The Contractor Experience

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(Some of my blog posts are constructive, this one is pure rant.)

There's a new amusement park ride opening up in town!  It'll take you on a thrilling journey through ups and downs of successful projects, communication failures, happy long-term partnerships, and total failures in competence.  It's called THE CONTRACTOR EXPERIENCE and you can hop on it today by opening up the phone book and calling pretty much any contractor you want to try to get some work done on your home or business!

Okay, I know that it might be a little pretentious or worse for me to sit on my high blogging horse and tell the folks who are willing to do some pretty hard, dirty work how to do their jobs when I'm not able or willing to do them myself.  But at the same time, I can't help but see it from the perspective of how poorly some of these folks are running their small local businesses, and how their customer service values take a total back seat to their own preferred ways of doing things.  Some war stories:

The most common failure in competence that I experience is that the contractor doesn't even show up at all.  These are people who have access to the same scheduling and calendaring technologies as the rest of us (paper and pen much loved among them), and who still can't seem to make it work when they agree to show up at a certain time and place.  With one contractor recently, I've had them not show up once, and then show up late to the rescheduled appointment.  He then missed a follow-up appointment, and after I called three times to get some sort of explanation, I still haven't gotten a call back.  If I were trying to make a really bad impression on a potential client, that would be a great way to do it.  How can you run a business that way?

Another failure I regularly experience is that the contractor doesn't listen to what's being asked of them, or doesn't hear the customer's particular interests and needs.  I tend to be on the overly-organized side of things, and so even with my written-down, clearly spelled out requests, I still often have to correct the contractor's course once or twice in the estimating and/or work phases.  I know there's some amount of give and take that's normal here, but too often for me it's all give and no take.

And then there's just total dishonesty, abject incompetence, etc.  I've blogged about some of that before.  It's also included things like using my lawn for cigarette butt storage, or showing up to work in an altered state.   Here's another episode:

ME ON DAY ONE: While you're replacing that window, please make sure you put a big cover down over the new carpet here, okay?

CONTRACTOR ON DAY ONE: Oh yeah, definitely, we'll put a big tarp out.

ME ON DAY TWO: I see you don't have a tarp out and that you've started pulling apart the old window.  I'm worried about dirt and debris getting in the carpet.

CONTRACTOR ON DAY TWO: Oh yeah, we'll definitely get that cleaned up and don't worry about it.

ME ON DAY THREE: (grumble grumble grumble)

ME ON DAY FOUR: I see you're done now, and there's this big dirt spot on the floor where you were working that isn't vacuuming out.  What happened?

CONTRACTOR ON DAY FOUR: Oh, that must have been there before, I don't think we did that.

I mean, come ON!

The hard part is that it takes so much time and "overhead" sometimes to even find the right point of contact for a job, I'm willing to stretch my tolerance of this stuff pretty far in order to not have the churn of saying "well I guess that person isn't interested, I'll just find someone else."  And sometimes there ISN'T a someone else.  The contractor who didn't show up this morning ("ah," you say, "that's why he's writing this") is someone who I know, really like personally, and who is uniquely qualified in the area for the particular work I'm interested in.  For relational and practical reasons, I can't just say "next" and move on.

No, not all contractors are bad and some of them are even quite excellent.  I recently had a GREAT experience with a contractor who was friendly, listened well, always showed up when he said he would, and did excellent work for a reasonable price.  I have whisked him and his family away to an undisclosed location for preservation, as this is clearly the exception and not the rule, at least here in Richmond.

So, as to avoid making this post entirely complaints, I'll offer some simple suggestions to contractors for improving THE CONTRACTOR EXPERIENCE:

  1. Show up when you say you're going to show up, on time. If you make an appointment, please write it down somewhere you'll see it again, and if you have to reschedule, please call your customer in advance, and be ready with a few new times to reschedule.
  2. Make sure you've heard the customer's technical requests, but also make sure you know what their larger goals are. If they're clearly trying to "make this room more cozy" or "create a more useful workspace," there are opportunities there for you to respond to their "big picture" needs, and perhaps even make a little more money in the process.
  3. Treat the space like it's your own. I won't try to be any more specific on that one, but if you're in someone's house or business, and you're about to tear some stuff apart or make some changes that they'll have to see every day of their lives, put yourselves in their shoes and ask "how would I do this in my personal space?"

On a larger scale, I wish that there was some better notion of standards or certification for contractors in my community.  I know there are websites and associations where you can rate contractors, file complaints, etc. but in this town, for now, it seems like we're just one bent nail short of total chaos when it comes to having any hope of knowing what kind of quality you'll get when you make that call.  The good contractors out there deserve better, and the bad ones have gotten away with too much for too long.

Just as I was finishing this post up, the contractor who missed this morning's appointment called.  He'd gotten the days mixed up, and we're rescheduling accordingly.  Life goes on.

3 thoughts on “The Contractor Experience

  1. I have an aunt in the Richmond area who had an irritating contractor experience. She had a break in the water main coming into her house, one of those skinny homes right up next to another. She called one guy who said "Yeah, sure, we can do that." He came over to look and was similarly positive. A few days later he called to say he couldn't do it. To make a long story short, this happened two more times in varying degrees but with the same waffly commitment and lack of follow-through. The last guy told her she should call this other guy he knew who was retired from the business. In his 70's, this final hope came and said "well sure, I can do it." She asked how he thought he could accomplish what the others couldn't, and he said "This space won't fit an excavator. You need to get a shovel and dig." The next day he came out and, in his mid-70's, dug a hole 6 feet or so deep and fixed the problem.

  2. A neighbor across the street recommended this home improvement contractor to me. They had used him and were quite satisfied with his work. This was two years ago when I started to use them on a couple of small projects. They were very good so I decided to use them again the following year in redoing my living room and dining room areas. They were also very good again and I thought that I had hit the jackpot having had several very bad experiences with contractors before. This year I decided to redecorate and remodel three bedrooms and two bathrooms in my home as they were in total disrepair. The same contractor that I felt was so great did the job. I ran into many problems between them and the house. It took four months and a few arguments. Well, the job was finished except for some minor details in the master bedroom and master bathroom. The paint job they did in those two rooms didn't come out exactly the way I wanted it to. They said they would come back and do the small touch-ups on a Saturday. Well the foreman walked off the job taking two other employees with him in a dispute over money with the contractor. The contractor sent over his son who was going to contractor school and learning all about the aspect of the business. His son had worked in my home doing very small jobs - helping out the foreman who was in control. The kid does good work but doesn't kill himself and takes three hour lunches. He has a social life over the phone going while he is working in my home. The touch up jobs were very minor in several of the room. The first Saturday, he patched and painted part of some of the walls with a brush instead of a roller. This looked terrible and he agreed to come back the following Saturday and do it right with a roller. He returns the following Saturday three hours late, takes another three hour lunch, uses a roller on the walls turning this small patch into a third of the wall being painted. Color didn't match neither did the texture and tone of the paint. I called the contractor who arrived at my home and said "don't worry about it, we will fix it up." The contractor and two workers were suppose to be at my home this Saturday at 9 AM. I called the contractor up at 11 AM asking about their whereabouts. Contractor laughed and said he knew I would be calling. His son was out on a date with a girlfriend all night and has not returned home. Contractor said he couldn't make it because he had to take his dog to the groomers. Later, the contractor called back and said that they would be at my house on Sunday to do the job. Contractor has already purchased the paint. Because the contractor's son job was botched, the contractor wanted to paint the entire wall or walls over again so that everything would match and I would be very satisfied as I was such a valuable client for the contractor (probably because of all the money that was spent). Sunday morning came and went. I called the contractor to ask whether they would be coming at all. The contractor said no because both of his workers had something else to do on the weekends and that I could only get them to work and finish this job during the week - Monday through Fridays. I was just boiling over at this point. However, I asked what about Friday, contractor said they couldn't do it Friday because they might be doing another job then or finishing up a job. I asked about Monday, contractor said no because they might be getting a job over the weekend and they would have to start on a Monday. Contractor said that if I gave him my keys, he would see that the job was done while I was at work. I told the contractor that I didn't want anything to do with him. I paid an enormous amount of money to do this job and am getting the round around. I said I will be looking for someone else and that I would let as many people know as possible what a lousy contractor this person was and hung up the phone. Later in the day, the contractor called me back and wanted to set up an appointment for a Saturday to finish the job. We set it up for the following Saturday. Then, the contractor called back again to say that he was too depressed to do any work this week and would get back with me about doing the job on a Saturday. This is a contractor from hell. This is the second contractor in my life who is from hell. I am now going to wait until the beginning of next year to find someone else. I wish I knew what I did wrong in this life so that I never have to do it again.

  3. Yep. I've had a heck of a time getting contractors to listen to explicit instructions. I write my needs in detail, and they acknowledge receipt. And do the opposite, being "creative." Okay, get your ya yas out. Do it once, then LISTEN to the client! And I'm not asking for anything at all outrageous. I'm talking about specifically choosing an available color from a catalogue, or telling them to place something on the left hand side. Here comes the wrong color, and it's on the right. Why? And why do it again once reminded? I don't understand. It costs them more time! I thought this only happened to women, so it's kind of nice to see it happens to male clients, too.

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