June 7, 2023

A Race to the Bottom

Over the past couple of years I have been re-structuring my business to take into account time for myself, time for my family, time for hobbies, and not being a slave to my projects. I have been trying to create a clear and deliberate separation between work and play. For years it was all work with a heavy emphasis on customer service. My family and myself came further down the line. Because what is life if you cannot make money through serving your customers? I have been trying to change the perceptions of our industry, create more sustainable hours of operation, and determine how to make money by working 40 hours a week rather than 80. I will be the first to admit that it is difficult, but in my opinion it is critical to mental health, physical health, and longevity. 

I often wonder who is responsible for the state of our residential building industry. The staples that drive every aspect of what we do. The price shopping, the after hours work, the nights and weekends, the lack of adequate pay and benefits, and the unrealistic expectations of customers. Have we conceded to the above and simply accepted that this is the way it is? Have we perpetuated this style of “business” by not demanding a change? Is it the customers’ fault or our own? That is a convoluted question with an equally convoluted answer, but here are a few things that we could implement to change how we operate and what our customers expect of us.

How many of you receive inquiries asking when you can meet to provide a quote for a specific job? Big or small, I receive emails almost daily asking me if I can come look at a project and provide pricing. These customers have had zero interaction with me, they generally do not know what I do, and they have not asked any of the right questions; yet they want me to take time out of my day to come to their home, look at their project, and then provide them free pricing. No design in place, no compensation, and no consideration if we are an ideal fit other than price. What would happen if our entire industry charged $150.00-$300.00 for every meeting or consultation? Do you think customers would be less inclined to call three to four different contractors to obtain pricing? Why wouldn’t customers call as many contractors as they can if everyone drops what they are doing to line up for a race to the bottom? Would that fee or limited access to your  time change your business or lifestyle? I would argue that it would. You would spend less time, money, and resources chasing leads that were never a fit, and more time on your daily operations, family, or personal time. 

Another standard ask of potential customers is to come look at their projects after work hours or on their schedule when it is ideal for them. I always simply accepted this as normal. As a contractor you look at projects after work or on the weekends. You ask customers when it works best for them? Why?! Let me ask you a question. If you were not feeling well, and you needed a doctor, would you call a doctor’s office and ask them to come to your home or open their office after work hours, after dinner, or after you get done at the gym? No!!!! You would work around their schedule to get in as soon as you could based on their availability. It frustrates me to no end when a customer lists their availability and it is, Saturday before soccer, Tuesday at 7pm (our kids go to bed at 7:30), or Friday evening at 7am before they head into the office. 

Why do people assume we want to work before work, after work, or on the weekends? Again, we have perpetuated this by catering to what works best for everyone else. Restaurants do not open early for customers who are hungry before their standard hours of operation, the bank does not stay open late for someone who needs money in the middle of the night, and the grocery store does not open at 5am before you have to go to work. You have to adjust your schedule to these standard business hours based on what works best for them based on their availability. If you want your kitchen remodeled, you must make time during your day to meet with a contractor. It is not on them to come before or after work hours. Why don’t customers ask for your availability during the day? Why can’t they leave work early or head to work late to meet when it is best for you. It is because we have normalized off-hour meetings regardless of the cost or impact to ourselves and our business. 

How many of you guys and girls have provided a design to a customer free of charge or conceded to their request of “meeting and hearing some of your ideas.”? Your ideas, your experience, and your design input is not a concession or a gift. You have spent years honing your craft. It has cost you mentally, physically, and financially and the fact that you are willing to give it away for free is pure insanity. How does this benefit you? I believe that we feel if we prove our value through providing insight to customers before we are awarded the job, we have a better chance of landing that job. How many times have you met with a customer to hear them say, “We had another contractor out here and he recommended doing this instead.”? You are meeting with customers, providing them valuable insight and information, only for that customer to turn to your competition and pitch them the same idea. I cannot count how many times I provided customers with drawings or design inspiration only to not be awarded the project. Shame on me. 

We as contractors and business owners have adopted and sustained a business model that caters to our customers' needs while sacrificing our own time, resources, and needs. That is absolutely fine if you have a large enough business model that supports this cost of business. Unfortunately, our residential industry has been beaten down and driven to commoditizing our services through price-driven/obsessed customers that we cannot afford to pay someone to do all of this work. This is WORK! Why are you giving this away for free? Even more importantly, why do customers assume this should be free? If you had someone on staff that you were paying to go on these meetings during the workday, you would have to charge for it, so why are you not doing it when it is yourself? If you had to pay someone to leave their home after work at 7pm to meet with a potential customer, you would have to pay them overtime, so why even offer that to customers if they are not willing to pay for it. Paying for it could be building that cost into your operating costs, but in my experience most customers are not willing to pay for that, whether it is a supplemental upfront cost, or built into your overhead.

At the end of the day, this is not our customers’ fault. This has been the standard for so long, that it is normal within our industry. The only way that we can make a change is to implement and instate a change. If it were normal for your coffee place to open up at any hour of the day to  brew you a cup of coffee you would accept that as normal and expect that from everyone. Starbucks does not change their schedule and hours of operation because someone wanted a coffee at 4am. You should not either. Just like any other business, we should be professional, have specific hours of operation, and charge accordingly for our time, insight, and expertise. The way that we operate as an industry now is simply a race to the bottom. It benefits no one but our consumers. Nobody should have to work after work in order to make a dime, especially as a business owner. We have to start shifting the perception of how we operate. Normalizing professionalism, hours of operation, consulting fees, higher salaries, benefits, and quit establishing value through price. If we do not demand this of our customers and make a change, no one will. Our customers are simply following our lead and utilizing and/or exploiting our concessions.

- Tyler Grace