Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

April 2, 2007
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One of my morning routines is a long walk with Moose, my faithful Labrador. Our destination is the park, but we pass through quite a few neighborhoods en route. Along the way, there are always obnoxious dogs barking and making noise for no apparent reason. There’s the yappy schnauzer who’s probably jealous he didn’t grow as tall as Moose; the high-pep pug who probably thinks we’re walking too fast; and the greyhound who probably thinks we’re walking too slowly. I’m sure they all feel they need to make themselves heard. The funny thing is, they often bark so much that their owners end up yelling at them.

There’s always one constant, though - Moose never makes a sound. It’s like he doesn’t even notice all the commotion. He just walks on, focused on his goal of getting to the park. He knows that at the park he’ll be able to play fetch.

In contracting, the same is often true. It’s usually easiest to reach your goals by walking quietly. The following true story illustrates my point. The names have been changed to protect the barkers.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

A contractor, let’s call him James, went out on a job and performed a quality service for the client, an elderly homeowner. He charged more than most companies in the area, as he always did, because he backed his service up with powerful guarantees and offered a value that few in the market could match.

Not long after, the customer found a quote from a low-baller who said he could do it for less. James refused to lower his price because he provided a higher level of service than the low-baller, including the permit that he pulled before performing the work.

The homeowner went to the local news and a reporter contacted the contractor to interview him. James knew he didn’t do anything wrong, so he agreed to the interview. Big mistake. When has the media ever made someone look good? Where is the excitement in that? Nothing sells like dirty laundry.

Even though James was in the right, there is no way the media was going to make him look like anything more than a villain preying on a senior citizen. With some editing magic, that’s exactly how he was portrayed. It wasn’t long before six other people, who also saw the story, called him demanding their money back.

SILENT SAFETY

If you find yourself in a similar situation, you may ask the question, “To speak or not to speak.” To answer this question, think about everyone involved. The customers want their money back and you’re not going to give it back. They’ll most likely slander your company in some way to feel vindicated.

The reporter is looking for a juicy story. Since everyone loves a little dirty laundry, guess what the majority of reporters (other than trade journalists) are looking to report? They’ll paint you through sound bytes and editing into the picture that serves them - the huge, uncaring big business taking advantage of a poor senior citizen. Whereas in reality, you are an honest, struggling contractor trying to support your family.

When James went on to explain why his prices were the way they were, the reasons didn’t matter. The low-baller wasn’t going to pull a permit, and James showed the reporter why permits were necessary and important. He explained his costs and all of his guarantees and training.

None of that was included in the newscast. The only statements that made it on the television were ones that supported the homeowner’s claim. It was a no-win situation for James to get into a barking contest with the reporter and the homeowner. He should have just walked softly and stayed focused on his goal.

CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES

Take care of your clients so that their complaints don’t get on a newscast. If he would have walked softly to begin with, and given the money back to the upset client without any fanfare, James would have saved the embarrassment and the flood of copycat calls. Sometimes giving money back to one upset customer is a good defensive move to avoid giving more money back in the future.

Don’t give homeowners in your market anything negative to remember about your company by agreeing to do the interview. Don’t help them create some dirty laundry.

Remember your big stick? That is your refusal to give the media the dirt they need to make a compelling story. Keeping your comments to yourself, you take away their opportunity to make you look bad with editing tricks. When you are requested to do a newscast interview in response to a complaint, think about Moose. Politely decline and point them in the direction of your attorney.

Just walk softly towards your goal, and concentrate on making money every day.

Publication date: 04/02/2007

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