What a Rotten Roof Can Teach You About Your Business

istock_roofworkI recently stood in the gravelly snow of spring and stared up at the roof of my garage, observing it with what must surely have seemed like knowledgeable expertise. The man beside me did the same, and we made quite the pair – this roof was a serious matter.

“Mmm… I don’t think I want to get into this project,” the man mused, never taking his eyes from the blue tarp that hid rotting boards and moisture-soaked sheets of plywood. I nodded, having expected as much.

What happened next struck me, though, and I appreciated his refusal even more. “You see, it’s our reputation.” He’d turned to face me. “I don’t know if you’re aware of our name, but we’re known for doing a good job – and we’d like to keep it that way.”

That’s a valuable lesson for all you readers – and my story includes a few more important ones as well.

You see, I knew I had a roof in bad shape. I knew it was a job beyond my abilities (and my interest). And while I knew I could get some cheap joe-jobber to patch up the cave in, I also knew that cheap work becomes a maintenance money pit – it costs more to keep patching the patch than to start over with quality work.

Lesson one: Never opt for cheap, even if you’re on a budget. Get the best you can afford, and don’t be stingy. The long-term payoff is well worth the short-term expense.

So I picked up the phone book and opened it to the Yellow pages to ‘Construction’ to see what I could find in the way of good help. The long columns of business names were overwhelming. There were over three double-sided pages, each with four columns, listing name after name. I nearly put the book down.

Lesson two: People don’t like too many options. They dislike uncertainty even more. Give them choice, but limit the number of choices you offer so consumers can make a decision quickly and easily.

I didn’t put the book down. I needed prices and estimates, so I began to skim columns. Who could I call? Knowing who to choose to contact became a problem: they all looked the same. Almost every single construction business had chosen to name itself “Construction Something-or-Other”. Nothing grabbed me. Nothing helped me know who would be best for my needs.

Lesson three: Differentiation is crucial to attracting customers. If people can’t tell your business apart from the next – even from your business name alone – then you’re in trouble.

Finally, I found a name familiar to me. The construction company had won awards, accolades and many word-of-mouth referrals. Their advertising was also widespread and frequent. I knew the name, I’d heard good things, and their reputation preceded them. That would be a good company to contact.

Lesson four: Out of sight, out of mind, and the opposite is just as true. Make sure potential customers hear about you often – and make sure they hear good things about you, too.

“We’ll send someone soon,” I was told by the very friendly and knowledgeable person on the phone. I asked if it would be today, and he said he couldn’t promise, but he would say it would be within three days. That was fine with me – and the guy showed up that afternoon for an estimate.

Lesson five: Customer service counts. Friendly service, confidence, and conveying expertise makes people feel comfortable. Giving a firm turnaround also counts for good service, as does promising less and delivering more.

The man who measured and poked, opened doors and squinted up knew what he was doing. It goes without say that if you’re in business, you really should have a clue. He was helpful and answered my questions, and he did so with confidence, supporting what I already knew about the company.

Then he turned me down.

“It’s not that we can’t do the work,” he explained. “We can. It’s an easy job – replace the roof. But you wouldn’t be a satisfied client.” He spoke surely, and I listened. “You’d be happy with your roof, but then your walls are going to go in a year or two. You’ll have problems from other parts of your garage. You’ll need to invest more money to keep it in shape – because you paid for that roof we built you, and you wouldn’t want to lose out on your investment.”

This guy knew his stuff.

“You’d spend money for the roof and have to continually invest on all the other problems that your garage has. In the end, you’ll have spent so much money that you hate your garage, and where did the problems all begin? With us,” he shrugged. “You’ll be looking for someone to blame, and we’ll be it.”

“So I’m sorry,” he shrugged again and gave me an apologetic smile. “We can do the work, but we’re not going to take the project on, because we have a reputation to take care of.”

Lesson six: Your reputation is all you have. One bad project, one unhappy client, and word about you can spread faster than you can say, “Stupid.” Work on projects that help your business maintain and increase its reputation – don’t take on work that may bring your name down.

You may be surprised to learn that my respect for this company has shot up a few notches. I didn’t feel bad that they wouldn’t take my job (even though I knew they might not). I felt good about this company already, and their ability to say no to protect their reputation only made me think more highly of them.

The fact they said no to me only made me want to hire them more. I almost wished they’d say yes or change their minds. They said no, they didn’t and I’m still stuck looking for someone else to fix my roof.

And yet, if someone asked me to refer a good construction company, they’d be the one I’d mention. If someone asked me to rate them on a scale of one to ten, they’d get a ten – and I haven’t even worked with them. If I had to call a construction business in the future, they’d be the ones.

They won me over – and they didn’t even lift a hammer for me.

Last lesson: If you have consumer trust and desire, you have it made.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.