Life is full of challenges and choices, both personal and professional. For example, my children and I just moved and we are in the process of merging two households into one. The challenge is that we are all used to doing things differently and sometimes we clash over how to get things done. In addition, we need to get back to our every day schedule. With all of this going on, I find myself constantly repeating the same things to my kids, and reminding them of lessons they should have learned by now.
Then I go to an industry event and I may as well be back at home repeating myself, listening to the kids argue and telling stories trying to one-up each other. In addition, there is the great divide – the camps dedicated to how they build water features and the components they use. Those lines are drawn so deep it even affects relationships. For instance, at one event I was speaking warmly with a group of friends until some ‘other’ industry colleagues came up to speak to me. I felt pulled in two directions as if I was breaking some cardinal rule speaking to ‘the others’ and at the same time got the cold shoulder for being with ‘the other others.’
It is frustrating for other industries, professionals, and even patrons to work or support water gardening when there is such discord in the trade. In my case, and to be fair, I’ve never professionally installed a pond. I’ve been on job sites and helped at industry builds, but I really don’t know much about the difference between liners, pumps, and so forth. I just love the end result. I do know that all this infighting has hurt the industry and put a cloud over the work we are all trying to do whether we play in the dirt, work in the office, or champion the craft.
At this point, we may not be able to control the economy we are faced with, but we can control the way we operate our businesses as well as the image and impression we leave as professionals on our clients and customers. We can begin to improve the brand of the industry in general so that clients and customers feel more at ease with using our services.
I do find a correlation in my ‘professional’ work and my ‘personal’ work. Sometimes I find myself saying things I swore I would never say, ‘mommy’ things. Not only do I hear her voice in my head, but the words are coming out of my mouth. Hopefully now my mom will know now that I actually did hear her say all of the things below (thousands of times each) and I can impart a mother’s wisdom on the industry to raise the bar; perhaps even achieve some accord. Here are the top ten things she told me:
1. A little soap & water never killed anyone. It’s easy: clean up before you show up at a client’s. Whether it is washing down your truck and equipment or putting on a clean shirt, appearance does matter. When you, your crew, and your equipment arrive looking your best, it will show your professionalism, that you care about the impression you make, and that you will take care of leaving the job site more beautiful than when you arrived.
2. Watch your mouth. Cleaning up your language as well is a good idea. While we all like to kick back and have a casual conversation to make a client feel at ease and develop a relationship, this is still a business transaction. If you are looking to sell a $50,000 project, using foul or inappropriate language is not going to sell you as a professional worthy of their trust, let alone their money.
3. Don’t interrupt. I am shocked at the number of times that a contractor is trying so hard to give his sales pitch that he does not truly listen to the client and will interrupt as if they aren’t even speaking. While you need to demonstrate your knowledge and skills, it is ultimately their project (and money) and the client needs to be listened to, respected, and should have the final say.
4. Someone is going to end up crying, don’t bash the competition. Let’s say two professionals with different construction styles are battling for the same job and when speaking to the potential customer, bash the competition and their methods. Too much of this, on either or both sides, is going to leave the homeowner with a distaste for both and probably reconsider the entire project, opting for a pool instead. Now both professionals are out of a job and the only one who is really happy is the pool guy.
5. If your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to too? I often hear, ‘that is how this industry works.’ What EXACTLY does that mean?! Does it mean that because other business owners are running their company the way they are, you are justified in doing the same? Get out of that mindset and start acting like business people and not contractors. Business professionals have a better reputation because they look and act professionally. I’m not saying wear a suit. I am saying that good business practices will lend to your professional image and company’s brand, raising the bar for the industry as a whole little by little.
6. Don’t pick your nose in public. I’m not sure why this happens, but I hear so much about how a professional will spill way too much information. Speaking about overtly personal information may not endear you to a consumer. Additionally, just because there is something annoying you that you feel the urge to get out of your system or you have a personal problem or issue, does not mean you need to discuss these matters with clients. Keep personal, personal, and business, business and remember that it takes time to build a lasting business relationship.
7. Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. No one likes a bragger. I find myself rolling my eyes at events where groups of people sit and ‘hold court’ discussing how they are having their ‘best year yet.’ I’m not saying that those people are lying all the time, just 90% (plus). Personally, those are the people I would be least likely to hire. You will gain more respect with your colleagues by being honest and discussing openly your challenges than trying to build yourself up and trying to one-up each other. The same applies when dealing with a potential client. You should be able to discuss your knowledge base and work experience without bragging, which is too often what happens.
8. I am NOT the maid! Clean up after yourself. Don’t leave a mess. Not on the job site. Not for other contractors. Cleaning up your job site each and every day and respecting that you are a guest on the homeowner’s property will earn you bonus points that can translate into a referral for a future project with their friend or family member. Take the time to do it right the first time so that your client does not have to hire someone else to fix your mistakes. If you are the contractor being hired to clean up after someone else’s poor workmanship, do not talk negatively about the project. You may be unaware of your own messes and Karma is a funny thing.
9. Call me to let me know where you are. It’s simple. Keep your client informed of your work schedule and don’t be late. They will appreciate it and it will be easier than making amends in the long run.
10. If you can’t say anything nice… don’t say anything at all. This is my favorite. The one where I wish I could have a pre-recorded message that automatically turns on when unkind words are being spoken. There are so many times when I hear a professional slamming another in the hopes of gaining favor with either a colleague or prospective client. In the end, it diminishes the character and professionalism of the individual who is engaging in slander against another.
The problem is that often when a door opens up and is viewed as an opportunity to look more favorable in a client’s eyes, as a profession, the high road tends to be the road less traveled. Going back to the adage, If you can’t say anything nice…, here are some common questions and possible answers:
1. Is there a difference between different brands of components? This would be a great opportunity to trash a manufacturer. Instead, without even mentioning the other products on the market, you can talk about all the virtues of the products you use. You can start by saying, ‘I know several professionals who use these components. I choose to use this brand because…’
2. What is the difference between the types of pond construction? This tends to be a slippery slope. Professionals tend to feel passionately about the methods they choose to practice and the way they install water features. This is an opportunity to talk about why you choose your construction method in a way that shows your professionalism. A great way to start your answer to this question might be, ‘There are some different views on which method is best. Let me tell you why I choose this installation practice…’ You may even want to suggest that the homeowner do their homework on different construction methods. A better-educated consumer will also be a better customer in the long run.
3. A friend of mine has a pond and it has always been a problem. Why would I want one? While a common answer might include bad-mouthing either of the two previous topics (components and construction), the truth is that every ‘expert’ has a water feature out there that someone isn’t happy with. It’s kind of like bouncing a check – everyone has had it happen in their lifetime and it doesn’t mean they are poor or bad; just that something may have gone wrong that day. If a homeowner is unhappy with their water feature it may be because the homeowner did not properly care for it. It could be that a tree fell and punched a hole in the liner that has caused an undiscoverable leak. Perhaps a pump went bad. Maybe it was built up to be ‘maintenance free’ or ‘low maintenance’ but that doesn’t mean ‘no maintenance.’
The list goes on and on… At the end of the day when this question comes up, it may be a good idea to take a healthy dose of modesty, not put any one or thing down, and talk about the positive attributes you bring to the table and the assurance it takes (and mean it) to have a client feel confident that this is a decision and investment they won’t regret. Start by saying, ‘I understand and unfortunately that happens from time to time. Let me start by reassuring you…’. And please remember, it is better to promise small and deliver BIG!
The greatest problem we face as an industry is not the economy, it is the great divide combined with an unprofessional image. My biggest personal struggle right now is the merging of two homes and two groups of people (and pets). We may be different and have different ways of doing things, but we all have a common goal, to live together without tension and chaos, and hopefully enjoy each other’s company in the long run, making life better for everyone. I think it is about time that we do this as an industry too.