The small fee for a service call: Better than a “free estimate” (and other aspects of residential contracting decision-making)

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Recently, we needed some urgent (and some not-so-urgent) work on our home garage door. My wife had used another contractor previously, and there was a quality problem (combined with some brute force mistakes on my part — like smacking my car against the door frame).

She tried to get the contractor to come out and quote on the flashing/siding repairs needed. Promises of action; no delivery. Then she handed the file to me. “You’re a guy.  For some reason these contractors don’t take me seriously.” (Dumb mistake of course.)

So I called the contractor, making it clear we would be ready to pay. Since presumably he knew the project and specifications, I asked him for a quick quote, and he provided a highly reasonable one. He said he would need to order the materials. I gave the oral go-ahead, but the promised delivery time passed, and passed again. Finally, just before heading on our month-long journey to Africa, I reached him again. “Oh, I’m going to do the work. I don’t need to see you or have access to the house to do it, so I’ll review it and complete it when you are gone.”

I didn’t believe him, but, heck, we would soon be so far away it takes 24 hours by plane to return, so I left it until we returned.

Then, a day after getting home, the garage door got “stuck”. Now the door issue had evolved from being a “do it when we can” to a “we need to do it now” challenge. And I was tasked with finding a contractor who could deliver quickly.

Time for fast decisions, and quick calls. I had two questions. Could the service person come over on the weekend right after Christmas/New Years? And could the contractor handle both the urgent (door opening) and non-urgent but long-standing (flashing) problem?

I assessed businesses through reviews, deciding to give Google reviews the strongest priority. This decision is based on Google’s branding success in my own life. As a voluntary contributor to the AdSense help forum, I am invited to California once a year for meet-ups and summits. There is a similar participation rewards program for reviewers. This face-to-face involvement with the company led me to purchase a few GOOGL shares for my personal account; and the investment has proven fortuitous, almost doubling in less than four years. So I believe Google reviews.

Here is a play back of the responses I received when I called three contractors (who had all received 4.5 to 5 star reviews and were in the same general area as our home).

Call one. “Yes, I can come right away but I only deal with the mechanical operation of the door, not the flashing. That is another contractor’s responsibility.” No go. I am not interested in solving the immediate issue but leaving the long-standing problem unresolved.

Call two: “We can set an appointment for Monday. We’ll need to charge $35 for a visit, which we’ll deduct from the fee if you go with us.”  Okay, but I really didn’t want to wait until Monday.

Call three: Rings several times, then an answering service person answers. “Is this an answering service,” I ask. “Yes, and we are accepting service calls for Monday.” No thanks, I decide.

Call four: Contractor answers promptly. “dYes we can come on the weekend. There is a $25 fee to visit but if we do the work, it will be applied to the cost. Yes, we can handle both the immediate problem and the longer-range issue.”

The contractor then set a time for the service visit: 4:00 to 6:00 on Sunday.

I made sure I was home. At 3:45 the service rep called to confirm the appointment. He was here at 4. He quickly outlined what he would do. First he would see if he could fix the door without expensive motor or other repairs. Then, with good humor, he took out a tape measure and confirmed the amount of flashing required, providing a quick quote which was surprisingly much higher than the contractor who failed to deliver after several calls. I expressed some concern about the price, “Well you can go to Home Depot and get it done cheaper, but we certainly don’t skimp on our quality.” Since the quality on the previous contractor’s job was obviously not right, I couldn’t argue with him.

By 5 p.m., the contractor had fixed the door, saying it was actually in surprisingly good condition for its age. He presented an invoice for $185.00. He also provided a work order for the flashing, and (as he outlined earlier in the discussion) an invoice for 25 per cent of its cost as a deposit. “Sorry, we don’t take credit cards but we can take a debit card,” he said. So I paid on the spot.

I won’t name the contractor until the job is completed in a week. But there are several interesting points here that anyone in the contracting business should appreciate.

  1. Reputation reviews are vital for your success because they will ultimately be the basis for the initial inquiry and communication.
  2. If you offer a service where any sort of urgency is involved, be prepared to respond quickly. Broken automatic garage doors in 30 degree minus (celsius) weather are reasonably urgent matters. Weekend service is important.
  3. Deliver what you say you will deliver, and arrive on time.
  4. It is okay to charge a small fee to prevent “tire kicking” and multiple abusive “free estimate” calls.  The objective of this fee shouldn’t be to make it a profit centre but to discourage wasteful calls. But you should still be able to provide basic information including ballpark costs if possible on the phone.
  5. Ultimately, deliver on your promises. Then you don’t fight the competition and in the end you win your own favoudrable client review.  The virtuous cycle continues.

As the work concluded, the technician — on learning in general about my business — asked if I blog. He said his wife has an idea for a blogging service of her own. I didn’t go into great details because we were standing out in the cold and I wanted to get back in the house, my bank account depleted by a few hundred dollars but happy that my wife will come home to a functional garage door. In any case, if (as I expect) promises are delivered, the same technician will return the next week to complete the job and I can ask questions, take some photos, and discuss blogging with him — and even name the company.

Yes, this is a personal story. But consider the marketing implications here. Do they apply to your own business?

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