Giving praise doesn't come naturally to everyone. Remodeler Jay Van Deusen grew up in a household where doing things right was the expectation and deserved no praise. So when he started Van Deusen Construction, Bel Air, Md., he paid well, expected a lot, and considered that the end of the employee-employer bargain.

Only after a group of Van Deusen's remodeling peers told him that he was too harsh did he begin to think about changing. If he wanted certain behaviors, they said, he needed to soften up and learn to recognize and reward those behaviors. “I have struggled with this all of my life, thinking that I am paying everyone so much that they should be thanking me,” he says.

Everyone's a Client Van Deusen's new approach, he says, is “to treat everyone as a client.” It's not instinctive — he felt awkward at first, and finds he must consciously monitor his interactions — but he is “getting close” to making a habit of showing appreciation to all the stakeholders in his business.

Take clients, for instance. After they sign the contract, Van Deusen sends them a note thanking them for “believing in us and allowing us to work in their home.“ During the toughest phase of the project, they find a nice bottle of wine in their refrigerator, along with a gift card for dinner. If he senses any friction, he's on the phone immediately to smooth things over. He thanks them with another note at the project's end.

Van Deusen's circle of appreciation encompasses trade contractors and business partners as well. “I sometimes get heated when folks don't show up when they're supposed to,” he says. Instead of punishing weaknesses, he now strives to reward strengths. Subs often get a brief note with their checks, saying something like, “Great job at Harris … you are the best painter I have ever had, and I look forward to working with you this year!” He sends them referrals as well — calling to tell them when one is coming and how they earned it.

Not long ago, an employee at Van Deusen's insurance company helped him resolve some difficult issues. “She worked hard and made me feel like I was the only person she was working for,” he says. He commended her good work in a three-sentence e-mail to the agency's owner, who then praised the woman directly. “The outcome was that it made both of us feel really good about each other,” he says.

Employee Appreciation Above all, Van Deusen strives to appreciate his staff. “They, more than most, need to know how much we need them and how much we appreciate them,” he says. He takes the time to ask about their children, to include special messages with their paychecks, and every month, to honor an “exemplary” employee with the “Gold Door Award,” which comes with a gold pin and a gift certificate to a local restaurant.

Most recently, Van Deusen's best lead carpenter moved to Illinois. He gave plenty of notice, and what could have been a bitter loss turned positive when Van Deusen helped him get a good job with a remodeler colleague in the area. Not long after, his supportive gesture came back around when another colleague sent him a departing lead carpenter who wanted to be closer to Bel Air.

“In the meantime,” Van Deusen says, “I'll bask in the land of pleasant living, saying ‘please' and ‘thank you' and doing things for folks that they enjoy receiving and I enjoy giving.” No, he acknowledges, “it isn't always glowy and happy, but I seem to end up on the receiving end more than I expected.”

Van Deusen's experience shows that there is hope for every remodeler. We all want exceptional performance, but there are benefits to setting your sights a little lower. You won't constantly be disappointed, for instance. And you might be amazed by how good your people really can be. — Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage Inc. in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5620;;