Home Improvement Contractors’ Stigma and How an Ancient Story May Offer a Solution

This article discusses how and why contractors are mistrusted and tells an ancient story that may imply a possible solution to the home improvement industry’s problem

The Hypothetical
Home improvement worker priming drywallIt’s a familiar story. You wanted an addition put onto your house (or a kitchen remodel, or a basement renovation), so you called a few contractors and got a few quotes. You researched them briefly and finally made a hire. A contract was signed. You paid your deposit, and work began. Then everything changed. Suddenly the man or woman who courted you during the estimate phase isn’t as responsive as he or she used to be. Phone calls go unanswered or unreturned for days. Laborers make a mess of your property. The deadline comes and goes and the work isn’t completed. Finally your contractor gets back to you… to let you know the price has gone up. The work was finally finished, though not exactly how you wanted it, and the experience was less than pleasant – not to mention significantly more costly than you had originally planned. Sound familiar? It might, but in reality very few jobs end up like this.

CraftPro Home Improvement's founding owner-operatorMy girlfriend shed some light on this issue: she once told me something she learned in a business class: “If a customer has a good experience they may tell one person about it. On the other hand, if a customer has a bad experience they will tell as many as ten people”. Therein lies the route to the negative stigma our industry has to endure. I heard stories just like the one above since well before I even began working as a home improvement contractor, because people talk a LOT about their bad experiences, and these stories ultimately stigmatize contractors in general, even the kind like my former boss and mentor – a painting, carpentry and drywall contractor who never took advantage of clients and who always treated our customers fairly, respectfully and honorably. But still, the cold hard truth is that contractors simply are not trusted by most homeowners.

The Evidence
downward graphIn November of 2008 Gallop polled people on their views about the ethical standards of various professionals. Only 22% ranked the ethical standards of “Building Contractors” as “High/Very High”, and 20% rated them as “Low”. About half the people polled felt that our ethical standards are “Average”. The good news is those who were polled found us more trustworthy than Attorneys, albeit by a very small margin. So, at least until the next poll, we are the lesser of two evils when compared to ambulance-chasers. Further down the list were Business Executives, Stockbrokers and even Congressmen – so there is some small comfort there. Another example is GuildQuality (www.guildquality.com) – a company that provides reviews and surveys to contractors from their customers, and they recently released a white paper with some less than favorable facts about customer service and how it relates to business performance. The general point was that “companies with exceptional service are ten times more likely to succeed than mediocre businesses” (GuildQuality.com).

Recognizing the Problem: An Attempt at Change
legislation for building and constructionIn the last century there have been significant zoning laws, licensing and permitting requirements, and other legislation all with their aim at protecting homeowners against untrustworthy contractors. Certification programs and continuing education for contractors were also put in place, yet the stigma remained: all of this happened well before the Gallop Poll and, in truth, it doesn’t take a poll to make us aware of the problems between contractors and homeowners.

So who, if anyone, deserves the blame?

Is it the Homeowner?
Surely, many if not most homeowners are unaware of the complexities of the work that contractors do and the fact that even seemingly simple jobs (like painting, for example) are labor-intensive and have the potential for unforeseeable challenges during execution. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. A quality contractor who cares about doing high quality work and keeping homeowners satisfied can usually avoid problems with their customers simply by communicating effectively and demonstrating that they care about their customers’ needs and wants by making an effort.

Is it the Contractor?
Many of these problems are, indeed, the fault of the contractor. There are a plethora of mediocre contractors out there – companies and individuals who will take you for every dime they can: they’ll buy the cheaper materials and do the least meticulous work in order to save time and money, cutting corners at every turn in an effort to increase profit margins. They won’t communicate with you effectively, so they aren’t able to meet your needs – how can they meet your expectations without knowing you, and knowing what you want? Therein, I believe, lies the essence of the problem.

The Hypothesis
A fluid, open-flow communication policy between an honest contractor and a patient homeowner is a simple recipe for spectacular results: customers get exactly what they want and contractors not only turn a profit, but make an ally out of their customer, and not an enemy. That last part is important, because in the age of the internet, a single customer can make a big difference.

In a world of Facebook and Twitter and the myriad business listing sites where users can give reviews with just a few taps on a keyboard that can make or break a company’s reputation, each and every individual customer is far more important than they may have been in the past. A large part of the industry may be based on word-of-mouth, but word-of-mouth has extended from spoken words among friends, families and neighbors to the written word on hundreds of local business listing websites. According to GuildQuality’s whitepaper, 87% of customers said that online reviews helped sway their decision in hiring a contractor. When it comes to word of mouth, the voice is now much louder. However, customers should take every online review with a grain of salt. Just like the spoken word can carry mistruths, online reviews can be manipulated, gamed and untrustworthy. When homeowners research a contractor, they’d be well-advised to not put all their eggs in that one basket.

A Construction Story from Ancient Days
Saint Peter's BasilicaLet’s jump back in history a little. The year was 1546 and Pope Paul III wanted to rebuild and redesign St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sought out Michelangelo, who refused him on the basis of what he had heard of Pope Paul, who was notoriously cheap and difficult to work with. The Pope therefore turned to other master builders who all rejected his offer for similar reasons. In the end, Pope Paul III humbled himself by returning to Michelangelo one more time to ask for his help in redesigning and rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica. After hours of negotiation, Michelangelo agreed to perform the job under three conditions: first, Michelangelo would have complete authority over the design and construction from start to finish; second, the Church would pay him whatever he requested, without question or hesitation; third, there would be no deadline, and Michelangelo would not entertain any complaints about the length of the project. The Pope accepted the terms gratefully and Michelangelo “got the job”. I think the project turned out pretty well.

…And here comes the Idealistic Rant
See, there was once a time where customers had faith and trust in their builders. A lot has changed since 1546, but the showing of trust and faith in this agreement between these two great historical figures can still be achieved. Contractors can be true to their word. They can strive to perform high-quality work, to achieve a level of communication between themselves and their customers that allows for an open-flow of ideas, a full-disclosure of project progress, and a complete understanding of what each side expects from the other. Customers can try to understand that every job has its adjustments, its unforeseen challenges, and they can work with their contractor to overcome them – a lot of times, this just means letting the contractor work. This is not a fairy tale, but a completely reasonable goal, and it starts one customer at a time. When homeowners and contractors communicate and work together with mutual respect and honesty then a high level of trust can be obtained and the industry can break free from the negative stigma, the black cloud over our head that causes every new potential customer to approach us with suspicion and mistrust. We can do better – contractors and homeowners alike. Where certification programs and licensing and legislation have failed, common business sense and simple humanity can succeed.

But, hey… what do I know?

Find me, Richard D’Angelo, President of CraftPro Home Improvements and this article’s author on Google+. You can also visit CraftPro on Google+ and join our community of home improvement, maintenance and renovation professionals.

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