It’s a word that causes us to stumble sometimes. Other times, it brings gifts.
All of us have a certain skill level, and a certain way we each conduct our businesses, and each of us has a certain way we deal with our customers. We may “do” wood floors, but this is a people job. I have heard that some great people were very difficult to deal with (e.g., Winston Churchill). There are stories about Plato, Shakespeare and contemporaries in industry and leadership, too. Those types of people can get away with being dingleberries, but we cannot. At least I cannot.
When push comes to shove, I have to “accommodate” and “bend” to customer demands. As for me, I used to be a pushover. It was like I couldn’t say no, because I thought they wouldn’t pay me, or wouldn’t like me or something. Other times, I was scared to push back, thinking they would sue me or make my life miserable in any number of ways. Some customers I’ve had were intimidating by their very nature. So many free recoats. So many extra things I’ve done and never been paid for. The stories go on, but I’d be overly embarrassed to list them because I have no excuse.
But now? I don’t care. I’m not running a charity, not anymore. In fact, I like it when I get the chance to push back. It took a lot to get me to push back, but I’ve noticed that the longer I stay in business, the longer my contracts become. In the beginning they were short one-page deals, and I would hand-write my name and address in with ink pen. I started out with blank copies at the stationary store on sale!
If people were simply fair-minded and grateful, I’d still be using those simple contracts. Well … sort of. You see, the state I live in has a thing to say about minimum contracts. Often I build upon that and add in particular notes and/or demands if I feel the need to.
Here’s one that I remember well. I remember everything about this example. Back when I was new and inexperienced, the customers would put demands on me, and with me having no knowledge or experience, I simply believed what I was told. For a short time, I installed base molding for free (and sometimes even bought the material). Some unscrupulous contractors told me “floors get molding,” and I was told the same thing from customers who either saw me coming or were friends of the contractors mentioned previously.
When I realized this was not true, I was upset. Really embarrassed, too, for being taken for granted—by “friends,” as I used to refer to my customers. I was trying to be all things to all people and was manipulated like a dupe, played like a violin, or sang like a tune … or however that saying goes.
So I stopped. Simultaneously, I wrote a new line in my quotes: “No molding in this quote.”
My next customer had to deal with the “new me.” The job was over, and it was an Anderson Dellamano floor in Caffe Nero color. It was an exquisite job, and I was well pleased. I did everything right. The CaCl testing on the concrete slab, the mentioning and documenting of the Anderson Duck Glue, the Anderson concrete sealer, acclimation times, trowel size—all of it—all documented in writing, and I had receipts for the purchase of all these individual parts of the install.
The last day came, and the job was over. I had previously gotten payment for the materials in full. (I was wise to that, thank goodness!) All I needed now was a check for the labor, and I’d be onto the next job.
The customer, an attorney, met me at the door, and instead of welcoming me inside, walked outside. I stepped back, giving him room as he advanced. I think I walked back like 10 feet or so, because he kept advancing. As he was advancing he was “lecturing.” He said he was very displeased with the lack of molding. I referred to the quote and the contract, and it plainly stated in the same font size as every other detail “No moldings are in this quote.” The customer said that is not good enough and he reminded me that he was an attorney. How could I be so stupid as to think that I could with stand challenging the likes of him, being that I am a simple contractor, a lowly person as compared to a man like him? (He said more or less these same words. I didn’t write them down, but I think I’m fairly accurate.)
I stopped backing up and planted my feet. In my head I was thinking, “Let’s dance, take me to court.” He kept insisting that “floors get molding” and I “owed” him the molding. I remembered telling him molding was extra, and since I didn’t know what kind he may have wanted, I wasn’t going to include it in the quote until he selected a molding that he liked. I would write an Additional Work Order and supply and install the molding after made a choice.
At this point I figured I wasn’t getting paid, but in my head I inventoried my legal posture and knew I stood on solid ground. This was a subjective thing on the part of my customer, and I knew he signed the contract (at this point I didn’t care if he was attorney). I raised my eyes and stared back and said, “No, not free.”
He became incensed and put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a pre-written check. It was written for the amount due. I couldn’t see that at the time, but after a brief pause of him trying to stare me down, he gave up, all exasperated. He did not want to actually hand me the check, so he threw the check on the ground and walked back into his home and slammed the door shut. I picked up the check and noted it was written for the right amount and, if I remember right, cashed it within minutes.
I never heard from him again, and I have lost no sleep since. In a way I was upset that I was not “all things to all men,” and couldn’t “make” him happy and/or satisfied, but after a long thought, I came to realize this was not the important thing. Getting paid was. Doing good and proper work was. Being ethical and clear was.
I recall a bit of wisdom from an enforcement agent for the California Contractors State License Board. He gave me this advice on using small print, and I quote: “Nowhere is it written that satisfaction is a legal entitlement. You are only obligated to complete the contract.”
I know that all of us balance delicate relationships with our customers. Some of those customers, like a builder or GC, “feed” us with constant work. I’m not saying everyone should go full Rambo, but just consider if this is something helpful. As for me, I refuse to work for builders and GCs, so I am more free than most. Having said that, I still get pinned once in a while. It’s an endless process, and I still have much to learn.
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