Prefer To Refer

Kudos to you if you readily recommend your lawyer, floor installer, or all-purpose renovator.

Just be aware that if and when the referral goes south, it’s you that might take some of the blame…

Throughout my career as a Realtor, I have given out hundreds of referrals and recommendations to my clients – for mortgage brokers, real estate lawyers, contractors, movers, painters, electricians, carpenters, handymen, and even once for a dog-sitter.

Some of the referrals were good, and some of them blew up in my face.

It often takes years to develop a streamlined, bullet-proof referral network, but in the last year I’ve become very frustrated with some of the people that I recommend or some of the people who I have thought about recommending.

When you recommend somebody – no matter if it’s a baby-sitter, a mechanic, or a great restaurant – you’re expose yourself to blame if the recommendation doesn’t pan out.

Think of the last time you told a friend, “Oh you have GOT to go to the furniture store I bought my couch at!  Ask for Michael.”  Well when ‘Michael’ has an bad-day and doesn’t smile and jump for your friend the way he did for you, your friend will come back and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about – he was a dick.”

When the mover you recommend to your cousin ends up breaking his dining-room table, he’s going to let you know about it!

I have completely stopped recommending any sort of contractor, renovator, or handy-man.  When was the last time your renovation was finished early and for less than the estimate?  In my experience, renovations take twice as long as the time quoted – and often more!

There are only two referrals I give out on a regular basis that have come with 100% client satisfaction, and those are my mortgage broker, Joe Sammut, and my painter, Barry Miller.  These guys are solid as rocks, and I’ve never had a complaint.

The reality is, nobody is perfect.

I’ve had three dissatisfied clients in my career, two of which were my fault, and the third was a client that would truly never be happy.

But I strive to bring the best customer service to the table with every single client, every single time, and I aim to blow my clients’ socks off so that they’ll refer me to all their friends.

The same can’t be said, however, for three people who have been referred to me in the past two month – all three who I was using myself, and who I hoped I would be able to recommend to my clients.

As I said – assembling a roster of excellent referral candidates isn’t easy, and I would only recommend somebody if I had a great experience with them myself.  But I feel as if many of today’s self-employed individuals aren’t trying to build long-term success, but rather look at each job as a single pay-day, and don’t consider how great customer service will bring them more jobs in the future.

A few months back, I needed a cleaning lady to make my new condo listing shine!  She was recommended by a client who said that the cleaning lady cleaned for “ten or twenty” people in her condominium, so I called her up and said, “Do right by me, and I’ll throw a ton of business your way.”  I was in a hurry, and I needed the job done asap, so rather than have her in for a quote, I just said, “Charge me what it’s worth.”  After all, don’t most cleaning ladies charge within a few bucks of each other?

“Sofia” picked up a key that I had left for her at concierge, and when I went by to inspect the condo that night, it was sparkling!  She left me a voicemail and said the job was $150, and while I thought that was a startling amount of money to clean a 600 square foot, 1-bedroom condo, I figured that she made a tremendous effort to get downtown to clean for me with only a half-day’s notice, and I’d stick to my word and pay her the $150.

A week later, I had Sofia clean for two of my clients – a young couple who purchased a house and who were selling both their condos at the same time.  Once again, I told Sofia to go to both condos, pick up the keys at concierge, clean them, and then let me know how much.  I told her, “I’d expect that the price would be similar to before?”  She agreed.

That night, she left me a voicemail and said, “I clean for both the lady and the man – the price is two-hundred.”  I paused, and thought that this was reasonable, but $100 per condo is still a lot if this is going to be a long-term gig.  But then she continued, “…..and two-forty for the other condo.”

I was shocked.  Was she really saying that cleaning two condos was worth $440?

I called Sofia and asked her how the hell she could expect $440 to clean two condos in the same day, when I know for a fact that she left the second condo at 3:00PM.  She rambled on and on, saying, “I clean so hard.  I work work work.  I scrub hard – on my hands and knees!”  I don’t want to sound insensitive, but isn’t that her job?  It’s like a mechanic saying, “I can’t believe I got motor oil on my shirt!”

I told Sofia, “I’ll tell you what – I get 25 listings per year and I’ll have you clean for all of my clients.  I’ll recommend you to dozens of other clients, but you have to charge me a reasonable price – something like $120 per condo.  Or, I’ll pay you the $440, and you will never hear from me again.  I will never recommend you, and you will lose dozens and dozens of potential clients.  The choice is yours.”

No surprise here – she said, “Ummm… you pay me four hundred forty dollars?”  And I did.

Terrible client-retention, terrible business sense, and awful customer service.

When I was renovating my condo earlier this fall, I was told to purchase my kitchen and shower tile from a local store, and I did so.

The lady was extremely helpful, and although the tile was two weeks late, I was still happy with the service to that point.

When the job was finished, I had eight extra boxes of tiles.  I was all set to return them when I got a phone call from the tile-lady, saying, “I accidentally gave you two orders of tile.  You’ll need to return them today, otherwise I’m going to have to charge you an extra $2,100.”

Um, okay.  But isn’t that like a restaurant giving you the large salad instead of the small salad that you actually ordered, and then charging you for the large one because you ate it?

I brought the tiles back, as well as two full bags of grout.  I told her that my tile-installer only used a half of one bag, and that he questioned why she sold me three bags.  She tried to tell me that she “didn’t accept returns” on grout, and then finally she said, “I’m sure I can re-sell it, and I’ll credit you.  I have your number – I’ll give you a call.”

For a business that sells 10-20 bags of grout each day, I have no doubt that she could have resold them.

But instead of pestering her for the $60 for two bags of grout, I simply sat around and waited for the phone to ring.  To me, it was worth “paying” $60 to see if she would hold up her end of the bargain and whether she valued my business, and ultimately whether I could/should/would recommend her.

She never called.  I never got the $60, and I’ll never recommend her.  For a measly $60, she screwed me.  She knew I was in real estate, and I could have recommended her to a ton of clients, but she chose the $60 over potential future business.

It makes no sense to me.  My order was $2,100, and I don’t know what her margin was on that, but she chose an extra $60 over my future referrals.

My last experience is ongoing, and it’s the worst of all.

As I mentioned before – my new condo has a 1200 square foot terrace, and I hired a carpenter to build a raised cedar deck and about sixty linear feet of planter boxes and lattice.  I met with him in July and said, “If I hire you today – right now – can you commit to starting the work on September 30th?  And can you finish it on time?  He agreed, and he took the job.

Today is November 25th, and the work is about 50% complete.

The deck was built in time for the housewarming, but the planter boxes are far from complete.

This carpenter came highly recommended by a colleague, who actually told him, “Johnny – please don’t screw this up!  David is a good friend of mine, and he’ll give you a ton of business – but don’t screw him!”

Well, “Johnny” is a super-nice guy, and his work is fantastic – but that’s only when he works.  I know my job is small, and he’s likely doing $100,000 jobs in Rosedale that are more important, but there are no excuses anymore.  “Being sick with the flu” and “a bunch of my guys quit” were great in October, but as we approach December, it’s obvious that he just doesn’t care.

As I said myself – I’m not perfect.  I’ve had dissatisfied clients.  But I look at each client as the proverbial “client for life,” and aim to build on each successive buyer or seller that I work with.  Last month – I paid $1,000 to settle a dispute over a kitchen appliance, and my seller-client never even knew.  That’s the way I wanted it – she was a great client, and I didn’t want her to be pestered by lawyers.

But so many of today’s self-employed individuals are simply working deal-to-deal.  Carpenters, painters, lawyers, and even Realtors – because they’re no different.  Any time somebody is self-employed in the service industry, they make a conscious decision to either satisfy the client well beyond the transaction, or simply move on.

When you get a referral, just know that the experience your friend or family member had might not represent the exact same service that you’ll receive.

And when you give a referral, you have to know that if the service is poor – it’s coming back to you


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  1. JC says:

    Great post about a subject I’ve had plenty of experience in over the last few years. A good friend recommended a mutual friends brother for AC repair. Disaster. $300 later I still had an AC that didn’t work, a promise to call me by such and such a date with a quote to replace the unit that went unfulfilled, and I filed a BBB complaint against him. Apparently I’m not the first. (He actually called me this year looking for business…. he must screw so many people he can’t remember them all) I was willing to pay for a new unit, and could have referred him to plenty of people…

    Same with other trades. I don’t know how many people I’ve had come to give quotes on doing jobs around the house. I’m willing to pay to have it done. They come… say they’ll get back to me and then I never hear from them again. They know I’m a Realtor and a potential source of referrals. What would possess someone to do things like this? Why show up if you don’t have any intention of doing a quote?

    There’s a large, well known roofing company that springs to mind. Overpriced but everyone said they were worth it. They came out, quoted me and a neighbor a price. A lot for less than an hours work, but we gave the go ahead and and then they no showed TWICE. The second time we called and were told they “didn’t have a ladder” that day. A roofing company without a ladder! I sent a letter to complain – directly to the President… no response.

    I wanted 1 new window. It took me months to find someone that would “bother” replacing one window. Unless I was willing to replace 4 or more… I was persona non-grata. Meanwhile, most of my neighbors are looking to do the same thing… thousands of dollars in potential business that all these companies missed out on.

    I could go on but it’s not just a Toronto thing either. My brother finally got someone after two years of searching to do his roof. No one apparently wanted his money and he’s still trying to get his windows replaced.

  2. lui says:

    I was renewing my business permit down in city hall and this poor old lady was holding a so call “contract” by a renovator she hired.She was trying to get some help from city hall permit and building departments about this scam low life renovator who never completed the job and her house was almost gutted.To make things worst the permits he suppose to have gotten was stolen from another project and stuck on the window.What I heard she gave him almost $25000 for a $40,000 project and he never showed after that.Its heart breaking seeing a person at that stage of her life getting scammed by low lifes of the world.

  3. Moonbeam! says:

    The best way to rationalize getting ripped off by the cleaning lady or other worker is to think of it as charity… a donation to the poor… instead of through the united way…

  4. Paully says:

    I sold cars for a long time and the saying that I lived by was simple:

    “You can shear a sheep for many years, but you can only skin it once!”

    Treating people fairly earned me lots of repeat and referral business.

    On the topic of contractors, my condo has those wide, low “incremental air conditioning units” or PTACs that are common in motels. When the old guy that used to service them died, there were a couple of crappy HVAC contractors that moved in and did really crappy work for too much money.

    After searching for ages, I got a referral to a HVAC contractor that totally surprised me, to the good side. When Eric says that he will be here at 9 am, he is on-time or early – every single time. When he quotes a price on a cleaning or service, the bill is never more. It is so refreshing to find a service-person who actually delivers great service!

    If you ever need an A/C guy for a condo with a PTAC, I would be happy to refer him to you!

  5. Chuck says:

    It’s very admirable of you to talk about the fact that you’ve had the occasional blip on your record.

    The job of finding someone a home and helping someone sell is filled with so many details and so many landmines… it’s refreshing to hear somebody actually say that things didn’t go perfectly.

    But if your heart is in the right place, and you strive towards “awesome” in the clients’ eyes, and put their interests in the spotlight… in the long term, you will always be able to sleep peacefully at night, and you’ve impacted a lot of people in a positive way.

    This is one of my favourite posts, and I’ve been reading for a couple of years now.

  6. WEB says:

    None of your stories surprise me one bit – they all illustrate how people today behave and think. People are short-term minded and feel entitled. Everyone wants and desires the best of everything but no one is willing to offer their best to someone else. The very few who do care about doing a fantastic job but those that do (Steve Jobs for example) end up owning the world (the so-called 1%!)

    My story: I hired someone last year to do some work on my house. I hired the husband of someone at work because I heard good things about him (he did many jobs for people at my work place) and because I figured I could trust him as I had a very good working relationship with his wife. Note that I work in a small office where everyone knows each other quite well.

    Well…it was a complete and utter disaster! I don’t know where to begin! He caused a flood in my neighbours basement, he didn’t get a permit (which caused a 2 week delay), deliveries were made when he wasn’t there (lucky I was at home when the delivery came or it could not have been made) the job took much longer than expected (it took 2.5 months vs. a three week estimate), he lied about showing up on various days, he broke a sprinkler (not that big of a deal but he didn’t admit it), they took 2 hour lunches even though the job was taking much longer than anticipated, he cut corners at the end and one resulted in the entire job being ruined to some extent (months of effort on my part finally resolved the issue), he never fully completed the job and worst of all, he tried to screw my out of $6,000 or $7,000. I ended up basically giving him what he wanted because I didn’t want to be the guy at work who screwed this fellow who for what reasons I’ll never know had a good reputation in the office.

  7. grasshopper says:

    You are correct about contractors failing to meet expectations. However, I think that your criticism of the cleaning lady is unwarranted. You’ve written her voice as someone who either is uneducated or doesn’t have English as a first language so don’t blame her for taking the easy money up front. She has probably been burned before by promises of big payouts in the future not paying off, especially since she has no idea who you are or what kind of reputation you have. In her mind you’re probably the one who is stupid for not setting a price beforehand.

    1. Scott says:

      It doesn’t matter what country you’re from or how much English you speak, $440 for two 1-bedroom cleaning jobs is insane.

      1. I speak fantastic English – so I’m the idiot for paying her what I did.

        I could have screwed her.
        I could have left her $250 – $300 or what is “fair.”

        But in the end, I chose to take the high road, and I paid her $440. I figured that I’d feel worse if I screwed her than if she screwed me…

  8. David says:

    Amen to this post. I find that I don’t really have any referrals for friends when they ask because of the generally low standards out there.

  9. Sporsch says:

    I think Kyle has hit the nail on the head. A friend of mine had a nightmare reno and to compound the ‘injustice’ -the contractor was VERY reluctant to fix his own admittedly shoddy work. Why? Economics. He was paid weeks ago, is not getting any more money but is facing another 2 weeks of unpaid repair work on his job? Meanwhile he’s supposed to turn down paid work? That works if you’re a fairly large company, but not if you have rent due. Its totally unfair but that’s how it goes. The contractor needs a lesson in 1. investing in his business. 2. how referrals work 3. maybe not taking jobs he/she sucks at…

  10. George says:

    I loved this post. Reputation matters so much in business. Also, customers have very long memories. One bad experience can overpower years of good ones.

  11. Appalled@Everything says:

    I’ve used to look for general contractors. I do my homework and read their reviews from previous clients and only call those who have top rating. For them they have a lot to lose if they screw up a job and receive bad review.

    1. Martin Kamil says:

      I ALWAYS use and I have NEVER been disappointed. If the job is somewhat sizeable, I get three trades to bid on the job and pick the best one based on price and my impression of them. By default, I only use ones that come with high ratings. If its a smaller job, I usually ask for quotes on the phone. Never fails!

    2. jeff316 says:

      Agreed on Homestars, although there are a fair amount of contractors with a suspiciously high number of good reviews from users with similar user-names that have only ever reviewed that contractor. Make sure to see if any of the reviewers have posted reviews about other contractors.

  12. Kyle says:

    Excellent post. I’ve similarly found myself feeling lunchbag letdown after dealing with self-employed contractors. I’ve had contractors, who were great the first time around, but when i call them up for repeat business, they end up treating me like “sucker for life” instead of “client for life”.

    I’m totally over-generalizing here, but i get the feeling that this is partially a result of contractors not having a handle of their own personal/business finances. I get the feeling those that work deal to deal also live pay-cheque to pay-cheque and consequently need to maximize the deal in front of them, rather than optimize to get 10 more deals in the future.

  13. Joe Q. says:

    The tile story is most bizarre of all. A store accidentally ships you a double order and then says “return it today or I’ll charge you two grand”? If any supplier tried to pull that on us, they would never get any of our business again.