I Want My House Painted

One of the worst things a contractor can do during the sales process is make assumptions. Unfortunately, it is easy to do. We often assume that we know what the customer means. And often that assumption is wrong.

For example, I once had a customer tell me that she wanted the entire interior of her house painted. That seems pretty straight forward, but appearances can be deceiving. As we walked around her house and discussed the project, I asked her about the ceilings, closets, and several other items. After she told me to leave three or four things off of the estimate, she jokingly said, “I guess I don’t want the entire house painted, do I?”

If I had assumed that I knew what she meant, I would have bid a job that was much different from what she wanted. By asking a few questions, both of us became clear as to her needs and desires. And then I could bid the job accordingly.

I don’t mean to imply that we should endlessly interrogate a customer. That would serve no useful purpose and would likely annoy the customer. But we must be careful to identify when we are making assumptions.

If we seek to satisfy the customer’s needs and desires, we must first know what they are. And that means asking the right questions. Anything less is a disservice to the customer and to ourselves.

Be a Problem Solver

How you define your company will have a huge impact on every aspect of the business. For example, if you define your company as a discount service, you will advertise and operate much differently than a company that defines itself as a high-end, custom service. How you define your company instills a certain mindset in the owner, employees, and customers.

It is probably clear how the above examples would impact a company and its operations. A discount service will focus on price, while a high-end service will focus on quality. But these types of definitions are somewhat limiting, for they don’t identify an essential component of a successful contracting company.

Fundamentally, painting contractors are problem solvers (or at least they should be). We are called to a customer’s home to solve a problem. Granted, sometimes that problem is relatively minor in the grand scope of things—they simply don’t like the color of the powder room. But the significance of the problem isn’t the issue.

Sometimes, it is obvious that we are a problem solver. If the customer is having a problem with peeling paint, the problem is easy to spot. But other times the problem is less obvious, and our ability to identify and solve that problem can present us with opportunities.

For example, like many contractors, I often get calls from a prospect who “needs” some painting done yesterday. His problem is a time crunch, or so he believes. But often, the prospects perception does not match reality. If we can solve his problem in a mutually beneficial way, we become a hero.

As an example, many of my prospects want painting done before they move into a house. And often it is impossible for me to accommodate that desire. However, I can often propose a solution that provides them with a better final product and lands me a new customer. Rather than attempt to paint the entire house prior to move-in, I often propose that we paint the bedrooms before they move, and then do other areas later.

I explain that stairways, halls, and other common areas often get beat up during the move. Their fresh paint is going to get damaged. However, if we paint after they move, we can repair the damage and they will wind up with a fresh paint job.

While this suggestion doesn’t always work, it is effective a large percentage of the time. It works because I try to be a problem solver.

The Customer is Not Always Right

Conventional wisdom holds that the customer is always right. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. Unfortunately, far too many contractors buy into this faulty view, and in the process, they do themselves and their customers a great disservice. Equally unfortunate, many customers also embrace this adage, with the same destructive results.

Consider what “the customer is always right” really means: regardless of the facts, the customer’s position should be accepted by both parties. The focus is not on the truth, but blind acceptance of the customer’s claims. But what if the customer is actually wrong?

As an example, let us say that the customer tells you that he will supply the paint for his exterior painting project. When you arrive to start the project, you discover that the customer has purchased interior paint. The customer insists that you use the paint, despite any arguments you present. “Paint is paint,” the customer declares. (I’ve actually had this occur.)

If you accept the adage that the customer is always right, you will go ahead and use the paint. Rather than continue a pointless debate, you conclude that you will avoid the problem by giving in. But what happens when the paint job fails prematurely? Who will get the blame? Did you really avoid a problem, or just delay it?

In this example, the customer gets a poor job. Your reputation is going to take a hit because you agreed that the customer is always right, even when he isn’t. You may find yourself with a major headache down the road, all because you believed that the customer is always right.

Nobody is infallible, and this doesn’t change simply because someone has hired your company to paint their house. When a customer is wrong, we must say so. Of course, we should be tactful in dong so.

Standing up to a customer who is wrong is not always easy. But it is much easier than dealing with a problem that could have been avoided if we had simply had the courage to defend the truth.

Why Poor Communications are Your Fault

As a contractor for more than 25 years, I have certainly had my share of problems with customers. It would be easy to put the blame on the customer for these problems. But the fact is, many times (if not most of the time) the fault lies with me (or someone in my company). Simply blaming the customer does nothing to address the ultimate cause of the problem.

The vast majority of problems between customers and contractors result from poor communications. Frequently, the result is unrealized expectations on the part of one or both parties. For example, the contractor may expect the customer to remove all small items from a room, but when he arrives at the job, he discovers that the customer expects the contractor to remove everything. Neither expressed his expectations and both wind up frustrated.

I put the onus for good communications on the contractor. We know what the typical problems are, and we can take steps to avoid those problems through good communications. Over the past 3 years, I have increasingly seen these problems from the customer’s side of the equation.

Since late 2009, I have been investing in real estate. During that time, I have hired and dealt with about a dozen different contractors–both GCs and trade specific. This has allowed me to view the contractor/customer relationship from a new perspective. And, nearly every problem that I have experienced has been the result of poor communications.

The contractor that I am using on a current rehab serves as an example. He has called no less than a dozen times asking about colors, hardware finishes, the type of tile, etc. Virtually every time, his call has come while he is at the store or on his way to pick up materials. This puts me in the position of making a quick decision, something that I have refused to do several times. The result is frustration on the part of one or both of us, delays in the job, and similar problems.

This type of situation can be easily avoided by anticipating when choices need to be made and communicating that fact ahead of time. Indeed, with few exceptions, these issues can be addressed before the job even begins.

As a contractor, I won’t start a job until the customer has selected colors. I don’t want to put myself in the position of idle time while a customer makes such decisions. And I don’t want to put the customer in the position of making a rapid decision.

As a customer, I don’t want to delay my contractor. Nor do I want to be put in the position of making rapid decisions.

In both instances, I put the onus on the contractor. As a contractor, I know what information I need from the customer and when I need it. As a customer, I expect my contractor to similarly anticipate his needs.

Most communications problems can be avoided
through systems. Systems provide specific steps for obtaining and imparting information. Forms and checklists can be used to ensure that the steps are followed and the relevant information properly recorded. As an example, we require the customer to submit paint colors prior to starting the job, and we record the information on the work order for the job.

When we experience a problem or frustration, we should ask ourselves one simple question: what can I do to avoid this problem in the future? Systems provide the means to improve our communications, to the mutual benefit of both the contractor and the customer.


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