More lessons from swimming upstream: Earn and protect a good reputation

Friday, January 8, 2010 , Posted by Johnny Fuery at 1:16 AM

Originally Published 2007-04-25 12:31:35

Paint Cans and BrushMy post yesterday about swimming upstream reminds me of an experience I had last fall in dealing with an undependable vendor. This anecdote illustrates the concept of not crying over the spilt milk a bad vendor experience can encapsulate.

I hired a contractor that was obviously lacking in professionalism because of the price. He and his wife did gardening and painting, and I needed both of those services.

They quoted me about $500 for the job of painting two rooms, removing some ivy, a tree stump, some other miscellaneous pseudo-landscaping, etc. I was to provide the materials for the painting, which was no big deal in principle, but turned out to be horrible in practice.

At the end of the day, I believe that they were not skilled painters. It’s not just that I would have done a better job (that’s often true, but the reason we hire/outsource is because we can’t do it all ourselves), it’s that every vendor I’ve ever worked with would have done a better job. They used improper tools for the job, trying to get my high quality paint to work through an incredibly cheap (in every sense of the word) paint sprayer that required highly viscous paint. That means low-quality. So they used paint thinner to cheapen my paint and then had to do two coats. They didn’t tape off where the job ended and the paint should have been truncated, so the edges had to be re-done (which I personally took care of after the fact). Because they had to do the job twice (the second coat), they felt that they been cheated and thus cut corners everywhere else – bagging up the yard refuse, but then not removing it, for instance. Furthermore, they needed twice as much of my expensive paint as they should have (I buy the pricey stuff because it means only one coat – something I’ve learned first hand from experience), and the job ended up costing me as much as if I’d just picked out someone cold from the yellow pages. This is especially true if I count the time I had to spend in cleaning up after them. In fact, I think they might have stolen some of my paint to use on another job. They used that much, even considering the second coat.

At the time, I remember whining about the whole ordeal to a girl I was dating. She was very liberal and we were discussing the differing viewpoints between owners and workers, and while the discussion was far from heated, I actually proposed that some of her liberal ideas were maligned. For instance, I work harder than any tenant I’ve ever known. I’ve put in more hours, managed more tasks, and made more difficult decisions to get where I’m at than any of them. And while I am very liberal, both socially and even fiscally, I’m obviously pretty skeptical of tenant’s rights. I naturally treat my tenants as partners and equals, because I really believe that anyone can become a landlord if they really want to, and we’re just at different points in our lives and/or have made different decisions. Ditto with vendors.

At any rate, I recall using this particular vendor as an example of why it’s often (unfortunately) better to not give the underdog a chance. This couple was poor, just starting out, and it showed in their professionalism. As I complained about the work they did and how the experience would make me think twice about ever giving someone new in business an opportunity like that again, she asked, “then why did you pay them!?”

The answer was, “I have a business to run. I don’t have time to deal with managing and training my vendors. It’s simpler and easier to just do it myself or hire someone I know is competent.”

She repeated the question, intimating that I shouldn’t pay for a job that wasn’t finished correctly. I told her that the $250 I paid the vendor (half up front, half upon completion) at the close of the deal was cheaper than replacing the family room window. I told her that that $250 bought me peace of mind and ensured that my vendor nightmare would disappear into the past without repercussions. I told her that I didn’t have time to worry about being called (and called, and called, and called) by an angry contractor who might just decide to vandalize my rental property or harass my future tenants.

From my perspective, I went out of my way to give opportunity to someone who seemed likely to have the attitude that "the man is keeping me down" (and, as it turned out, did). Instead of going the extra mile in appreciation, let alone the thousands of dollars in follow-on work I'd have given them, they're perception that I had money to burn (I didn't, and was, in fact, so short of cash at the time that I had to take a cash advance on a credit card just to pay them) led them to screw me.

This is a horror story, but it’s a minor one. There are plenty of similar stories where tenants skip out on a portion of their rent, vendors don’t follow through, and clients don’t pay their bills. The important lesson is that these occurrences will happen, and the frequency will only grow as your business grows. No amount of screening will allow you to completely avoid these situations, so prepare for this type of thing. Establish a credit line or a substantial savings you can tap if things don’t go according to plan. Then do what you can to mitigate disasters when they occur. For me, this usually means additional work, sometimes hands-on, even when I’ve already paid someone else to handle it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, handling these unforeseen occurrences often means calling a favor, so always do your best to take the high road and protect your reputation. This means everything from your credit score (which is really just a quantitative measure of your ability to follow through on promises) to how you treat strangers. If you generally treat everyone with respect and patience, they’ll have it for you when the time comes.

Ultimately, business is about relationships, even if they’re just transactional relationships. Do everything you can to protect and foster them. This lesson is evident from both sides of this story -- instead of earning a bread and butter customer, my vendor is, I'm sure, still floundering in obscurity at best. I, too, needed to leverage my reputation to make it through this tough time -- borrowing to pay a vendor is a tough position for anyone to be in, but it's significantly easier if you've earned the trust of the entity your borrowing from. Whether that trust is based on your Fico Score or 5 years of handshakes is irrelevant; it's still trust.

Practice this in everyday life, and you might just be welcomed on the basketball court or get invited to concerts, even after you flake (see my last post if this allusion is confusing). Once in awhile is okay – relationships are based on the complete history of interactions, not just the last one.

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