Friday, December 15 , 2017, 2:06 pm | Smoke 75º


Paul Burri: How to Successfully Run a Business in Santa Barbara, Or Anywhere

I understand that there was once a company in Santa Barbara that called itself “The When-the Surf’s Not Up Construction Company.” While I applaud their honesty and their sense of humor, I doubt that they are still in business. (At least I cannot find any mention of them on Google.) But if there ever was such a company, I would not be surprised that they are no longer in business. They have clearly told me that their interests and priorities come before mine. They are not a company I would ever do business with.

My recent experience with local plumbing companies in Goleta and Santa Barbara has been appalling to me. After managing numerous small companies in Los Angeles, Burbank, Goleta and elsewhere, I almost cannot believe how unprofessional my experience with local companies has been. Here’s the story:

We have been having an annoying plumbing problem at our house for several years. One of our toilets has backed up and overflowed on a regular basis — about once every four or five months. Each time we have called our “regular” plumber who has come out and got us going again — at about $250 per visit. This has been going on for about four or five years and never once has this company ever suggested that we think about a “real” fix that would eliminate all those service calls even though it might cost a few thousand dollars. (There could be two reasons for that. One, it never occurred to him to suggest it. Or two, why kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs?)

So after this most recent $200 service call, I finally got tired of the situation and decided to get a quote on a permanent fix. This meant having a new sewer line run from the house to the street.

I called that same “regular” plumber for an estimate. That was my first mistake because when I said, “estimate” I really meant a quotation. To my mind those two terms are pretty much the same. Apparently not here in Santa Barbara where the word “estimate” is construed to mean an approximate number. A quotation on the other hand is a firm, fixed price for a clearly defined job.

So anyway, that’s what I finally got — an approximate price to run a new sewer line — but contingent on them first doing an in-pipe video camera inspection ... at an additional cost of about (get that, about) $200 to $250.

I called a different plumbing company who came out to my house within an hour. They told me they’d have to do a camera inspection before they could quote me. When I asked how much they charged for that, they said, “There’s no charge for that. We can do it within a half-hour when I call my other truck to bring the equipment here.” As promised, they "camera-ed" the line and gave me a quote on the spot. (Interesting that a brand-new company that I had never done business with was able to do the camera work at no charge when my long-time plumber needed to charge me $250.)

The price was quite a bit higher than I had expected so I decided to call a plumber recommended by a friend. A young woman answered the phone and politely told me that her man was out on a job and couldn’t get back to me until the next day. OK, I can understand that. The next day, nothing. The day after that I called her back and she said I’d hear from her man come by later that day. I never did. Five days later, I got a call from the same young woman asking if I still needed someone to come over and look at the job. At that point, I politely explained to her that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I also told her I couldn’t help wondering that if they were so tardy about responding to me before they had the job, how much less responsive would they be if I gave them the job and there were delays or problems while it was in progress.

I then called plumber number four. This time, the man arrived exactly on time and I explained the job to him. The next day he sent me an email telling me that the job would be about $XXXX. I called him back and asked him what he would do if I offered to buy his car for about $7,500. He seemed to get my point but I still haven’t heard back from him with a firm price.

Plumber number five. (I don’t give up easily.) He arrived three-quarters of an hour later than he promised (not something that pleased me) but the next day he sent me a professional quotation, explaining exactly what he would do, exactly what it would cost and how long it would take. His was not the cheapest of the bids but probably the one we will go with. Why? Because this guy showed professionalism and earned my confidence.

What’s the bottom line of all this? If you expect to be a successful business, be professional. Understand that only a dummy would give you a job without knowing exactly how much the job will cost. Bidding a firm, fixed price means that you understand it is a fine line between knowing your costs and that your price must be such that you can make a reasonable profit while also remembering that you must meet or beat the competition.

Here are a few simple rules:

» Be on time for an appointment.
» Do what you say you will do.
» Be responsive to your customer’s needs. Do it at his convenience, not yours.
» Be professional and confident enough in your experience and ability to provide a firm, fixed price for whatever work you propose to do.
» Keep track of your costs and profits on every job so that you sharpen your bidding skills.

P.S. — Since starting to write this column I have learned it is quite common practice in Santa Barbara to do most construction and repair jobs on a time and material (T&M) basis, which means that the contractor charges you for whatever the materials cost plus a labor cost depending on how long the job takes. From the contractor’s point of view that’s a sweet, “can’t lose” situation. From the customer’s point of view it is a bad idea because if the contractor is incompetent, slow or makes mistakes on the job that causes it to take more time, you still have to pay for that.

So as far as I’m concerned I would never contract a job on a T&M basis unless I was in love with the contractor or I owned his company.

P.P.S. — If you are a Santa Barbara contractor and you are having no trouble getting new customers using your old T&M methods, please ignore all of the above. On the other hand, if you think you could like to have more customers than you presently have, you may want to consider some of my suggestions.

— Goleta resident Paul Burri is a writer, columnist, inventor, woodworker, photographer, board member and business consultant. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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