YOU’RE FIRED!

This month I fired two customers. Usually there’s about one a year but for some reason it’s been a heavy month. How can a fella fire a customer in a recession? What leads a man to such a drastic action?

About a month ago I landed a small project with a company that had a maintenance contract with a large public institution here in Austin. There was a woman named “Opal” who represented the public institution as their project manager. The job: fabricate and replace a door on an historical building. And as soon as we completed this job, there was a very large contract awaiting us in the adjacent historical building downtown.

Opal became impossible. She shot first, never asked questions. She broke protocol, she leapfrogged heirarchy and then blamed me when something didn’t match her unilaterally declared expectations. Expectation management is a big deal for me. On the day of installation, I met with her, with my customer the prime contractor, and I met with Opal’s maintenance supervisor. These were three different meetings. In each meeting I reviewed what we would do, when we would be finished and what steps we would take in our work. Opal agreed with the schedule, and then when I was off site she commandeered my technician and issued him her own instructions. I got a call the next day that he didn’t do as she had commanded. Never mind the fact that he’s deaf as a 2×4 from all his 50 odd years running power tools, and never heard her instructions. Somehow, I was to blame. That was only the beginning.

I am not a whiner and will suck it up long and hard before I break decorum. I thought about the next project, easily ten times the size of this one. I had asked my customer, the contractor, to rein her in when this behavior first surfaced. They couldn’t control her. One by one she heaped complaints on me. This, after they wrung a 20% discount out of us. I thought about the next big project and I walked away from it. I would have made a lot of money. And then I’d have to give it all to the attorneys and bondsmen to get me out of jail for surely I would have killed Opal. Sometimes it’s best to leave the building before it crashes down on you, as this relationship surely would have done.

The other customer I fired this month hired us to replace a gas line in her rental property. I explained the terms and that this work is very tricky. I gave her an outline of what could be expected. It was an old house. The gas lines had major, unknown leaks. The plumbers worked diligently to find the leaks and save her from the distinct possibility of disaster had the leaks not been found and repaired. The customer had waited, despite our discussing this for months, until two days before her new tenants moved in. The work took four days. There was nothing we could do once the ship had launched. We had no choice but to complete the work, get it inspected and thereby declare the house, the tenant and the landlord safe. When we received payment, the customer short-payed us, explained by a two page letter which I did not read. There is no excuse for not paying a bill.

A year ago this customer had a lightning strike. Her husband was out of town. We fixed up her house in three days. Previous to that we were there any time they needed us for large and small problems. We had a history. I was insulted that this customer, after everything we’ve done for her and her husband, would short pay us with a letter. What happened to a phone call to ask questions? What about working out problems together? To declare unilaterally what you’re willing to pay, to claim they knew the value of the work (and we had given a discount) especially after the trouble we went through to solve her serious gas line problems–that’s beyond the pale. Bad sportsmanship.  She’s Fired!

THE BLESSED HOUSE

“Paul, this is a blessed house. My parents lived here with me for several years. We had many wonderful times together. I brought my wife home to start a family, and we are raising our children here. God has blessed me in this house.” It was said with heart, and a deep sense of family. He said it with pride and a strong sense of place. But he also had big circles under his eyes. He had not been sleeping well. We were three months into a remodel and he had just crossed the threshold of remodel weariness. It happens with almost every job, every customer and every contractor. We all swear it won’t happen–this time, all contractors swear, we’ll keep the project fresh and the customer will be so pleased. But any time you tear up a person’s home, you fill it up with dust, and you place the household under significant change in regimen, remodel weariness is almost inevitable.

Most people, when they reach this stage, resign themselves to the discomfort and the hassle. They just ride it out knowing even an endless remodel must surely conclude. This customer, however, was different. His home was so precious to him, and its place in the structure of his life so critical, that he was determined to preserve and protect. “Paul, I want you to do everything you can to help me preserve the sanctity of my home. I don’t want any bad feelings in my home. I want only goodness and happiness.”

His request was courageous and exactly appropriate. Some tension had arisen between him and some of the workers. Mostly it was misunderstanding, some of it was carelessness, some of it was a result of minor protocol violation. None of it was serious and there was no threat to his safety or to the quality of the work. What he was talking about, however, was just as important as safety, and just as long-lasting as quality work. He was talking about the feeling of a home. How you feel in your home is more important than any color, any trim detail, any high end finish. To have a blessed home is to believe nothing is more important in your life than a sense of belonging, a sense of family safety and a sense of loving community in the building that is your home.

I felt like we were already doing everything we could. But when a man expresses such emotion, such earnest dedication, you crank up your commitment a few notches. We devoted ourselves to more communication. We revised our schedule to accommodate some of his concerns, and the whole team rededicated itself to preserving the “spirit” of the project. The project “mood” quickly changed for the better. Problems were solved. The work progressed nicely. His house remained blessed.