Written by Danielle Putnam
For nine months, our new company had been bringing in $8 to $10,000 each week from one customer. Have you ever had a customer like that? If so, you know you jump when they call. And this owner of a fortune 500 company had my dad on speed dial. Our customer owned several houses in town and my dad did work at most of them, but the big house as we called it was 19,000 square feet of opportunity. The home was 40 years old and had almost no maintenance for the last 10 years.
It was my dad, Rodney’s, first year in business; he had branched out on his own and was finding the challenges to be exciting even if they demanded hard work. With about five employees, he was up to the game.
Then along came Mr. Smith (an alias of course). Mr. Smith had these golden faucets (real gold faucets) in his home, the foreign kind made overseas. They were located next to an honest to goodness toilet with a hand carved Ivory seat. That must have been one big elephant. One of the faucets wasn’t working. We had tried and tried to fix it, and although our company culture was always to pause, sit, and think, and then find a solution…this time, the ‘fix’ wasn’t in sight.
But Mr. Smith kept pressuring us more and more to fix his golden faucets, so my Dad just thought, “Well, they really just need to be cleaned really well” and he soaked them in vinegar overnight. Big mistake! I don’t have to tell you what vinegar does to a nice gold finish. But they were ruined. No problem, dad went to the plumbing supply store and bought the finest Delta faucets he could find and proceeded to provide pure, clean hot and cold water to the bathroom sink. He could easily explain to the customer that the gold faucets were obsolete and not worth repairing, so these beautiful Delta faucets would be a better solution. Surely, the customer would understand.
Dad is a master contractor, but the pressure of business was a brooding beast, and the beast was hungry. We’ve all been there. The pressure wouldn’t have been so bad if Louis, our only plumber, hadn’t just quit. Without a plumber and under so much pressure, we simply couldn’t see the view from Mr. Smith’s perspective. And Mr. Smith wanted the golden faucets.
In hindsight, we should have called a plumber down the road from Atlanta. We were 90 miles north in a small town called Dalton, GA. If we would have outsourced the job to another company for the benefit of Mr. Smith, we most likely would still have him as our customer.
But no, in the moment, my dad just simply couldn’t see the view from Mr. Smith’s perspective.
Mr. Smith wanted to keep the golden faucets.
We had been working for Mr. Smith for nine months. Wow, what a position to be in. We were up over $135,000 from Mr. Smith alone, and he had become the “golden goose”, but over some golden faucets, that goose stopped laying those beautiful golden eggs.
When Mr. Smith sent us packing, he still owed over $16,000 for work that hadn’t been paid, but this was our first year in business, and we were afraid to fight.
We walked away and determined not to hold a grudge.
Last week, while sitting in our weekly leadership meeting and discussing projects within our company, my dad began to reminisce. With his steaming cup of coffee in hand, he slowly unfolded the details of this story. Now, for the purpose of the story, I said “we” and “our company”. We were a family, and this is, in a sense, a family business. I mean, after all, it was my dad’s company. But I was the little girl on the seat in the pickup truck. I remember being at Mr. Smith’s house as dad would stop by and check on the jobs in progress. I didn’t know this was the “golden goose”; I only knew that Mr. Smith’s children were running around the yard with a nanny, and they were about my age. They approached the pickup truck and teased me…I didn’t know why. But then their nanny made them come back and apologize. Some memories stay with you.
As my dad shared his side of the story, I began taking notes. He reflected, “But I knew who did it; I knew who screwed the golden goose up…it was me.” As he continued, “I wasn’t listening to my customer, and I wasn’t able to see the view from his perspective. He didn’t want working faucets; he wanted his golden faucets.”
Rodney’s perspective was that Mr. Smith wanted running water.
But Mr. Smith didn’t want running water; he wanted the golden faucet.
There’s a difference between hearing and listening. Are we really listening to what our customers are asking us for?
What a position to be in. And I know our story is not unique. Contracting is full of golden geese, and it is also full of learning moments that we look back on years later and either appreciate what they were or kick ourselves in the shins. Fortunately, my dad is fantastic at looking forward in life, laughing often, and learning from mistakes. After that debacle, he soon turned that company into a very nice profitable company which he later messed up again, but, that’s another story. We all make mistakes, and sometimes they are really big. But here’s to learning and moving forward.
Danielle Putnam is the President of The New Flat Rate and Women in HVCR.
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