Barry Klemons built his business around a set of bedrock principles and earned a reputation for honesty and integrity. His attention to each and every customer was legendary, so he was shocked and upset to hear through the grapevine that a former customer was bad-mouthing him and his company. Archadeck of Charlotte built a screened porch a few years earlier for a client, and she was telling friends and family that the work was badly done. So Klemons decided to give her a call. “Mrs. Smith? This is Barry Klemons. We built your screened porch, and I just heard that you’re unhappy with our work.” “That’s right! I am unhappy,” the client snapped. Barry asked what was wrong with it. “The roof has been leaking for over a year!” she said. “Why didn’t you let us know?” Barry asked. “I did," the homeowner replied. "I wrote a letter.” “I didn’t receive a letter from you,” Barry said. “Well,” retorted Mrs. Smith, “I never mailed it.” In disbelief, Klemons asked, “Why not?” “Because I knew you wouldn’t do anything about it!” Klemons felt it was an unjustified attack on his character. Of course, he fixed the leak and restored his honor -- at least in the mind of one customer who had stereotyped him as a “typical” remodeling contractor.

Klemons, who sold his company in 2007, was Chairman of the Charlotte Better Business Bureau. He was the 2005 recipient of the Charlotte Ethics in Business Award, after receiving an honorable mention the previous year. The Charlotte chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, of which Klemons is a charter member, gives an annual award in his name. He’s a multiple Chrysalis award winner, and is on Remodeling magazine’s Big50 list. In addition to numerous professional awards, Barry’s civic contributions are widely recognized and lauded.

And Mrs. Smith just assumed that he wouldn’t stand behind his work.

Reputation Handicap

A contractor’s reputation is at risk even when he does everything right. Clearly, the public perceives contractors as unethical. The 2008 Consumer Complaint Survey, published this July, ranked home improvement/construction No. 2 on its Top Ten Complaints list. Our industry has had the distinction of being ranked in the top three for many years. This perception, and the reality causing it, places remodelers in a defensive posture before they even show up to provide an estimate (not showing up for the estimate has become folklore, contributing to the negative stereotype).

Ironically, the customer is frequently an enabler for the problems he complains about. Not to blame the victim here, but isn’t it odd that people will allow -- nay, pursue -- the lowest bidder to touch what is probably their single largest asset? The 19th century author John Ruskin said, “The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can't be done.” Yet every day, homeowners effectively conspire with those contractors who are willing to work cheaply, to produce an unsatisfactory outcome for both parties. Of course, the reputation of the entire remodeling industry erodes just a little more each time this occurs. And the Mrs. Smiths of the world just assume …

The math is simple, then: The most ethical behavior is to charge more! Or to charge enough to deliver what you promise; and that should never come at the lowest price. Unfortunately, the people who need to learn that lesson probably aren’t reading this column.

Those same people would benefit from keeping the customer’s viewpoint in mind -- how relatively small impressions can communicate volumes about a remodeler’s character and values: How his phone is answered; how promptly calls are returned; appointments kept; attention to personal grooming and hygiene; the quality of oral and written communication, and so on. Contractors often start a customer relationship by having to prove themselves innocent and, unfortunately, many don’t help their own -- or the industry’s -- cause. -- Rick Provost has more than 20 years experience helping to build the country’s largest franchise network specializing in design/build exterior home improvement. Formerly the president and CEO of Archadeck, he 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.