By Brian Van Bower
I’ve been paying attention to what goes on in this industry for a long time, and I’d have to say that these times are better than any I’ve ever witnessed. And it’s not just me: I talk all the time with people all over the country, and it’s probably not going out on much of a limb to say that most of us are having the best times we’ve ever had.
Everywhere you look, people are pressing as hard as they can to keep up with the demands being placed on them. And it’s true even in the most remote parts of the country: Business is on a roll, and it’s rare to find someone who’ll say it’s flat or slow. There’s little or none of that right now.
True, this is based on my personal conversations and observations, and I suppose there are more formal ways to measure this current trend. In fact, it would be really interesting to look at things like building permits pulled throughout the country – but who has the time for that right now? The bottom line: Coast to coast, Canada to Mexico, it’s boom time!
JUST TOO BUSY
For reasons including the hot economy and a mild winter (among others), we’re being inundated by all these people who have disposable income and are willing to spend some of it on our products. It’s wonderful to enjoy such success, collectively and individually, especially considering the lean times we all experienced just a few short years ago.
New pools, spas, ponds and watershapes of all sorts are going in all over the map, and there’s a tremendous opportunity to make a great deal of money while providing people near and far with the pride and joy that comes from owning a beautiful watershape. All of this prosperity, however, brings real challenges with it – and even a significant dark side.
If you watch closely, it’s plain to see that, along with all the glowing reports of massive business rolling in at every turn, most people in the industry are truly struggling to keep up. In just about every conversation, you hear about project delays, the need to hurry and, above all, a need to get to projects that have been put off for weeks or even months. The fact is that most of us are working as hard and as fast as we can, bringing on additional staff and breaking in new subcontractors – and it’s still impossible to keep up, let alone get ahead of the game.
This raises some serious concerns and, I believe, forces each of us to consider how we’re handling this time of prosperity and what we’re doing to ensure the durability of our success.
Stop and think about what happens when everyone is really busy. Even from customers, I’ve heard it said that there’s an expectation for reduced performance because everyone is stretched so thin. Think about the number of times you’ve heard someone end a sentence with, “but I’m just too busy.” I’ve said it, and I suspect we all have at some point during the past couple months.
What worries me is that when you lower expectations, things that are acceptable to our clients and us in the here and now may not look so great when things cool down later on. I worry that, in struggling to keep up, we may be compromising both the end product and the level of service we’re providing to the customers – and in the process creating a whole set of basically dissatisfied buyers.
Not to wish bad times upon anyone or to foretell the end of a great roll, but it is reasonable to assume that this mild weather will turn and that the economy will cool off as well. I’d love to think we could sustain this high indefinitely, but that’s not realistic. As a result, I think it’s critical that we consider how what we’re doing now will influence the way things go when we really can’t afford to make excuses.
NOT SO FAST
I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about the challenges being too busy throws your way: My guess is that most of you reading this know exactly what I mean all too well. But for the sake of highlighting a few key areas, let’s break things down into some basic categories, starting at the top:
[ ] Response to customer calls: If there’s one thing I really don’t have any patience for anymore, it’s non-response to a phone call. In my own business I do design work for customers who are shopping for contractors, and I’ve heard over and over again from folks who have a drawing in hand and are looking to build a watershape that they can’t get local contractors to return their calls.
I don’t care how busy we are, that’s just plain unacceptable. Even if your call is to say no more than, “I can’t help you right now because I’m just too busy,” you still have an obligation to make that call. We’re talking about basic professional courtesy here, even common civility.
What kind of impression do you leave when you don’t even return the call? Maybe a few will persist and try again or call other contractors, but it doesn’t take too much discouragement here before these frustrated clients might take their disposable income and decide to bestow it on a travel agent or a boat or RV dealer.
It’s tough, but I make it a point to treat customers who call me when I’m swamped as though they were calling at a time when I had to cherish, covet and pursue every single sales lead that came my way.
[ ] Divided attention: Going one step down the line in the process, when you’re meeting with a prospective client whose call you’ve returned and are now trying to sell them a watershape, be sure to give that prospect your full attention.
When you’re running a mile a minute, putting in big overtime hours and pressing harder than you ever have before, it’s very easy to get distracted by the other four appointments you have to squeeze in before dinner and lose track of the moment.
We’ve all seen that look on other peoples’ faces – that vacant, not-at-home look – and if we don’t see it, we sense it. Be aware that when you move too fast, you run the risk of giving your customers that blank expression or impression. Believe me, it pays to slow down, focus your attention and take the time to be with your customers when you’re with them.
[ ] The work itself: I’m sure we could all tell horror stories about the challenge of managing projects when everything is behind schedule. We know about delays in getting blueprints from engineers, difficulties in scheduling subcontractors and problems with material availability or slow deliveries. We know that when one thing slows up or falls out of schedule, a whole series of other things are affected. Really, it’s almost too much to consider – the worst kind of headache.
There’s no magic trick that’ll pull you out of a big hole, but it’s a clear indication that you need to step back and take a hard look at your operation. Most of all, it means you need to be realistic about scheduling, which is something I’ll get to shortly.
The one sure thing we can say about all of these “hazards of prosperity” is that if you let them get the upper hand, you won’t really be prosperous at all. Instead, you’ll be tired and stressed out, your staff will be disorganized and dissatisfied and may even become resentful – and, if you’re not careful, you might not even be making any money. That’s right, your costs may be so out of control because of delays that even in these best of times you can go broke or worse.
Even if you have a good handle on most things, the bottom line is that when you over-promise and under-deliver, some bad things are bound to happen; namely, you won’t leave your customers with a good impression. In addition, it may cost you money and enjoyment while robbing you of any sense of satisfaction in your work.
A TIME TO EVERY PURPOSE
Let’s jump back to the positive side of this discussion and talk about steps we all can take to ensure the durability of our prosperity.
For starters, we all need to take the time to think about what we’re doing – and do things more carefully than ever. This means, for example, that no matter how badly your day is going, you need to take the time to return phone calls and pay attention to the people you talk to along the way.
Second and of equal importance, we all must set realistic expectations with our customers. This means taking a hard look at scheduling and putting things off until later if need be – even if that means losing a job or two along the way. Odds are we’re more likely to keep our customers happy by giving them truthful estimations of start dates and completion dates than by telling them what they want to hear. It’s when you tell them one thing and something else happens that things get difficult.
I know of some people who organize their work into “periods.” For example, they may know that they can effectively run 16 jobs over a given period of time, say two or three months. When that time span fills with 16 jobs, then they’ll tell new customers, “We can do it, but it will be after a certain date.” Customers are more likely to understand waiting for a while because you’re busy than they are a constant stream of excuses and rationalizations.
Setting real expectations means, in turn, that you have to be closely in touch with reality with respect to what’s going on in your company. Remember: As you get busy, it’s not difficult to march forward without time for reflection and analysis – but this may be the time when you need them the most. So step back and discover the truth about your own ability to perform. Pull apart your schedules, get real with suppliers about delivery dates and work with your subcontractors in determining when they can realistically get to work.
When you do get a handle on where you are, then act accordingly: Create schedules that mean something and do all you can to stick with them. You’ll find that this will stretch things out some – but that the net result at a minimum will be a significantly lower level of stress.
Finally – and this can be a tough one – learn to say “No.” For my part, I’ve learned to enjoy saying no: There’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with comfortably and politely passing on a project, and I’ve talked to other people who’ve said the same thing.
In fact, there’s a certain confidence and tranquility that comes from being in a position to say no. Beyond that, most customers respect you for being honest – and you may even be pleasantly surprised by how many of them are willing to wait for your services. Declining to do work you’re not capable of handling makes common sense: It’s good business, and it’s completely professional.
It’s one of those clichés that holds up: Necessity really and truly is the mother of invention. And I believe that we all can surprise ourselves how inventive we can become when the pressure is on.
If ever there was a time to be innovative and to try to fine-tune the way we do things, this is it. As you review your situation, look for ways to streamline processes and build efficiency into what you do. Again, improving operations may not be your top priority when there’s so much business at hand, but if you step back and take a long look at how you run things, it’s likely that you’ll be able to identify ways to get things done more quickly and efficiently – without sacrificing quality.
You may also want to consider reviewing your pricing structures, because doing business when things heat up means that materials and equipment may cost more, that subcontractors will want more and that staff may be working overtime and driving up your overhead in ways of which you’re not fully aware. It’s important to be sure that your customers are paying you at a level that provides you with the resources you need to keep up with those diverse demands.
Finally, and most important, it’s critical to remember to take care of yourself and your staff. I know that there are some people who are really impressed by workaholism, whether in themselves or in other people, but it’s really not worth it. When work is long and hard, periods of rest and relaxation are doubly important: Don’t demand so much of yourself and others that you drain all the enjoyment and satisfaction out of the work, and keep an eye on good nutrition, regular exercise and proper rest – especially when you’re “just too busy.”
Sure, it’s great to be successful. I love the good things that money can buy, but that’s not the whole reason that I’m in this business, and I suspect that if money were really all that mattered, lots of us would be doing other things. But we’re here because it’s exciting to deliver great watershapes to our customers and great to make people happy with the work we do.
After all, as much fun as making good money can be, it’s even better to be happy – in the best of times and in all the others in between.