This article is meant to serve two purposes. One is to help other contractors and construction business owners deal with a common issue and open the conversation to ask for advice. The second is, more selfishly, to help me to think through this conundrum myself. I am counting on the discipline of writing to help me have greater understanding and to be better skilled.
First off, a warning. If you read Michael Stone's Markup & Profit or Profitable Sales, or attend any of his classes, and start to actually implement what he says, then you will have this problem. However, if you run your business like a hobby, don't return your phone calls, don't bother with well-written contracts, and prefer to have your dashboard full of paper scraps and receipts rather than discipline yourself to learn how to run your business, then, perhaps, you won't have to worry about this. Just carry on.
In 2015, I attended my first "Making the Numbers Work in Construction" class with Michael. Subsequently, I devoured his books and teachings and have slowly implemented much of the warp and woof of his teaching. It was not an overnight change, but through steadfast discipline, four years later our business is now a profitable and reputable one and our phone is ringing regularly. We know how much to charge for our work to pay the bills and make a profit. We market our business in a way that works. We have made ourselves available for the buying public that is seeking professional contractors who do excellent work and who return their calls.
So what is the conundrum that I am writing about? Put simply, it is how to avoid going out on sales calls to look at jobs for folks who obviously do not qualify to purchase from our company. That sounds a tad mean, doesn't it? It is not. One of Michael's newsletters a few months ago featured a contractor who shared, "We have a very thorough vetting process for calls that come into our office before we set appointments to visit the prospect. This has saved many hours of wasted time for all involved." (Jan.30, 2019) Whoever you are, other contractor who wrote that article, if you have additional advice – please share!
A recent example: A nice lady calls in to talk about adding a master bedroom suite to her home (bedroom, walk-in closet, and bathroom). You don't talk long on the phone before you eagerly make an appointment to drive out to look at the job. (Wow! An addition! Great project!) You show up to the site and immediately you notice that the house is run down and in disrepair. The lady is very nice and knows exactly what she wants (and who doesn't know what they want after watching HGTV!). Once you get around to discussing the budget for this project you learn that her budget is, as suspected, barely enough money to even get the tools out of the truck! You have to then politely educate her as to what the job will cost and find the door.
Could this have been avoided in the initial phone call? If so, how can this be done in a tactful way, while still expressing gratitude that they were good enough to dial your number? Below, I offer a few thoughts, along with an open appeal for any advice that other contractors may have.
First and foremost, we have to market our business in such a way that the majority of the leads we get are fairly close to the ones we want to get. If someone who is looking for "El Cheapo" finds your website, or sees your business cards, they should be immediately convinced that you are not the contractor for them. Your work will look too nice and too expensive for their idea of a contractor and budget. If, on the other hand, someone is serious about having a project done by a quality professional, then once they see your website they should be encouraged to contact your company.
Secondly (keeping in mind that I run the business and do not have an administrative assistant), for me it helps to have these calls happen while I am in a place where I can listen well and concentrate. I prefer not to have these discussions on my cell phone while driving down the road, or on a job site with saws whirring in the background. We have a landline at our office and that is the phone number we put on our website and business cards. I beg the guys at the supply yard not to give my cell number to potential customers. In my mind, my cell phone is for my crew and subs to contact me. At the office, I can sit at my desk, in the relative peace and quiet, with a notepad/lead sheet in hand and……..listen!
Next is the tricky part of how to transition into the brief conversation that will determine whether this is a job for me to go and see. I have made myself a "lead sheet" with various questions on it. The transition may go something like this:
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions to find out whether or not we would be a good fit for your potential project?"
Their attitude to that question alone may save you a few hours and a few gallons of fuel! Believe it or not, I actually had one lady get very offended that I wanted to ask a few questions. I gave her the phone number for "El Cheapo" very quickly.
Then, I briefly walk through the basic outline of Michael's four key questions:
What would you like to do? Tell me a little about what you have in mind for your project?
When would you like to have the work done?
Do you have a budget for the work? (Here it is very handy to have access to the Cost vs. Value Report from Remodeling magazine or to know what your typical jobs cost your company.)
Who will be making the key decisions?
Next, I have a few of my own questions that may or may not need to be asked based on how the conversation went with the first four questions. They include:
Do you know what year your home was built? (Here I am trying to be sure that it is a stick-built home and not a modular or double wide. Our company is not skilled at working on double-wides!)
Are you looking for a carpenter/handyman? Or a professional general contractor?
There may be other questions that are important to ask. I also think it is important to allude to our design process that takes place after the first complimentary meeting. Often, when I answer our phone, the first thing out of the caller's mouth is, "Do ya'll give free estimates?" That is almost an automatic disqualification, but, you never know. Maybe a good response would be, "We can get you in the right price range, and I would be glad to tell you about how we work beyond that. But first, would you mind if I asked a few questions to determine if we are going to be a good fit for your potential project?"
After asking the above questions, the potential project may seem right up your alley. Set the appointment and go make a great sales call!
However, it may be obvious that this is not the project for you to pursue further. In that case, the right thing to do is to respectfully decline the work. Keep the fault on your side by saying something like, "I'm sorry, but after reviewing your project with you, it does not seem like we are going to be the best fit for you. Thank you so much for calling, and we wish you the best with your project!" Maybe you can give them a referral that would be a better fit.
This takes discipline, preparation, organization, listening skills, courage, and boldness.
We contractors are, by nature, "Yes" type of people. Sometimes, we need to say "No, thank you."
~Written by Todd Milton, owner of Milton Construction Company in Appomattox, Virginia
Todd wrote a great article on a subject that's difficult to master. Asking for the budget is a little risky on the initial phone call, because they don't know you or trust you yet. You might get pushback. That's also why I recommend making the budget question the last question. However, if something works for you, by all means do it! It's all about testing and trying and discovering what works for you.