Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Different Take on Ethics in Remodeling

Barry Klemons built his business around a set of bedrock principles, and earned a reputation for honesty and integrity. His attention to each and every customer was legendary, so he was shocked and upset to hear through the grapevine that a former customer was bad-mouthing him and his company. It was a woman for whom Archadeck of Charlotte had built a screened porch a couple of years earlier, telling everyone what bad work they had done. Returning to his office, he found her number and gave her a call. “Mrs. Smith? This is Barry Klemons. We built your screened porch, and I just heard that you’re unhappy with our work.” “That’s right! I am unhappy,” she snapped. Barry asked what was wrong with it. “The roof has been leaking for over a year!” “Why didn’t you let us know?” Barry asked. She said “I did, I wrote a letter.” “I didn’t receive a letter from you,” he replied. “Well,” said Mrs. Smith “I never mailed it.” In disbelief, Klemons asked “why… not?” “Because I knew you wouldn’t do anything about it!” That was like a slap in the face, an unjustified attack on his character. Of course Barry had the leak fixed and his honor restored – at least in the mind of one customer who had stereotyped him as a “typical” remodeling contractor.

Evidently, a contractor’s reputation is at risk even when he does everything right (short of reading the customer’s mind). Klemons, who sold his company in 2007, was Chairman of the Charlotte Better Business Bureau. He was the 2005 recipient of the Charlotte Ethics in Business Award after receiving Honorable Mention the previous year. The Charlotte chapter of NARI, of which Klemons is a charter member, gives an annual award in his name. He’s a multiple Chrysalis award winner, and is a Remodeling Magazine Big 50 Remodeler. In addition to numerous professional awards, Barry’s civic contributions are widely recognized and lauded.

And Mrs. Smith just assumed that he wouldn’t stand behind his work.

Clearly, the public has a generic perception of contractors as unethical. The 2008 Consumer Complaint Survey, published this July, ranked home improvement/construction #2 on its Top Ten Complaints list; and our industry has had the distinction of being ranked in the top three for many years. This perception and the reality causing it places remodelers in a defensive posture before they even show up for the estimate (actually, not showing up for the estimate has become folklore, contributing to the negative stereotype).

Ironically, the customer is frequently an enabler for the problems he complains about. Not to blame the victim here, but isn’t it odd that people will allow – nay, pursue – the lowest bidder to lay hands on what is probably their single biggest asset? The 19th century author John Ruskin said, “The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can't be done.” Yet every day, homeowners effectively conspire with those contractors who are willing to work cheaply to produce an unsatisfactory outcome for both parties. Of course, the reputation of the entire remodeling industry erodes just a little more each time this occurs. And the Mrs. Smiths of the world just assume…

The math is simple, then: The most ethical behavior is to charge more! Or to charge enough to deliver what you promise; and that should never come at the lowest price. Unfortunately, the people who need to learn that lesson probably aren’t reading this column.

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