this prevent expensive litigation, when the customer implied that he would sue if I did not cave to his demands, I knew that his threats were meaningless.

Finally, this experience shows that BBB membership does not benefits. For the price of a few emails with the BBB I was able to resolve this dispute quickly. Apparently, the realization that an independent, third-party would rule on this dispute provided motivation for the customer to quit playing games.

For us, this experience provided a reminder that we have specific procedures for a purpose. It also reminded us that when those procedures are not followed, the results can be much different from what we want or intend.

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