Mrs. Home Owner decides that she would like a hardwood floor instead of the nasty old vinyl in her kitchen. After asking around the neighborhood, she comes up with the name and phone number of a reputable local hardwood flooring company. To compare price, she picks a contractor out of the Yellow Pages, also. She makes appointments with each one to come to her house and give an estimate.

Contractor No. 1 arrives on time. Mrs. Home Owner notices as he pulls up that his van looks new and his company's logo is painted on the side. As he comes to the door, she can see that he is neatly dressed with a clean shirt also marked with the company logo. She feels comfortable welcoming this contractor into her house as he politely wipes his boots off and introduces himself. As she asks questions, he patiently answers them and takes out sample boards for her to examine. After carefully measuring the space, he draws out a rough price estimate on his company's estimating form.

The next day the home owner has an appointment with Contractor No. 2. He pulls up two hours late in a rickety old truck that's beginning to rust. Without so much as mumbling an apology for his tardiness, he tracks mud into the house and begins telling her that she won't find a company in town who can beat his price. Ashe bends over to take some measurements, she averts her eyes and notes that he should really be wearing a belt with his dirty jeans and Budweiser T-shirt. When she asks questions, he becomes impatient, and tells her the new finish she's asking about is "crap." He scribbles an estimate out on a notepad, and she sees that it's substantially cheaper than the one from the day before.

Sound extreme. Unfortunately, Contractor No. 2is all too common. And although his price may be a bargain, for most consumers, his low-balling is no match for the professionalism of the first contractor. The basics of professionalism may seem like common sense, but they're often ignored. Here's a brief reminder:

Make contact — now.

Start with the first contact with the customer,which is usually on the phone. When customers call your business, does someone actually pick up the phone. When they pick it up, do they answer clearly and in a friendly voice, or do they sound annoyed to be bothered? For many contractors, having someone available all the time to answer the phone in not an option. In that case, does the phone ring interminably, or does voice mail or an answering machine pick it up promptly. How long does it take before the call is returned. Any delay in contacting a potential customer is potentially a lost job.

Put on a show.

The next step is the first contact with the customer in person. If you have a showroom where customers and their designers can look over the options, all the better. For the many contractors who don't have a showroom, there are other options. Sometimes your professional wood flooring distributors have a showroom where you can send your customers. Or, many contractors have sample boards made up of different species, grades and finishes that they can take with them and leave with customers for a few days. It is important that these sample boards be big enough to give an accurate representation of what a specie or grade may look like. Species such as cherry that change color or darken significantly with exposure to light should be allowed to change before being used as a sample.

Sell yourself.

A professional-looking portfolio can be the most impressive part of a sales presentation. Photos of actual job sites you've worked on not only show what kind of work you are capable of, they also give customers visuals of how different species and finishes will look on a larger scale. (Manufacturers' brochures can be useful for that purpose, also.) Photos of higher-end work, such as borders, inlays and custom parquets, can plant the seed for selling upscale design work that the customer may not have considered before.

Shoot it right.

Make sure the quality of the photos in your portfolio reflects the quality of the hardwood floors you install, sand and finish. You may have done a stunning custom floor in a customer's dream home, but if the photography is subpar, your floor will look subpar, as well. If you have a job that you know you'll want to show off for years to come, or if you want to blow up the photo and frame it on your showroom wall, it pays to use a professional architectural photographer. Before hiring one, be sure you see his or her portfolio to be certain the work is up to the standard you need.

Keep it clean.

Keep in mind the importance of appearances, both during a first impression and throughout your work on the job site. Do you and your workers sound like the first contractor in the example or more like the disheveled slob who ended up losing the job. Presenting an organized image — your company logo on your trucks, shirts and letterhead — gives the impression that your company is prosperous and well-run. Professional workers from successful companies keep themselves, their trucks and their equipment clean, even during what can be a very dirty job. Customers look at you, your trucks and your equipment to make a judgment about how well you will treat their own home.

Cleanliness is godliness.

Speaking of their own home, how well are you going to treat it. Hopefully you aren't as rude as Contractor No. 2, who tromped right on into the home without even wiping off his boots. Throughout the entire job, the home should be kept as clean as possible, whether it's a remodel or new construction. Containing as much dust as possible — from hanging plastic barriers to using dust containment equipment — will make the customer happier and improve the quality of your work, also.

Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth …

So your customer decided when the job was almost done that the wood was wrong and you had to rip it out and start over from scratch. Now you won't be able to get to the next job until a week later than you thought. There's no use trying to make up stupid excuses to your next customer to delay them day by day, or, even worse, just not showing up. If you're upfront about being a week late, they may be mad, but they'll appreciate the honesty. Likewise, be careful not to oversell the products you use. Setting up unrealistic expectations — such as the finish still looking new five years from now after an onslaught of pets,kids and parties — can only lead to disappointment. Finally, if you or someone from your company made a mistake, own up to it and rebuild the relationship from there.

Be a class act.

There is one area where it's alright to not tell the whole truth, and that's when you're talking about the competition. You may know all sorts of nasty things about the guy across town, but you don't need to share them with your customers. Bad mouthing anyone — a competitor, a previous customer or a previous employee — will damage your reputation as a classy professional. Make a point of selling your company by promoting your strong points, not by cutting down someone else.

Out of time.

The people in the world of construction are well known for being, generally,late. Try being an exception to the rule. Or, if you can't be the exception, at least call and let your customers know you're running behind. That way, they can reschedule if necessary and be inconvenienced as little as possible.

No ifs, ands or butts!

The angry customer calls to complain about all those little cigarette butts — or even worse, beer cans — that have mysteriously appeared in her backyard. Make sure your workers aren't ever the ones responsible for this embarrassing incident. No smoking or drinking anywhere near the job site should be a given, and leaving any litter is a mistake.

Big brother is listening.

It's been a long, hard day, and tempers are running short. When you arrive on the job site to check on progress, it sounds like a World Wrestling Federation match is in progress, and the cussing is so nasty that your floor guys make Andrew Dice Clay sound like an angel. Always assume that customers can hear anything on the job site, and that what they hear is safe for the "Sesame Street"age group.

If you've got all these bases covered,you're well on your way to standing out from the wood flooring crowd. Set the example for your employees by the way you dress and how you handle yourself with customers. Likewise, set the standard for the contractors in your area. If you do that and perform quality work, you'll probably have so much business that you'll have to turn it away.

Kim Wahlgren

Kim M. Wahlgren is the longtime editor of Wood Floor Business. Based in Madison, Wis., she manages the day-to-day operations of the WFB print magazine, website, E-News and social media. She holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin in journalism and Spanish. Away from the office, she’s busy enjoying her family, including two beautiful children, a sassy ex-racehorse, an extraordinarily silly black Labrador mutt and her husband, Brent, whom she met at … yes, wood flooring school.