'Trust marketing' is the way to go with people like me.

Although I've spent 27 years writing about the construction industry, my most indelible impressions about it have been formed by eight expensive renovation projects done to the homes my wife and I have owned over the years. Contractor performance on seven of those jobs ranged from satisfactory to superb. The other one was a nightmare.

That was the first job, a combined kitchen remake and bathroom addition in our first home back in the early-1980s. Not enough room here for all the gory details, but suffice to say that a job begun in September that was supposed to have been finished in time for us to host our family's Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations did not get completed until the following spring. My family spent half a year washing dishes in the bathtub and spitting out plaster dust - although we did get long respites from the latter when the work crew failed to show up for weeks at a time.

Subsequent major projects included replacing a behemoth boiler dating from the early 20th century, a kitchen remodel in our next home, a family room renovation, landscaping, a whole-house re-pipe, a vinyl siding/window replacement project, and most recently, we hired a firm to build bookshelves and a work station in a new condo we moved into last year.

All renovation is disruptive to occupants, but these other big projects were a lot easier to take than our original encounter with home remodeling. It's not that glitches never arose, but when they did the contractors took care of the problems to our satisfaction. All of them finished the work in about the time they said they would and performed admirably not only in workmanship, but in the equally important area of customer care.

Low-Bidding Buzzards

It's no coincidence that the only intolerable experience of the bunch turned out to be the first and only job for which we sought competitive bids. We certainly got our money's worth from those low-bidding buzzards!

Every contractor we've hired since then for routine home repairs or major renovations has been someone we knew or recommended to us by close friends. We endured some sticker shock along the way, and at times had to scale back plans to accommodate our budget. Yet, I've turned a deaf ear to all those who told me this or that job should have cost thousands of dollars less. I would not accept a rebate of those thousands in return for the kind of hassles we experienced doing business with a low bidder.

Interesting thing is, to some extent we considered ourselves lucky even on that job. When it eventually did get finished, the workmanship turned out to be pretty good, especially the custom kitchen cabinetry. That's because the contractor was a great carpenter. He simply was in over his head running a remodeling firm. Like so many contractors, he failed to understand that craftsmanship has relatively little to do with business success.

What counts is operating in a business-like manner. Such as showing up on the job more often than not! And returning phone calls. And not telling lies to customers because you think that's what they want to hear.

On that nightmare job, one particular encounter sticks in my mind after all these years. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my wife and I begged the contractor to level with us about whether we needed to make alternative plans for the holiday. The creep looked us in the eye and swore they'd get the job done by then. With one eye on the supermarket ads for turkeys and the other on the utter disarray of our living quarters, I had the chilling realization that our fate was in the hands of a pathological liar.

Never Again

Never again would I trust my property to strangers. There are many people out there who think as I do. A recent survey commissioned by the Scott consumer products company found 81 percent of respondents saying they would be most likely to hire contractors based on recommendations from neighbors, friends or relatives. No other referral source came close. This is an audience worth cultivating.

What might be called “trust marketing” doesn't take any special training, and costs much less than most advertising. A lot of it is simply staying attuned to basic business courtesies. You don't have to go to school or attend seminars to learn them. It's simply a matter of treating people the way you'd like to be treated - a.k.a., “the golden rule.” It's a mystery why so many contractors don't get it.

Olsztynski at ISH North America
Jim Olsztynski is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. He will present “The Future Of Manufacturing In America” Saturday, Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.