It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Be a contractor long enough and you’re going to end up selling something to your family, friends or house of worship.

A potentially unholy trinity or Bermuda Triangle if you don’t navigate it correctly.

Here’s another axiom. When something can go wrong, it’s bound to happen at your relative’s home, your friend’s home or business or at your house of worship!

What can you do?

You can lower the chances of problems happening by being better at preventing them. And prevention starts with not just being good but great at providing clear and frequent communication that keeps customers informed and up to speed.

Here’s what I know from working in sales at my own company and now advising other contractors about sales: Most problems occur during the selling process rather than in the actual work process.

Go figure!

This means you need to be proactive and take the extra steps of setting clear expectations with your customer about what you’re going to do for him. You need to manage his expectations in order for both of you to have the best chance at achieving a successful outcome. This also means don’t skip the step of diagnosing the customer.

How do you diagnose the customer? Ask great questions that get him talking to you and write down what he’s telling you. The words you must repeat back are his, not yours. This is the most important step you’ll ever learn in getting sales off to a positive start. It’s also mandatory if you hope to stay out of hot water with family and friends.

When I was selling to these “special” customers, they’d often be the first to say, “I trust you. You don’t have to go to the trouble of writing up a formal proposal. Just tell me what it’ll cost and how soon you can start.”

When you hear something like that, watch out!

After falling into that hole too often, I learned from the bruises I got to respond with, “I appreciate that. But I want to stay on good terms with you. That’s why I’ve learned that I owe it to you to explain exactly what this will do for you and just as importantly what it won’t do for you. That’s why we’re going to take as much time as necessary to make sure I’ve diagnosed the job, that I’ve clearly heard what you desire and need to have happen when I’m done so you can have the successful outcome you want.”

Ever notice how fast memories become cloudy when something goes wrong?

Suddenly, people forget what was discussed when the stuff hits the fan. It’s not personal; it’s just the way human beings are wired. That’s why I continue to preach to any contractor who will listen, “If it’s not written, it’s not real.”

This applies to all your communications with customers and your own employees. It’s especially true when it comes to writing out a proper job price quote. And never is having a well-written quote more beneficial than when you can go through it line by line with your family and friends.

Here’s what I know. People listen with their own filters. In other words, what you say when you speak can be different than what they hear. If you have kids, this should sound familiar … am I right?

Getting customers to participate, and better yet talk, is the key to making things go smoothly for all concerned.


Look at the whole system

Having a sales system and a set of steps to always follow helped me make sure I asked my customers good questions, did a thorough job of looking at the whole system and verified with them that I was hearing them correctly (I would read aloud the notes I had taken when they were answering my questions).

Why look at the whole system? Experience as a technician taught me to look around because whatever went wrong for the next two weeks in that home, business or house of worship after I had been there for a service call or installation … I’d be the one blamed.

Armed with that knowledge, I saw the wisdom of pointing out things such as old gate valves on a water main; circuit breaker panels that were old, undersized or obsolete; pre-existing cracks on plumbing fixtures; and leaky and corroded air-conditioning coils.

Remember, when you touch anything or do any work anywhere on a customer’s property, in his mind anything that goes wrong is because of something you did or didn’t do correctly — even if it wasn’t really related to the job at hand.

Now that you’re a little wiser, here’s a pop quiz:

When should you ask about the rooms that don’t heat or cool? Is it before or after you do the work? The answer is before.

Otherwise, you own this headache. Make sense? This process applies to any work your company does — plumbing, heating, electrical, etc.

The funny thing about this process of asking good questions, writing down customers’ answers so they know they’ve been heard and looking around the home or building is it will lead to customers liking you even more. They’ll appreciate your thoroughness and the quality of your questions, and they’ll be more receptive when you verify you’ve been listening to them. As people, we yearn to be heard.

If you prove you’re listening, they come to trust you even more than they already do. And this process will lead to being able to make legitimate recommendations for other things that will improve their comfort, lower their energy bill, improve indoor air quality, improve water quality and/or protect their safety.

Keep your family, your friends and your house of worship close.


This article was originally titled “Your ‘special’ customers’” in the November 2015 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.