Outselling Chuck in a Truck

After last week’s email, a reader asked if customer education is effective when bidding against Chuck in a truck—contractors who offer insanely low prices. My answer was a resounding “yes.” In fact, customer education is particularly effective when bidding against low-priced contractors.

From my experience, Chuck shows up, looks at the job, and throws a number at the customer.
Fundamentally, this doesn’t differ much from what most reasonably priced contractors do. They show up, look at the job, and then email a number to the customer. Sure, they probably have a nice web site and a more detailed estimate. But their sales process is essentially the same as Chuck’s.

For the customer, this process can be quite confusing, particularly when Chuck offers a price much lower than yours. The customer may recognize the fact that you speak better, have more detail in your estimate, and seem like a nice guy. But they don’t see why they should pay you a lot more money to put paint on their walls.

The simple fact is, if the customer can’t see the difference between your company and Chuck, price is often the deciding factor. If you want to stand apart from Chuck, then you can’t look like him (literally or figuratively). And the most effective way to do this is through customer education.

Most contractors, including Chuck, make some attempt at customer education. They will tell the customer about the quality of their work, the products they use, and similar things. But that’s not really customer education. Customer education means helping the customer make a wise purchasing decision based on his particular needs and desires.

If we want to help a particular customer with his needs and desires, we must first understand what they are. Only then can we propose the products and scope of work that will be satisfactory. If we assume that we know those needs and desires, we are not much different from Chuck.

If we want to outsell Chuck, then we must be different than Chuck. Ultimately, that means discovering what matters to the customer.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Last week, I was in Florida to teach my estimating and sales system. One of the attendees has been estimating by the “eye-ball” method for twenty years. When Mike (not his real name) entered the training room, he made it pretty clear that he thought he was wasting his time.

By the end of the two-day session, Mike was one of the most vocal in praising the training. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. But one’s success in doing so depends on the dog, and the tricks one is trying to teach.

In Mike’s case, he was willing to keep an open mind and consider something new. Though he was skeptical at first, he was willing to listen and consider what I was saying. He could see how my system could help him sell more paint jobs.

Too often, contractors view sales as a necessary evil. It is something that we have to do to get jobs. And when that is our attitude, we often do little more than throw a number at the customer and hope that some stick.

In truth, sales is little more than playing the role of a consultant. We should be educating our customers about what is required to achieve the results they want and why our company can provide those results.

To accomplish this, we must first determine what the customer really wants or needs. We must ask questions and then listen to the answers. Only then can we propose a scope of work and products that will satisfy the customer.

Contractors often lament the fact that may customers think that anyone can paint. But many contractors approach sales with this same mentality. They treat every customer as the same and don’t spend the time to discover what a particular customer wants or needs.

Professional painters know that a lot more is involved in a quality job than slapping paint
on the walls. Professional salesmen know that customers don’t always want or need exactly the same thing. If we are selling paint jobs, we must integrate these two facts.

If we treat our customers all the same, they have no reason to view us differently than our competition. And when we look the same as our competition, price becomes the deciding issue. But when we treat our customers differently than the competition—when we spend the time to learn what they really want and need—then they view us differently than the competition. And when we look different, value becomes the deciding issue.

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.

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