CWB June 2002

Playing like a Pro

Accountability is everything: Until you are willing to hold yourself accountable to clients, suppliers and employees, you will never be regarded as a true pro.

By Anthony Noel

Lately we've been looking at some societal and business obstacles which prevent woodworkers from being viewed by their customers as true professionals, on a par with other tradespeople or industries.

We began with a discussion of what I call "The Norm Abram Syndrome," i.e., the notion promulgated largely by TV programs aimed at "weekend warriors" that pretty much anybody with a garage and some basic equipment can do professional quality work because it's oh-so-easy to do. Then we looked at three basic keys to projecting a professional image - Punctuality, Vocabulary and Presentation - and how paying attention to these simple, but important, aspects of how we do business can have a big influence on how seriously our customers take us.

This month I would like to continue examining the ways we either obstruct or gain the respect we deserve by taking a close look at another aspect of our businesses - accountability. I believe that it is the extent to which we are willing to accept accountability - and to encourage those we are involved with, be they clients, vendors or employees, to also be accountable for their contributions to the process - that makes the difference between whether our businesses are taken seriously or written off as something less than professional.

I have often discussed the importance of using "performance contracts" for various reasons. For one, a performance contract, like most other types, spells out specifications and payment terms for our protection. But what sets it apart is that it is also "forces" you, the contractor, to be accountable for the timely completion of the job in question.

If you have seen the movie "The Money Pit," you probably already understand why customers love performance contracts. In the film, Tom Hanks and Shelley Long play a young couple that has purchased a sprawling but decrepit mansion. They are faced with the complete renovation of the huge home, and little by little they call in contractors to assist, until finally there is a small army of specialists on site.

The problem, however, is that the job is never done. Every piece of trim removed and each project begun seems to reveal the need for additional - and of course, always structural - work. And each time one of the lead characters asks the project superintendent when a particular phase of the work will be completed, the super doesn't miss a beat and comes right back with his stock reply, "Two weeks!" regardless of how many weeks or months have elapsed since the last time he promised completion in two weeks.

Now I am not advocating that you tie yourself into a hard-and-fast deadline when you find yourself in a similar situation (and I hope that you will never find yourself in a similar situation). Some jobs are so reliant on the progress of work by other trades, or are so complex in nature, that working under a performance contract would be foolhardy at best.

What I am suggesting, though, is that you accept accountability for the timely completion of jobs on which you are confident you will have the control and oversight necessary to meet a solid date, or perhaps even finish the job sooner than you say you will (in case you weren't sure, customers love that).

That said, I will add that a performance contract should always have certain disclaimers and escape hatches to protect you in cases where events beyond your control, from natural disasters to vendor shortages, could preclude you from meeting the timetable the contract stipulates. And even the timetable itself should remain more a target zone than an exact date.

For example, it is usually better to say that a project will be completed "six to eight weeks from the signing of this agreement," than "on June 18 at 11:55 a.m." The keys here are sound judgment and common sense. But however you word it, the point of a performance contract is to give the client some sense that you are willing to maintain accountability and a realistic share of responsibility for the timely completion of the work.

It's that word "realistic" where things can sometimes get dicey. Here, again, is an opportunity to assert your professionalism, by helping your customer see that you can only do so much in driving the project's progress because that progress may well be contingent upon the progress of other work that you have nothing to do with.

It is especially important to keep your radar up for any suggestion, real or implied, that you will be expected to act as a sort of de facto job superintendent, in terms of coordinating the work of any other trades involved. Take steps to make clear that such supervision is not your responsibility, although (if you are so inclined and confident you can handle it professionally) you would be happy to discuss another contract for such services.

I am making a particular point of this because there has been a tremendous increase in recent years of projects where the owner, be it a homeowner or business owner, has opted to act as the project superintendent himself. The problem is, whether he makes that choice due to ego or economics (or the urging of some TV show), it is always the wrong choice.

A homeowner or doctor or accountant is no more qualified to serve as a project superintendent than to act as a test pilot. They invariably figure that out at the exact moment the job achieves critical mass, when three different trades need immediate answers and the search for them turns this poor fool into a tangle of nerves and stammering incoherence. When that happens, guess who pays the price? That's right, you do.

So as important as it is to accept accountability for your work and its timely completion, there is an equal need to discern exactly how the project will be managed. Regardless of how willing you are to be accountable, if the other trades on the job or the people managing the work are not, it will end up costing you money.

We will continue looking at accountability next month.

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