Recently, I had one of those coincidences where you hear a word or expression for the first time, then hear it again and sometimes a third or fourth time within a few days. The first time was at a meeting of the Remodeling Futures Program, part of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The presenter was talking about a remodeling truism, namely that one remodeling project leads to another, and referred to this phenomenon as the “Diderot Effect.” I encountered the term again a few days later in an essay in the Washington Post magazine.

I had heard of the French writer Diderot, and I understood the domino effect that was being described, but I was curious about the origin of the expression “Diderot Effect.” Fortunately, you can find almost anything on the Web, and soon I was reading about a piece Diderot had written called “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.” It seems he had been given a new robe, and so had thrown his old one away. But now, none of his old stuff fit with the new garment. He ended up in near financial ruin from the cost of replacing most of his interior finishes and furniture.

Remodeling clients often find themselves faced with Diderot's dilemma. The source is not a new piece of clothing but rather a remodeling project that fixes, upgrades, or in some other way alters and improves some section of their home. Though it may come as a surprise to them, they quite predictably realize that the rest of their home pales by comparison to the new work. So they undertake another remodeling project to upgrade the most egregious example, and the cycle repeats itself until the whole house has been redone. A window replacement leads to new interior paint, which leads to new tile in the entry, which leads to new flooring in the kitchen, which leads to new cabinets and countertops.

Why bring this up now? For two reasons. First, past customers are still the leading source of new work for most remodeling contractors, mainly because of the Diderot Effect. Actually, it's a kind of double Diderot Effect because they not only work the cycle on their own home, they refer their remodelers to their friends, relatives, and neighbors, where the cycle begins anew.

Second, it's the holiday season, a time when businesses traditionally communicate with past customers. Never mind that, even though you know better, you've neglected them all year long. Something in the spirit of the season compels even the most marketing averse remodeler to send a card to past clients. But just it case it hasn't, the Diderot Effect gives you another reason. Happy Holidays.