With new home construction at a standstill, many building contractors are sitting on their hands wondering how they will survive the coming rough times. Some realize they will have to “reinvent” themselves to keep their heads above water, at least until the federal stimulus package kicks in and there’s government “infrastructure repair” work to be done.
Here are some tips:
No job is too small. A couple of years ago, you couldn’t get a contractor to do a small job for love or money, unless you were married to him. In tough times, people will still pay to have little jobs done, especially if they’re messy, difficult or dangerous. Let the world know you will do them for a fair price.
Go beyond “contractor hours.” Be prepared to work evenings and weekends — that’s when your customers are home, the washing machine breaks down, and they realize for the first time that the bathtub faucet in the upstairs bathroom they never use has been leaking for weeks.
Say “yes” to everything. This is not a time for specialists. If it’s a leaky faucet or a clogged carburetor on a snowblower, fix it. If it’s a retaining wall that’s falling down, cement it. If it’s a squirrel in someone’s attic, relocate or — ahem — terminate it with extreme prejudice.
Bill promptly. The longer it takes you to bill your customers, the more trouble you will have collecting. Always give the customer your bill as soon as the job’s done and try not to leave the job site without having the customer’s check in your hands.
Watch the little details. People are fussy about the people they invite into their homes, even if they’re terrible housekeepers. Take your shoes off when you walk in the door without being asked to. Wear clean clothing that doesn’t show off your anatomy when you bend over. Shave every day. Do not smoke when on the job. Watch your language. Say “please” and “thank you.” Do not call the customer by their first names unless they invite you to do that. Don’t mispronounce their names — call them “sir” or “madam,” or ask them to pronounce it correctly. Most importantly, clean up after yourself. Even if you do a great job, if you leave the customer with a mess to clean up afterward, that’s the only thing they will remember about you.
Ask for referrals. Forget about sending postcards to every address in town. That’s a waste of time and money because nobody looks at them. When I’m looking for a good handyperson, I always ask my colleagues or neighbors to recommend one. If a customer seems satisfied with your work, ask them to refer you to everyone they know. Leave them with lots of your business cards and try to make them feel a little sorry for you so they go out of their way to help.
Become a home-repair expert. There will always be do-it-yourselfers in your community who will want to at least try to do home-repair jobs themselves before hiring someone like you. Rather than ignore them, make an effort to get them on your side. Teach classes at the local community college on “How to Fix Things Around the House” (better yet, “Basic Home Repairs Any Woman Can Do,” if your wife will permit you to do it). Volunteer to teach home-improvement courses at your local Lowe’s or Home Depot outlets, where you use the store’s merchandise to show people how to fix things. Host a home-repair show on your local public access cable TV station.
You may ask, “Why should I spend time training my competition?” Because, as cynical as it may sound, more than 90 percent of these people will never follow through on the advice you give them. Once your students see that these jobs are too big, too complicated, too dangerous or too messy to do themselves, they will hire you to do it for them, since you’re now the only “home-improvement expert” they know.
One last tip. When the economy finally does improve and there are once again construction jobs to be done, please don’t forget the people who helped you and your family through the difficult times. Make a promise that you will continue to be available to these people when they need you, even if they never ask you to build an addition, expand a family room or convert a four-room Cape into a center-hall colonial.