Deck builder Mike always orders more material than he needs, not only in anticipation of a few inevitable defective boards that are part of every order but because his aesthetic standards are high and he wants plenty of choice. (His supplier restocks his extras at no charge because Mike is an excellent customer.) So after he built an elaborate deck for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the contractor had accumulated a good-size stack of leftovers. After completion, he scheduled a time to walk the project, pick up the final check, and haul away the excess materials.  But when Mike showed up, he was surprised to discover that the neat pile of boards was gone. When he asked Mr. Smith about it, the homeowner shrugged and claimed that they must have been stolen. So they proceeded with the job review and Mike got his check. But as he was leaving, Mike happened to glance through the Smith’s garage window and see his lumber stacked inside.

When he confronted Mr. Smith, the homeowner defended his actions by claiming that he owned the materials because they were delivered to his house for his deck. No amount of argument could unwind Mr. Smith’s rationalization, so Mike decided just to let it go. But he angrily made a mental note to add a clause to his contract putting in black and white what reasonable people would take for granted.

How many painful lessons like this have you learned on the job? Have you ever had a customer refuse you access to his house electricity or try to get one of your employees to do side work? What if you discover a rotted band board after you strip the siding off, or you hit an underground tank while drilling a footing hole? Ever had a customer give you a new punch list every time you complete the last? The list goes on. If you’ve been in the contracting business for more than a few years you’ve encountered a host of unforeseen situations that have cost you time, money, or your customer’s goodwill … or all three.

Business as Usual

Knowing that, I’m amazed to see how many contractors still use the same old generic proposal form from the GenericContractRickProvostcolumn(150)office supply store. Last year I had a new furnace installed, and the two-man HVAC contractor gave me one of these proposal forms as the contract. It didn’t meet state licensing requirements much less deal with the kinds of issues described above.

Because I’m an eminently fair-minded person (with a deep sympathy for the travails of contractors), I didn’t cause any problems for these young guys and would have dealt fairly with them had there been problems with their work. But life’s too short to count on dealing with nice guys all the time. It only takes one bad apple to put a well-meaning but naive contractor out of business.

If it’s too much effort or cost to develop a custom contract for your business that anticipates and resolves conflicts caused by recurring problems, why isn’t it too much effort or cost to deal with the rump end afterward? Talk about whistling past the graveyard! If you haven’t done so already, sit down and think about the bad times; what could you have done to avoid them? If having preventative language in your contract would have helped, document the problems you don’t want to revisit and invest in the legal fees to have them incorporated into a fresh new contract. --Rick Provost has more than 20 years experience helping to build the country’s largest design/build franchise network specializing in exterior home improvement.  Formerly the president and CEO of Archadeck, Rick is now a principal in SMI Safety, a safety consulting and staffing business that specializes in industrial construction. Rick also consults with emerging franchise companies to help them develop growth strategies and business systems. He can be reached at rickp@smisafety.com.