Business Management, Marketing Tips for the Contractor
How to Build and Maintain Your Professional Reputation. Reputation is critical. So much of a contractor's business comes from positive word of mouth among customers. Your reputation should be your top priority to ensure that the customer has only favorable impressions of your business once the job is completed.
by Bruce Hackett
, from auto manufacturing to plumbing — can succeed or fail based on its image among customers and prospects. One of the truest maxims in the business world is, “no matter what business you think you’re in, you’re really in the customer satisfaction business.” Businesses that earn reputations for meeting or exceeding their customers’ expectations will not only bring those customers back but attract significant new business as well.
For painting contractors, reputation is especially critical. Because so much of a contractor’s business comes from positive word of mouth among customers, it should be your top priority to ensure that the customer has only favorable impressions of your business once the job is completed. Happy customers will spread the word of your reliability, quality and professionalism, thereby bolstering your reputation. Unhappy customers, on the other hand, will tell everyone they can about their unsatisfactory experience with your company, and your business may quickly dry up.
What kinds of strategies should a painting contractor be pursuing to foster and enhance a positive reputation? There are dozens of things — some “big picture,” some seemingly insignificant — that, when added together, indicate to customers that yours is a company which stands behind its products and services, fulfills its obligations, and is worthy of their recommendation to other potential customers. Almost all of these points fall under the basic common sense category, but you’d be surprised how many contractors fail to acknowledge how important these procedures are in forming the favorable impression they seek.
Painting can be a very messy job. Between scraping, sanding, caulking and applying coatings, it’s not hard to end up looking pretty disheveled by day’s end. Most customers understand this; that’s one of the reasons why they’ve hired your company to handle the work instead of tackling it themselves.
But as the owner, you are expected to project an image as a professional. If you’re calling on a prospect for the first time in order to size up a project and submit an estimate, don’t show up in paint-spattered coveralls and muddy work boots. Have a change of clothes on hand for such occasions. It needn’t be a coat and tie; just a clean shirt, khakis and shoes are sufficient. It’s also a good idea to run a comb through your hair and perhaps dig the dirt out from under your fingernails. It shows you care about creating a good first impression. Your vehicle’s appearance plays a role as well. No one expects a painter to arrive in a spotless luxury car; indeed, it may scare off prospects who fear your prices must be too high to pay for such a nice auto. But if you show up in a filthy van, dripping oil on the driveway, people may think, “if he can’t even keep his truck in decent condition, what will he do to my property?”
From the moment you contact a potential customer, you will be judged by your behavior and the way you conduct yourself in conversation. Be professional. Speak to your clients politely and respectfully. As you walk through their property, treat it as you would your own.
Stick to business topics. A comment or two about the weather is fine, and with homeowners, you might even compliment their choice in decor and furnishings, but don’t overdo it. Most people can tell when they’re being snowed with insincere flattery. Spend your time reassuring them of your experience in handling projects like theirs.
Amazingly, some contractors try to ingratiate themselves with prospects by sharing horror stories about past jobs where customers proved unreasonable or too demanding. That’s a red flag for many people; they fear you’ll be confrontational and that your experience on their project will ultimately be a horror story relayed to the next prospect.
No doubt you’ve had your share of challenging projects, but instead of providing the gruesome details, focus on the successful project you just completed up the street or across town. Encourage customers to inspect these sites for themselves and even talk to the owners about how the job went (assuming you’ve asked for and received permission to use them as a reference).
In order to ensure that you ultimately meet or exceed expectations, you need to be a good listener. Find out exactly what the customer wants. If you have questions, ask them, and get definitive answers. Determine the true scope of the project. For example, if you’re asked to paint two bedrooms, find out if the customer presumes that includes the closets or adjoining bathrooms. Is there a chance the customer may also want to do a hallway, or other room? If you don’t ask ahead of time, requests to broaden the work order later can cause major problems, either because the customer expects the work done at no additional cost or because it throws off your entire work schedule with other customers.
If you foresee obstacles in providing what is asked for, say so up front. For example, if they want a color or coating that your experience tells you is inappropriate for a given application, say so, and offer alternative suggestions. For every problem you identify, provide a solution. This reinforces the fact that you are eager to satisfy your customers.
Explain your procedures in detail. Professional painters know all too well that thorough surface preparation is crucial to a quality painting job, but many customers may be less knowledgeable about how important that is.
Assure them that no finished coats will be applied until all minor repairs are completed (damaged siding, rotted soffits, crumbled window glazing) and every surface is adequately washed, scraped, sanded, caulked and primed. Explain that you use only the highest quality products, and mention brand names if appropriate. If the customer insists on substituting substandard products to cut costs, give serious thought about whether you still want to be involved.
Lawyers are famous for recommending this, and it’s very good advice for painting contractors. No one likes unwelcome surprises; they exasperate the customer and wreak havoc on your work schedule. It’s beneficial for you and your customer if your written bid or estimate spells out everything in detail, in line-item format if possible. If, after thoroughly inspecting all areas to be painted, you discover places requiring extra repair or preparation that will result in additional cost, say so clearly in the estimate.
Your submitted document should look as professional as you do — proper grammar and spelling, neatly typed on company letterhead or other presentable paper, dated and signed, and with any stipulations or payment terms clearly stated.
Some contractors have found it very beneficial to produce flyers or brochures that outline philosophy and experience, including photographs of successfully completed projects. These can be used in mailings to commercial enterprises or specific residential neighborhoods, or as leave-behind pieces following initial sales calls. (See sidebar for details.)
Perhaps the most frequent area of contention between contractors and customers is the timetable. Once the cost is agreed to, the most important questions for customers are, “When will you begin?” and, “How long will it take?” As a professional, it’s vital that you provide clients with reasonable estimates of the projected time frame, but it’s equally important to inform them that the painting business is significantly affected by variables that are often beyond your control — most notably, bad weather, product back-order, and changes in the scope of the job preceding theirs.
If you’ll be working outdoors, remind customers that you can’t paint in the rain or in temperatures above or below the accepted range to achieve optimum performance from the product.
Get your customer to start thinking about colors early in the process. Remarkably, many people don’t give thought to this issue until it’s time to apply the finished coat, and then they have trouble deciding whether they want blue or green, or more likely, which green from the dozens in the palette. Further complicating matters is the possibility that the desired color won’t be available from your supplier in sufficient quantities when needed.
Many contractors are frustrated when a project is near completion and the customer suddenly asks for more: “You know, as long as you’re here, I want to do this other room, too.” Assuming this possibility hasn’t been discussed in advance, you’re now faced with a tough decision: Do you decline the work, thereby irritating the customer, or do you accept the add-ons, which annoys your next customer because you must postpone the start of his job?
If you’re working indoors, let customers know up front how long a room or an area will be out of commission. In commercial or industrial projects, clients will be justifiably angry if operations are unnecessarily disrupted. Residential clients who are having houseguests or planning parties may be upset if their plans are adversely affected.
The old saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” might be changed to read, “A painting firm’s reputation is only as strong as its worst employee.” The way your painting crew members look and act while they’re on the job can be just as important as anything you do personally, perhaps more so.
Your customers will likely be watching your crew’s performance closely. Do they arrive on time? Do they stay focused on the task? Do they appear to know what they’re doing? Do they keep the work site reasonably neat and free of clutter? Do they dress appropriately? Do they behave professionally? Do they insist on having a radio playing while working (tuned to an annoying station)? Are their lunch breaks kept to a reasonable period? Are they diligent about protecting property from being damaged by their equipment? Do they clean up after themselves at each day’s end?
Commercial and residential clients alike have every right to expect your crews to perform in the manner you promised in your oral and/or written presentation. Consequently, the importance of selecting the right individuals and training them to work in the way you insist cannot be overstated.
During the hiring process, you must be very clear that you will not tolerate painters who ignore your requirements. Once you hire somebody, you may need to personally supervise their work for the first project or two to ensure they are adequately representing your company on the job.
Savvy contractors insist their crew have the proper attitude on the job site: treat the customer politely and with respect; exhibit professional conduct at all times; refrain from unnecessary and inappropriate chatter with co-workers; avoid public arguments with supervisors; keep safety in mind to avoid accidents; and refer customers’ concerns directly to you for resolution. In addition, crew members should look like professional painters. That means no shorts or tank tops, only painters’ whites (possibly with company name on them), including caps worn correctly. They must keep shirts on, even on hot days. They should use rags or towels, not their pants, for wiping their hands or cleaning up spills. They should keep their vehicles reasonably presentable and in good running order.
Just as word of mouth is a painter’s best method of attracting business, thorough and high-quality preparation and painting will attract the eye of passersby who may be currently seeking a reputable painting contractor. For example, if possible, leave the front of the building or house prepped over the weekend, which shows how much preparation you typically do. Better yet, working on Saturdays (or even Sundays on occasion) shows you’re willing to go the extra mile to meet clients’ expectations. If your customer grants permission, be sure to put up a good yard sign while work proceeds so observers knows whom to contact.
If the work site is kept tidy, the crew behaves professionally, only high-quality products are used, and everything is communicated up front and agreed to in writing, the odds are heavily in your favor that customers will return to you for their next project and speak highly of you to others.