What is a quality painting job?

In 25 years as a contractor, I have yet to meet a contractor or a painter who didn’t claim to do quality work. But what does quality mean? Is, to paraphrase an old adage, one painter’s quality another painter’s junk?

One definition of quality is: a distinguishing attribute. It could be argued that a painter who refuses to use a drop clothe and gets paint on the customer’s furniture is producing work with a distinguishing attribute. But it is unlikely that this is what most painters mean when they speak of the quality of their work.

Another definition of quality is: a degree of excellence. This is what most contractors and painter mean by quality. But what is excellence? Does it mean laser-straight cut-in lines? Does it mean woodwork that is as smooth as glass? Or, does it mean something else?

I suspect that we could ask ten different painters these questions and get ten different answers. But since this is a written article, and not a call-in talk show, I’m going to stick my neck out and give my answer. And it may surprise you.

From my perspective, quality has little to do with the appearance of the paint on the wall. Certainly, walls with more runs than a cheap pair of stockings would not qualify as quality. But I assume that any competent painter can achieve an acceptable finish. When I speak to painters or contractors about quality, I mean something much different.

Painting is a service business. Putting paint on the wall is only one part, and a relatively small part, of that service. I expect a professional painter to do that reasonably well; it is the minimal skill that one must possess to even qualify as a professional painter. What then, do I mean by quality?

Consider the many different aspects involved in hiring a professional painting contractor. From the first phone call to the final payment, there are often dozens, if not hundreds, of individual events. Each of these contributes to the overall experience. If a painter fails to wipe his feet and tracks mud onto the customer’s carpet, the appearance of the paint is going to pale in comparison. If the crew is habitually late, the customer isn’t going to notice that the drywall repairs are invisible. If the painters look like prime candidates for the Betty Ford Clinic, the experience could be wrought with angst. In other words, painting well isn’t enough to provide a quality experience. And, from the customer’s perspective, the experience is as important, if not more so, that what is on the wall.

As another type of example: you take your significant other to dinner at an elegant restaurant. The atmosphere is perfect, the food is delicious, and the waiter is obnoxious. Which of these are you likely to remember? Will the taste of the food overcome the demeanor of the waiter? Or will the evening be ruined? In any service business, the product is only a part of the equation.

Good service won’t make up for poor painting skills. But poor service can ruin the best paint job.

A guaranteed method to keep your painting crews busy

Painting contractors often express concern about keeping their crews busy. “If I don’t keep them busy,” the contractor says, “I’ll lose them.” Since the tightening economy has likely made this even more of a concern, I am happy to offer a two-step program for keeping your crews incredibly busy.

1. Charge very low prices. This will likely increase your closing rate, so you will have more jobs. Of course, you might lose money on each job, but you can make it up in volume. When you have a ton of jobs, you will gain some economies of scale. For example, you can get better pricing on ProMar 700, and the pennies you save will help reduce your losses.

2. Have your painters use nothing but 2″ sash brushes. Certainly they will be less efficient, but imagine how long it will take them to paint interior ceilings and walls. That job that used to take a week can now be spread out for an entire month. Combined with low prices, inefficiency will keep your crews very busy.

I hasten to add that this program does have a few negative consequences. One is ticked off customers. They will not appreciate jobs taking so long. But this problem will be overcome by another negative result–bankruptcy. You probably can’t implement this program for very long before discovering that when you spend more money than you bring in, you will go bankrupt.

Of course, all of this is written in jest. The above “advice” might keep crews busy, but it isn’t a sound business strategy. My point is that keeping crews busy is easy. Making a profit isn’t. And your goal should be to make a profit.

Using systems to find good help

The inability to find good help is a frequent complaint among painting contractors. Much of the problem results from a lack of systems in the hiring process.

Systems and procedures allow us to achieve consistent, predictable results in our paint contracting business. This is true of every aspect of our business, including the hiring process.

Having specific procedures for hiring new employees accomplishes 2 primary objectives: They help us clearly identify what we want in an employee and they provide a method for achieving that goal.

Systems give us a method for attracting and identifying the type of employee we want in our business. If we go on “gut instinct” or make rash decisions because we are desperate to hire someone, we can easily make a bad hiring decision.

Procedures provide specific steps for the process and allow us to make more objective decisions. Too often the hiring “process” consists of a quick discussion with the prospect. If he meets our basic criteria—usually related to painting experience— he is hired. But the ability to put paint on the wall is a small part of what makes for a good employee. Besides, years of experience do not necessarily translate to good painting skills.

If we follow a process we can identify other traits that can often be more important than painting skills. We can discover if the prospect will follow instructions, arrive at the assigned time, and be responsible. We can discover his customer service skills, his ability to communicate, and his willingness to work as a part of a team.

The individuals we employee will ultimately determine whether we move towards our goals or further away. Hiring the wrong person can quickly more us away from our goals

I’m the best painter

We are probably all familiar with common playground repartees: “My dad can beat up your dad.” “Oh yeah, well your mother wears army boots.” Such exchanges are obviously silly, but that doesn’t stop some painting contractors from engaging in similar activities.

You don’t need to read a painting forum too long to stumble across painters who claim they do the best work. These claims are no different from playground taunts—they accomplish nothing but massage the ego of the speaker.

I don’t doubt that those making these claims do very fine work. But the best? What does that mean? The best by whose standards? And why is being the best painter such a big issue?

I didn’t start a paint contracting company to be the best. I started my business to make money. I soon learned that most customers weren’t willing to pay for a perfect paint job. Most couldn’t recognize one if it snuck up and bit them on the butt. (Ignore the fact that paint jobs don’t have teeth, though I’ve seen some that must have lips because they really sucked

I decided that the time involved getting to a 9.5 or a 10 was simply far more than customers would pay for. I concluded many would pay for an 8 or an 8.5, and there was a large market for this level of service. That’s where I have focused my efforts.

I am certain that there are companies that do better quality work than mine. I’m also aware that many of these companies struggle to stay busy and don’t charge what their service is truly worth. In short, they don’t make much money.

So, if you aim to be the best painter, knock yourself out. I’m glad you take pride in your work. But don’t come bragging to me about being the best. If you think I’m apathetic on the issue, trying telling your grocer that you are the best painter. He’ll still expect you to pay your bill, and being the best doesn’t always accomplish that.

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