After All We've Done for Them

When I started consulting in 1995, my first customer was Paul, a contractor who specialized in designing and building people's dream homes. My background was software development. I knew nothing about the home building business. So I relied on Alison's Advice Advice, and tried to help Paul find his own advice.

"The problem," Paul said, "is that more and more of our customers are late paying their final bill. They pay all of the other bills on time, but then they're very slow to pay that last bill."

"Oh," I said, not sure what else to say.

"It infuriates me!"

"Infuriates you?"

"I mean, why can't they pay that one bill? After all we've done for them?"

"All you've done for them?" I asked. "What kinds of things do you do for them?"

"Here's an example," Paul said. "We have a client right now who's late. Last month, two days before we were going to start building their deck, they called and said, 'Can you build a 12-foot deck instead of a 10-foot deck?' We said, 'Sure.' But then we had to scramble to make it happen, The lumber for the 10-foot deck was already being loaded onto the truck. So we had to call the lumber yard and change the order."

Paul continued. "Then, after we'd finished the deck and were about to start painting, the client called to change the color! We had to take the paint we'd bought back to the store to exchange it."

"It sounds as if you go out of your way to accommodate changes," I said, "and when the customer pays late, you get angry. Are you angry because they don't appreciate the things you've done for them?"

"That's part of it," Paul said. "What's worse is that we end up with almost no profit. When we had to change the lumber order, for example, the 12-foot boards weren't much more expensive, so we ate the cost. And it took time to return the paint. These are all small expenses, and we don't want to piss of the clients by nickel-and-dime them. But the costs adds up. We go out of our way, and end up making next to nothing for the job. Then they don't pay."

"I can see how you'd feel angry about that," I said. "Do you always make these changes at the last minute? Do you always absorb the costs?"

"No, we can't afford that," Paul said. "Sometimes we tell customers that we'll have to charge for the extra time and expenses."

I asked, "How do they respond to that?"

"They respect it. They understand that changes cost extra." Paul said. Then he paused for a moment. "And those customers treat us with more respect. And they pay on time... Oh!"

Experiment: Have you ever thought, "How could they do that, after all I've done for them?" What kinds of things had you done "for them?" What did you want in return?

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