It's easy to get rude when times are good, but customers have long memories.

The late 1990s were the best time ever for the airline industry. Planes were packed to the gills, and the airlines made more money than ever before. United Airlines, then the nation's biggest carrier, saw its stock price jet to more than $125 a share.

United's biggest hub is in my hometown of Chicago. They go almost everywhere out of O'Hare Airport, and their fares are usually among the lowest, so I fly them a lot.

What I remember most about traveling in that prosperous era was the rudeness and arrogance of United employees. In the mid-'90s, United pilots had cut a deal with the company to forego some pay raises in return for a slice of ownership of the airline. Once business heated up, they decided they wanted more pay after all, in addition to owning a piece of the pie. When management didn't give them their way, the pilots indulged in sickouts and slowdowns, leading to epidemic flight delays and cancellations. This attitude reverberated throughout the company. Ticket agents, flight attendants, reservations people - all did their jobs with chips on their shoulder. Smiling faces were about as common as tasty meals in coach.

Then divine justice intervened - or at least that's one interpretation. United took a nosedive and ended up in bankruptcy. Thousands of employees lost their jobs, and almost all who remained endured steep pay cuts.

Something interesting coincided with these events. Flyers suddenly saw smiling faces everywhere at United. People desperate to hold onto their jobs got the message that it was good business to be nice to paying customers.

Now airplanes are packed full again. United is out of bankruptcy and about to report its first quarterly profit since 2000. Perhaps this explains why the last couple of times I've flown United, the sourpusses have reappeared ...

Counter-Cyclical Manners

Plenty of contracting companies fall into this pattern as well. When business revs up, business manners tend to head in the opposite direction.

That's when your people get too busy to return customer calls. Complaints get ignored or challenged with rudeness. Everyone is pushing hard and tempers get short. So what if your crew shows up late, or not at all, on certain days? Your competitors are just as busy as you, so it's likely your customers won't find anyone else to do the work. And even if they do, so what? There's more where they came from.

When business is booming, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that customers need you more than you need them - that you are doing them a favor by doing the work they pay you to do.

When times are good, you can even get away with it. Heck, it makes good business sense to turn your back on troublesome jobs. All the consultants say so. It sure feels good to say to whining customers, “Who needs this crap. Take your business elsewhere.”

I write this as our industry's fortunes are at a peak. Virtually everyone in the PHC industry has been working full-steam ahead for the last year or two with more work than they can handle.

But this won't last forever. A slowdown will come eventually, and the economic signals suggest it's likely to be sooner than later. When it does, your customers will be less forgiving than I. Despite lousy treatment, I continued flying United because, in many cases, I had no other choice or lousy alternatives. Even so, I turned to archrival American Airlines from time to time. Plumbing-heating customers can be even more selective.

Today you're the bat, but somewhere down the road you'll be the baseball. When the phones slow down, you'll find yourself wanting to talk to the people whose calls you were too busy to return today. You'll also wish you had given them reason to recommend you to other people.

I spoke with a wholesaler recently who told me of company research revealing what contractor customers expect out of their inside salespeople. Three issues topped the list by a wide margin:

    1. Be readily available.
    2. Be eager to help and knowledgeable.
    3. Be responsive. Return phone calls and respond to back-order status.
That's what you folks expect from your suppliers. Isn't it also pretty much what your customers want from you?