We’re all busy these days. All the studies show that Americans are working harder and longer than we ever have before. Unfortunately, this extra work has left us tired and drained, without a whole lot of time left for common courtesy.

Courtesy is lost on the highways, where we routinely cut people off without thinking about it. Courtesy is lost in the home, where many children neglect to say “please” or “thank you.” Courtesy is even lost in the supermarket, as we glare at those ahead of us who may have 12 items in the 10-item checkout line.

What we seem to be forgetting is that courtesy is extremely important in keeping a business running smoothly. Does it really take that much extra time to ask your employees if they had a good weekend? Will it kill you to seem interested in your coworker’s child’s Little League game? Is your day so busy that you can’t find time to return a phone call to a potential customer?

If you’re a contractor, you can’t afford to answer “yes” to any of these questions — especially the last one.

Doesn't take much

Let’s be honest — there are always going to be people we don’t want to talk to. These people call at the most inopportune times, ask too many questions, and in general, take up too much time.

I admit, there are some people I’d just rather not talk to, but I would never consider not returning a phone call, e-mail, or fax. The person I blow off today may be the person whose help I need next week.

If you’re a contractor, the person whose call you don’t return today could be the customer who’s preparing to drop $10,000 for a new hvac system. That customer could also have five or six neighbors in the same poorly built but still expensive subdivision who are looking to replace their systems soon.

If you think you’re feeling harried and stressed in your normal day-to-day routine, think how your potential customers feel when they’re waiting for you to return their calls. In addition to feeling harried and stressed, they’re mad.

I speak from experience, both personally and professionally. Personally, I was in the process of looking for a whole-house humidification system several years ago, and I left messages for numerous contractors who never bothered to return my calls. (Actually, I have to amend that: I left messages for contractors who actually had answering machines. I couldn’t believe how many contractors had no messaging system whatsoever.)

Anyway, no one could help me with my humidification problems. In fact, one contractor I called was in the office but wouldn’t speak with me. He only relayed information through his receptionist/office manager/guardian of the phone. She informed me bluntly, “He says to tell you that he doesn’t do that kind of work.” I was floored.

While I finally gave up on resolving my humidification issue, several years later I ended up replacing my heat pump to the tune of $4,700. Did I call any of those contractors who blew me off? Not on your life. And I didn’t recommend them to my neighbors, who were also having problems with their poorly installed heat pumps.

On the professional side, I spend my days trying to hunt down contractors who will spare me a moment to discuss hvacr issues. Case in point was a recent article I was trying to prepare on difficult service calls. I contacted no less than 30 contractors, all of whom had websites that asked for feedback and also gave contact information. But do you know how many actually responded? Not one. I never received one phone call, e-mail, or fax.

I wonder how many of these contractors also ignore customer requests made through their websites.

The artful dodge

OK, so it’s decided that everyone will return every legitimate phone call they receive. (Yeah, right.) Let’s move on to phone etiquette.

The goal should be to return a phone call the same day you receive it, if at all possible. If you can’t speak at length, just tell the other person that fact. Start by saying, “Hello, Mrs. Jones. I wanted to let you know that I received your message, but I’m extremely busy at the moment. Would it be possible to call you back tomorrow at 9 a.m.?” Then, by all means, keep the appointment.

If you’re too chicken to say those words directly, and you just can’t bear the thought of speaking to the person, consider doing what I sometimes do (but shouldn’t be admitting that I do): Return the call when the person isn’t likely to be there. Of course, this only applies to those situations in which you can satisfactorily answer a question on the person’s voice mail. If it’s an emergency or you actually need to speak to the person, this is not acceptable.

And let’s not forget other forms of communication. E-mail and faxes are a great way to relay information. They allow you to effectively answer questions, while letting the other person know that you’re alive and responding to their concerns.

If you are honestly too busy to handle any more work, then call the customer and relate that fact: “Mrs. Jones, I appreciate your call, and I’d love to be able to help you out right now. Unfortunately, I have a serious backlog and won’t be able to attend to your problems right away. Can I suggest another reputable contractor who could do a great job for you?” Even though you’re not profiting directly from this interaction, you’re being considerate. And the customer will remember that.

Or, if you’re too busy to speak with that editor who’s been hounding you for a quote, a simple e-mail will do. You can say, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m too busy to help you right now.” Or leave a voice mail message at lunchtime; it’s almost guaranteed that most editors follow their stomachs out of the office.

Being polite and courteous goes a long way. At a recent contractor seminar I attended, one participant said that a customer awarded him a job because he was considerate enough to take off his shoes at the front door — just one of those very nice touches that doesn’t go unnoticed.