Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. If you do not, you can lose a sale. That's just one of the lessons I learned after reading the diary of a customer. OK, it wasn't actually a diary. Rather, they were e-mails sent to me from a friend. Let me explain.

A friend contacted me recently, asking for some advice regarding central air conditioning. The heat was getting to him, so he wanted to put in central air in his house. He wanted to know the best brand, best contractor in his area, and everything in between. Rather than give him a straight answer, I passed along some possibilities, asked him to do his homework by examining some Websites, and then gave him the name of a few contractors in his area that he could look into.

The bottom line was to hire a professional contractor, someone who treated him right.

Before signing off, I asked him to keep me posted as to his progress. In the end, he sent me some interesting e-mails containing messages we can all learn from.


"Now, going into this, I promised I would talk to at least three to four contractors before I committed," wrote my friend. "The first one [name withheld, for obvious reasons] was pretty disappointing. They were/are the largest of the outfits I contacted, and they not only showed up late, but then gave me a quote that would prove to be a good $1,000 over what the other guys were quoting me."

My friend had taken an afternoon off from work to meet with this contractor. He was supposed to be at his house at 1 p.m., but by 1:30 p.m. he decided to mow his lawn.

"They called around 2 p.m. and wondered if I was around!" wrote my friend. "I said, ‘What happened to 1 p.m.' He apologized, saying it must've been some misunderstanding, etc. I told him to come on through, but I had another guy coming at 3 p.m.

"He was very thorough, and talked a great game, but I was still pretty [expletive deleted] he didn't come when he said he would, though, so he already had a pretty big strike against him!"

Lesson 1: Be on time. Most customers hate tardiness, especially if they have to take off of work to meet with you. This sounds so basic, but it apparently needs to be repeated. You dislike it when an employee reports to work late, right? A customer is not different. In the above case, the contractor had already lost the customer by being seriously late. A quick, courteous phone call at or near the 1 p.m. mark could have prevented disaster.


"The second one [name withheld, for obvious reasons] had left me a voicemail around 1:30 that afternoon while doing lawn work," wrote my friend.

"I was expecting them at 3 p.m., but by the time I left him a return voicemail saying I was still around, etc. - his voicemail message was so garbled it took me four tries to get his phone number correct! - I never did hear back from them. And that was like two to three weeks ago.

"I wasn't going to pursue them. If they don't want my money, I'm not going to throw it at them!"

Lesson 2: If late for an appointment, leave coherent messages. If you are having trouble with your cell phone, find a land line, if necessary. By all means, if you have to leave a voicemail message, make sure your recipient has your phone number to call you back. If you don't, your customer may be as frustrated as my friend.


"The third contractor [name withheld, for obvious reasons] came through one late afternoon a week or so ago - after 5 p.m., even. He was very direct and to-the-point with me, and I honestly just felt a good rapport with him. He came in and talked to my cats, etc. He shared some stories about his basement, and then we discussed permits, legalities, etc.

"He was very conscientious of costs, and even when I told him I wanted to go straight for the 13 SEER, he quoted me a 10 SEER, and then included the others just as examples to show the price jumps. (These pretty much jived with what the first contractor had provided - going from a 10 to a 13 SEER was approximately a $700 difference.)"

Lesson 3: Take time with your customer. If you act in a hurry, your customer will not be receptive. Again, this sounds so basic, but is it being done out there?


"The final contractor kept their appointment I had set some two weeks in advance. And this was in the middle of their busy season. Their rep was on time and was very courteous, answering all my questions, and again, laying out details on price jumps and installation nuances.

"In all honesty, he was pretty much right in line with the winning bid, but when I asked him for a window, he said it would be a few weeks, whereas the winning contractor said they would get me in ‘early the next week.'"

My friend added, "Contractors No. 3 and No. 4 were honestly neck-and-neck, the closest thing to true ‘apples vs. apples' comparison in terms of warranty and total job cost. Very similar details. Contractor No. 3 just made it a point to schedule me as early as they could, and since I'm dropping nearly $3,000, it is important that I be a little catered to."

Lesson 4: Ask questions. If you know your customer is gathering information - and my friend made it known that he was - find out all that the customer seeks. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that Contractor No. 4 did not even ask when my friend wanted his system installed. If you ask, you will know. In this case, Contractor No. 4 was close, but not close enough.

Mark Skaer is senior editor. He can be reached at 618-239-0288 or

Publication date: 06/26/2006