If each party in a transaction over-delivered by 5%, what room would be left for disagreement?...
After 10 years of operating a painting business in the Okanagan Valley I had a nice client base of about 300 customers, which I had worked very hard to acquire and service.
It felt good to have so many happy customers...it gave me a sense of security. The problem is that I couldn't service so many customers well. Sometimes my best, most loyal customers had to wait 6 or more months for me to fit their project in. I wasn't delivering top level service to my best customers and I was often over-booked and stressed.
So when I opened another painting business here on Vancouver Island in 2015, I decided that I would try to get to 100 customers as soon as possible. This, I thought, would give my business a solid base, while giving me a more manageable number of customers, hopefully leading to less stress and better service.
We may think we need a lot of customers to have a successful business. So it was interesting when last week I looked at a report of my sales by customer for 2016 thus far. You know what?...
Most jobs are susceptible to scope creep. That's when the project description that you originally bid on grows once you start.
"Can you paint a few of the doors as well? We tried cleaning them and a few of them are going to need a fresh coat."
"The designer needs to change some of the colours. This scheme isn't working for the client."
"My husband tried to do the soffits himself but he almost fell off the ladder. We're going to need you to do those as well if you could."
How do you react in these situations? Does your heart rate increase? Do you feel frustrated?
A couple of suggestions...
Just wanted to share a couple of things I read last week that re-enforced what is becoming a repeating theme in life...
'The primary predictor of success and happiness in life is our ability to get along with others.'
- Simplicity Parenting, by Kim John Payne
A couple of months ago I had a cancellation. As happens from time to time. You just roll with it - because really there is nothing you can do about it, and sometimes it takes the pressure off of an over-booked schedule.
The problem is that it is very easy for a prospect to cancel a job when they haven't made a financial commitment. Unfortunately, as the contractor, you don't have the same flex going the other way. Imagine cancelling at the last minute on a customer - the bad rep you would develop, how you could totally mess up their entire project schedule and that of the other trades, etc...
Just a couple of observations about caring I've noticed over the years...
1. When you meet someone who really cares about their work, about people and about helping their customers, well, that experience is usually very remarkable. It is infectious and you can't get enough - it keeps you coming back and telling others about your experience. There is almost nothing I can think of that is better for your customers than genuinely caring about them and the work you do. Not a sale price, not a bonus offer, not branding or packaging. Caring about another human and caring about your work is a very difficult thing to compete against. At best, there may be a company that could care as much as you do, but the deck is stacked heavily in your favour as a micro business owner.
On the other hand...
If making a good first impression is the most important 5% of a job, finishing is the hardest 5% of a job. The way the job ends will be what is most vividly remembered by your client.
At this point you may be tired, behind schedule, over budget, getting impatient, feeling discouraged, etc. You just want it to end, so you can get on with your life...
Part of the process of quickly moving from surviving to thriving in your painting business requires that you be selective in who you work for.
Not all customers are created equal. Learning this principle was a 'light bulb' moment for me, after years of trying to give every customer my best, every time. With a bias towards wanting to be a perfectionist, combined with a desire to treat everyone equally, it was a tough process for me to let go and recognize the need to optimize the service I provided according to the quality of the customer.
It is easier to change yourself than to try and change your prospects and clients to fit what you want to provide. Focus on what you can control. Focus on your strengths. Focus on results.
A little backstory...
At dinner one night a few months ago we had the privilege of sitting with the proprietors of a very well established restaurant. It is a warm and welcoming place with a very loyal clientele. It was built from the ground up by the patriarch of the family. His son told me that at the beginning, his father would work at his construction business from 7:00 to 3:00. Then he would come to the restaurant in the late afternoon and nap on a bench, asking the hostess to wake him if any patrons arrived for dinner. He would be at the restaurant late late into evening. Now they are busy 12 months of the year while many competitors close down during the off season. One of the keys to the success of the restaurant has been Father's long term view of all business matters. They always gave their best to their customers, treating them like family and never serving anything that wasn't the best quality. They have never advertised, choosing instead to focus on treating every customer like gold.
This conversation got me thinking about my own painting business and the idea of laying bricks...
Sometimes it felt like my days were spent slaying dragons, putting out fires and squeezing in enough value-generation (painting) to be able to keep the wheels turning for another day. Rinse and repeat.
Most of the clients I worked for were more financially successful than me. Once in a while there was a customer that seemed to have things figured out pretty good - they seemed successful at life. If I had a good rapport with them, I would ask them for one piece of advice that they thought was a key factor to their success over the years. I thought of it as mining for nuggets. Why insist on doing things the hard way if there was an easier option?
Some of the answers I received didn't resonate - they didn't jive with my personal values. Some advice was straight forward, practical (i.e. work hard). In ten years of asking, the most interesting, beneficial and actionable answer came from my best customer. I don't think it was a coincidence.
Jim, I thought, would be a good person to ask. He owned and operated a high-end custom home design/build company. At the time he simultaneously owned and operated a high end restaurant in the heart of wine country. Those two business sectors alone were notoriously challenging for entrepreneurs to survive in, let alone thrive. Besides that, Jim is an accomplished musician. He and his wife help their 4 children reach their potential through schooling and entrepreneurship. Jim is very busy. But he finds time for family, exercise, hobbies, holidays, and for everybody that he comes in contact with. And he never seems stressed.
What was one key to his success?...
So a few years ago I took my daughter to see a particular show that was on tour. One of the take-aways for her was the chorus to one of the songs. She would sing that line for months afterward. I think she may have actually learned something pretty important that day.
Around that time I learned the same lesson, but I came to it from a different route.
The summer lake house had about 4 feet of water in it...
What is the point of paying a graphic designer to create attractive branding and marketing materials...
What is the point of buying and distributing business cards...
What is the point of paying for a web designer, hosting fees, SEO optimization, website registration, and a high speed internet connection...
What is the point of purchasing store front signage or decals for your vehicle...
What is the point of paying for advertising and a phonebook listing...
What is the point of paying for a costly cell phone plan...
WHY: YOUR BEST CLIENTS DESERVE YOUR BEST SERVICE
People generally have an aversion to change. Customers can put up with a lot before they change suppliers. A lot of large companies have become expert at abusing their customers. Think how much pain is involved in switching banks, email accounts or cell phone providers.
Sometimes though, they can be fickle and it takes very little to lose an excellent client. The more alternatives that are available to them, the easier it is for them to switch. Customers can be like a stream that follows the path of least resistance.
WHY: STANDING OUT FROM THE COMPETITION FOR PROFIT
If you have been in business for a while no doubt you have heard the concept of 'unique selling proposition' - the importance of differentiating your brand in the marketplace.
If you appear to be the same as every other painter, its hard to get noticed and even harder to justify charging higher rates. You position yourself, intentionally or not, as a commodity. When shopping for commodities people generally choose the best deal.
So, what does it take to stand out as a micro painting contractor?...