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Do Contractors Prefer Educated Customers?

Over the years, I've had many homeowners read my books and then write to tell me they knew more about their system than the contractors that came to their house. This was particularly true when it came to steam heating. A contractor would show up at someone’s house to give an estimate on a boiler replacement. The contractor wouldn’t bother measuring the EDR of the radiators. Nope, he’d just look at the nameplate on the old boiler and then quote on a replacement boiler that was bigger. “It never hurts to have a little bit extra,” he’d tell the homeowner.

In many cases, the homeowner owned a copy of my book, We Got Steam Heat, which I wrote for homeowners. I explained in that book that the only way to properly size a steam boiler is to match it’s ability to produce steam with the radiation’s ability to condense steam.

The homeowner, who had studied that book, realized that the contractor was a knucklehead. He smiled, accepted the free estimate and then called another contractor. We call that Hydronic Speed Dating.

I know a very successful contractor who buys We Got Steam Heat in quantity because every time he looks at a steam-boiler replacement, he gives the prospective customer a copy of that book. “Look,” he’ll say. “This is a big decision and I know you’re going to call other contractors for competitive bids. Please read this book before you call them and then watch what they do when they get here.”

My friend gets every one of those jobs. Why? Because he educated his customers.

I’ve been thinking about that lately. I wondered which was a better customer - those who knew something about their heating system, or those who only knew how to turn on the thermostat. So I asked for thoughts on The Wall at The contractors who post there come from far and wide, and there are also many people who are not contractors posting. What they all had to say was revealing.

“I feel like I’m more likely to get the job with the educated customer,” one guy told me. “But I would also say it depends on how they handle their knowledge,” he continued. “If someone wants to micro-manage every part of the installation that’s going to be a tough situation for me.”

Another contractor said, “I would rather have the educated customer, but some of them fight you every step of the way. Most of my customers are facility directors or engineers and they can be challenging, but most of them eventually come around.”

Not everyone I spoke to agreed with this. One contractor said, “I much prefer dumb customers. With the dumb ones I can do as I want without any meddling from them.”

And then there was this opinion: “I don't like customers, educated or not. They invariably make my job harder. The rocket surgeons are the ones I dislike the most, though. But that’s why I make no effort to climb the corporate ladder. I don't have to worry about keeping customers, just getting the job done.”

I gave that some thought and then wondered if he was helping his company lose customers. Hmm.

“I far prefer the educated customer,” a contractor in California said. “By taking time to educate themselves, it demonstrates that they care. They always have questions for me and I usually have answers, not guesses or opinions. These clients wind up being enthusiastic supporters and they refer me to their neighbors. I like it when they hang around while I do my work, because then they get to see what goes into doing a good job. Also, it's only the people who pay no attention that have ever argued about paying my bill.”

A retired contractor said, “Engineers are the worst customers. They already think they know more about stuff than I do because they went to college. And they are so exacting. No screw left unturned. I had two that I put up with for more than 10 years. They finally came to understand that I have experience they don’t have. I solve their problems. When they accepted that they just left me alone. I got it to work the way it’s supposed to work. Sometimes, the 20 minutes I spent discussing with those two what I had done after the service call was finished was actually fun.

“Otherwise, with anyone else, an educated customer is always better. When I was in residential HVAC equipment sales, I spent more time educating customers and answering questions. I was able to close more installation deals for those companies. The installers had to deal with the new knowledge the customer had. I heard about it more than once. from some of the guys. They could not cut corners as easily on my customers than they could with the other salesmen's customers.”

There are so many ways to look at this question. Educated or uneducated? Which favors the contractor?

As with so many things in life, the answer is, It depends. Listen:

“This can go both ways, in my opinion. I can certainly appreciate a customer who does their due diligence and gets a handle on what they might need prior to inquiring, or who will ask light questions (What’s the reason for this?). Someone who wants to understand what they're spending their money on will always get my respect. At the same time, I also appreciate someone who admits upfront that they have no idea what they're talking about and trusts me enough to just let me do my thing.

“What I absolutely cannot stand, however, is someone who second-guesses everything I say. Whether it's an engineer or someone who quotes their Radiantec estimate verbatim, as if they know everything about it and I'm just a stooge they had to hire because they didn't have time to do it themselves.

“Or they will say they need a 199,000-Btu boiler for their 600 square-foot garage because (insert online store or calculator here) said so, and then they insult me when I tell them that their information is incorrect. These are the same people who stand over my shoulder the entire time and offer things like, ‘Back when I was a plumber for a week in 1992, we would do it this way.”

“But don’t get me wrong. I don't mind people watching. It just bothers me when they want to talk all day. I have trouble concentrating on two things at once, and it ultimately takes me twice as long to do the job when they’re jabbering away.”

Give yourself some quiet time to think about all of this. How you react to people, especially right at the start, can make or break your business. And recall what the man said earlier in this story:, “I don't like customers, educated or not. They invariably make my job harder.”

But try doing business without them.

Let’s end with this:

“I understand the comments from those in the trades about engineers who seem to know it all but can't really do anything right. They do exist, and unfortunately, they probably fail into roles that put them into contact more often with more tradespeople than ‘good’ engineers, who sound a lot like the ones some posters have enjoyed working with, and who I routinely work with to design and bring to market very complex products. Good engineers exist, and they are in the majority, or else you wouldn't have working computers, mobile phones, televisions, pumps, hvac systems, etc. And please don't universally blame them for reliability issues - more likely cost considerations are imposed on them that cheapen the product.

“My father's father was a carpenter, my father was a civil engineer who had a successful career in project management at a very large construction company, and we built many houses together. The rants I heard from my dad about architects sound pretty much the same that I hear from tradespeople about some engineers. I've heard architects complain about civil engineers as well. There is usually some truth from both sides - I won't try to tell anyone where the line is drawn.

“I've enjoyed working with people on this site, most of whom have provided very valuable advice to me when I was designing a radiant heating system (which works very well, thanks to the guidance and feedback received here). In designing that system, there were plenty of contractors and tradespeople who just said, ‘That won't work. You’re going to need a lot more than blank’, etc. etc. - opinions but not useful advice. It is mostly the reason I designed it myself and installed it myself.

“When I work with tradespeople, I seek their advice and opinions, and I ask them a few questions that I know the answers to. If the answers don't line up, I move on to the next contractor, or (more often), they move on from me. I rarely seek bids - I find someone who does the work right, keeps up-to-date, and doesn't cut corners. Then, they just get my business and I trust them to charge me a fair price (they always do). I don't profess to know it all, but I expect them to know as much as I have learned prior to undertaking the project.”

So there you have it. Choose wisely.


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