Contractors, Competence, and The One Strike Out Policy [Tales from the Trenches]

by Osman Parvez

Take a look at the following picture.   

Do you see the problem?


Let's fast forward 10 hours.   See the problem now?

It was early January and the town was in the midst of a cold snap.   Overnight temperatures in Boulder were approaching 0°F and the furnace stopped working in a client's house.    They were out of town and their cat sitter had discovered a cold house.   It was late Saturday night.  They called me and luckily I was available to swing by. 

Todd, hard at work on a Sunday morning
I'm mechanically minded, but the problem was not obvious.  So I left the faucets dripping and a space heater going in the basement, drove home and emailed my HVAC guy.  

It was shortly after midnight when I sent the email.  At 7:21 am Sunday morning, Todd emailed back and a few hours later, I met him at the house.  

Todd pulled out a digital multimeter, tested a few circuits and diagnosed a bad igniter.  In short order, he had the furnace up and running again.   He charged a reasonable, easy to understand fee and since this was a referral, he waived the weekend call-out surcharge.   He even replaced the filter - for no additional charge.   

Now that's service.  

My One Strike Out Policy
This was my third client related experience with Todd.   The first was for a furnace replacement on a historic house.   The second was for a furnace repair that involved replacing a circuit board in a tight crawl space.  And now this job on a frosty Sunday morning.

Batter, batter... swing batter!
Todd is now my #1 referral for furnace work.   He shows up on time, charges reasonable fees, and does good work.   He does it for big jobs, like a furnace replacement and he does it for emergency call outs.   He doesn't try to take advantage of you when you're at risk of frozen pipes on a frigid Sunday morning. 

Todd understands my one strike out policy for referrals.   Screw it up once with one of my clients, do something shady, something dishonest, something not right - and you'll never get another referral from me.  Ever. 

Why one strike out?   Because I need relationships with business professionals like Todd, with people I can trust.   The experience my client has with a referral directly impacts the relationship with me.  Once trust is gone, it takes a long time to earn it back.    Sadly, there isn't room for second chances.  

The Flip Side
Here's another story for you.    Think of it as a cautionary tale.  

The other day, I had a problem with my water heater so I called my #1 plumber.   He was booked a couple of weeks out and I didn't want to wait so I started looking for alternatives.   Plumbing isn't rocket science, right?

I decided to try Angie's List.   You know, that website which advertises on NPR as "Reviews you can trust."  As it happens, a highly rated plumber was offering one of Angie's Big Deals.    For $75, I'd get $150 worth of plumbing work done.     

Sounds good, right?    Wrong.  

Kitty disapproves of bad plumbers
Two visits, a month of lukewarm showers and $110 of pocket later I was presented with an estimate for nearly $700 to repair the water heater.  When I started asking for a breakdown of the cost (labor vs. parts), the estimate instantly dropped to $500.   That raised my suspicions. I told the Angie's List plumber I'd have to shop around (i.e. "take a hike"). 

I called my #1 plumber back and he came out.  No charge for the diagnosis and $200 to repair the problem.   Hmm...

Why is it so hard to find decent contractors? Look, I will gladly pay for quality service.  I know how to sweat pipe, but I'm not a plumber.  Although I can put up drywall, I'm not particularly good at it.   I'd rather pay a reasonable fee for expertise, just as I charge a reasonable fee for my expertise as a Realtor.    

Sadly, when it comes to contractors, the zone between incompetence and extortion is razor thin.   Luckily there are guys like Todd who are building their business on reputation and referrals, one client at a time, just like I've been doing for a decade.   

If you're curious about my experience with the Angie's List plumber, you can read my review HERE.  

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image:  Eric Kilby , Waldo Jaquith
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Please Note

This document contains forward-looking statements. You are strongly cautioned that investment results are subject to business, economic and other uncertainties. There are no guarantees associated with any forecast and the opinions stated here are subject to change at any time. Always consult your financial advisor before making an investment decision.