How come I’m living in a house with a kitchen and two bathrooms last remodeled when Nixon was in the White House, and I can’t get a contractor to give me a call back on the work I desperately need done?
Well, all right, I’m not going to break bad on any of my readers - at least not yet, if only because I haven’t gotten serious about the bathroom-and-kitchen renovation. Some experiences, however, with at least one other type of service contractor make me wonder how I will be treated once I do.
First some background: This is the house I grew up in when my former South Dakota farm boy of a father thought it would be a great idea - and this is where no amount of italics can emphasize my 11-year-old self’s thoughts enough, better to shout “GREAT” at the top of your own lungs - to yank me from my comfortable Chicago surroundings and buy a farm in northern Illinois.
We moved out there in the early 1970s, and I’m ashamed to admit now that I was a card-carrying member of the 4-H Clubs of America. After a six-year sentence of hard labor from 7th grade through high school, I escaped one morning to college. Upon graduation, I couldn’t wait to move back to the city and about my only requirement for my first job was that it had to be in downtown Chicago.
Twenty-five years later, I’m back. My mother died last June and currently my sister and I are figuring out what’s what, but I intend to make Green Acres my home. Once we take care of all the details, I plan on starting a blog about my remodeling chronicles on www.PMmag.com.
No Small TaskIt’ll be no small task modernizing a 90-year-old farmhouse. I’m not kidding about the Nixon-era bathrooms. I’m just glad Mom took out the orange-and-gold sculpted shag carpet, the orange drapes and the flocked wallpaper sometime in the 1980s.
While I can deal with the downstairs bathroom, aka The Avocado Room, for now, there are other less cosmetic changes to the house that are in order. Like the roof.
The roof isn’t likely to fall in anytime soon, but we did have some real estate agents look at the place last year when we thought we might have to sell the home (my mom no longer lived there and it had been unoccupied for a couple of years). All of them told me the roof would have to be fixed. My mother’s long-time insurance agent recommended the same.
So I got three recommendations from neighbors that had personally used these contractors before. One guy called back, but never showed up. Another showed up, but never called back. I didn’t see any reason to call the guy who stood me up, but I did enjoy talking with the guy that showed up so I did try to reach him again. I’m still waiting for a call back.
Meanwhile, I had a conversation with the third candidate that went like this:
“I need you to come out and take a look at my roof.”
“I don’t do tear-offs. Is it a tear-off?”
Now, I think I know what a tear-off means, although I’m not sure that it’s a good thing that he doesn’t do them, so I told him I wasn’t sure when my mom last had work done on the roof
“I don’t do tear-offs.”
That’s about the best I could get out of him.
I then called the insurance agent who gave me three other recommendations. My first call was to the agent’s top choice. I left a message for him and later received a voice mail that went like this:
“I’m pretty much all booked up for this year.”
And that was pretty much the extent of the message. No thought of next year, even though I figured I wouldn’t do the work until next year anyway. (Keep in mind, this took place last September.)
I again enjoyed talking with the second guy, but this time only on the phone because he never did call me back “when I get out that way.”
Somewhere in the midst of making these calls, I happened to drive by a local restaurant and saw a truck with “roofing” mentioned on the side. It wasn’t exactly Truck of the Month material, but it was at least another lead. I pulled in and went searching for the guy inside.
Of course after I described the job, he didn’t have any business cards. So he had to resort to writing my name and number on a bar napkin. I felt like a cheap tart afterward. Now here was a contractor who I really did not want to hear from who I actually did not hear from.
One For SixI finally did meet the third roofer who, just a few short days after his visit, actually mailed me a typewritten proposal for more than $6,000. Now, yes, I still am going to get at least one other bid, even if that means I have to call six other roofers to get it. But I’m not so much price shopping as just curious what another bid could be. If another bid is vastly different, I’d like to call up each and find out why and share with readers the distinction.
All this reminds me of something Woody Allen said: “80 percent of success is showing up.” Mind you, Woody didn’t say, “If you want to succeed, you must show up.”
I think what Woody’s hinting at is that a large part of success comes from following a systematic approach that’s largely unseen from the customer. Contractors may not be able to afford to do everything when it comes to marketing and advertising - as far as I can tell, none of the guys I called spent a penny on promoting their businesses - but anybody who is a success picks a few things and does them to the best of their abilities all the time. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions, wasting your time and the customer’s.
Woody is silent about the other 20 percent, but my hope is my own consumer experiences might fill that in for everyone. I do know, ironically, the people I want to hear from don't call back, and the people I don’t need just drive up. Twice now I’ve had the same guy stop by wanting to paint the barn. If I want to have the barn painted, I’ve got my man.
Unfortunately for my persistent painter, the market has moved away from him. Most farmers I’ve talked to just clad their old barns in maintenance-free aluminum.
Check back to our Web site for what I hope will be some thrilling adventures as an undercover consumer.