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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Making some distinctions about our pricing understood

This post is admittedly long, therefore depending on your appetite for reading such ramblings, you may choose to glance it over or decide not to be bothered all together. If you feel that by now you do have a vested interest in better understanding why my price is what it is, how much consideration I have put into the matter, and what my mechanism is for arriving at a valuation for my services, then it’s all there for the reading, should you be willing to drudge through the whole thing. Otherwise, the mere fact of having written it has been a useful exercise in thought clarification for yours truly.

In the last post, I’ve explained the raison d’être of my company: producing masonry restoration work that is considered art in its own right, above and beyond its structural integrity properties.

Furthermore, I’ve been working assiduously since the onset of my business on honing my work ethic. My goal has always been for the client, to not only be satisfied, but to become elated. This requires a multi-faceted approach to customer satisfaction; every single step of the company-client interaction has to pass muster. In order words, someone embracing this level of commitment can’t be late to start a project like (sadly) most contractors often are. The work has to be delivered on time and on budget. It requires consistently showing up and working with dedication day after day from start to finish, thus demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt to the client that their project is currently the most important thing on the contractor’s mind. The property has to be kept maniacally clean throughout the project to an awe-inspiring level. The communication skills have to be above average, first class even. One has to be receptive and responsive to the client's or neighbours’ needs, and more.

I’ve personally turned this strategy into a soft asset over time that I’ve been polishing to a shine. I’ve quite often heard it said by our clients that we are the only contractor with whom there wasn’t even a single glitch. [If I find myself getting "rusty" in some spots -- if you will indulge me for one metaphor --  I tend to deeply self-reflect about the situation and seek to get to the root cause of the matter so as to course correct.]

But, when we started Invisible Tuckpointing back in 2001, our prices were below the median rate that well-established companies were charging during that era, eventually leading to my complete unhappiness, getting home from work between 9:00 and 11:00 pm nearly every night, and yet not earning an adequate compensation for my efforts.

In summer 2002, I had raised our prices to be within the median range, but by 2005, I was getting sick of it and ready to go back to roofing, and my wife and business partner partner — Sandy — was ready to return to being an esthetician in a nail salon. There just wasn’t enough “cheddar” for us to be motivated to continue to undergo the constant pressure of making sure we were always on time for the next job all the while matching the bricks and mortar to the existing masonry to a level that could be classified as full blown OCD — this, in addition to staying an extra hour (or two!) every single workday just to make sure that the site was being kept (ridiculously) clean.

The fact is we couldn't help ourselves: we wouldn’t have it any other way as we had become addicted to the joy of witnessing our customers get progressively elated, and at times, even “losing it” a little because they were so damn delighted. But we had become tired of the business in general, our happiness level was on a downtrend, and we were strongly contemplating getting out and doing something "less intense".

Perhaps it should be attributed to luck, random timing or “destiny” that the next few (highly) interested prospects (I recall there being three) took it so negatively that we were quitting. They no less demanded that we be doing, at a minimum, their project before “checking out”. Simply put, they couldn't care less about our drama: we had to do their work — only then would they “set us free”. If my account of the events sounds a little exaggerated, it could be closer to what really took place than you think. I remember pacing back and forth after one such conversation, disturbed and conflicted about what to do. The solution came to me over the following few days: we would charge what we really wanted to, so as to feel stoked about the prospect of giving it our 110 % — perhaps so much that nobody in the right mind would want to hire us ever again. “Problem solved”, I thought, except that we got crazy busy from that point on. The new price pushed away those who were not interested in what we best had to offer, but it apparently made much more sense to those who valued it. I remember going out to do sales calls on Saturdays in Spring 2007 and, for several weeks on end, coming back with 40k to 50k in sales every time. And with wanting to keep the team to 2 or 3 of us so as to not dilute the experience, the wait time for customers became customarily extended.

I’ve since been gradually inching up our prices to what they are today, always with the balancing act in mind of trying to ascertain what our unique offering is worth, to us on the one hand, and to the type of clients we best cater to on the other.

Our current pricing structure has had a forcing function on me of having to assume the extra responsibility of ensuring we only focus on prospective clients who definitely want our skill set. I constantly ask myself, “Does it make sense for us to do this job?” “Is it in the best interest of the client, or would it be just a sale to line my pockets with?”

For example, let us assume that a house had previously been repaired in many places with visibly unappealing grout; and now the owner wanted to repair a portion of newly deteriorating brickwork, only to leave the ugly grout intact for budgetary reasons; then I believe I should pass on that job. I could best be helpful at this point by referring other companies who are self-admittedly more suited to the task…that is unless the owners were planning to address the grout in the next year or so; which however, is most always never the case.

If, on the other end, I can bring a building back to its former glory — since the skill set is more than just rare — then I feel I should be the one to do the work, and I would do it without any qualms whatever about my price, provided the customer concurs and wants the result more than hanging onto the cash, if I can speak candidly.

There are clients who contact me to have work done for whom my price doesn’t even raise an eyebrow and who are happy to proceed, and even grateful that I can and am willing to do the work and have not yet, for example, gone into early retirement. Those are the people I'm meant to work for, I believe.
There are also those who try desperately not to hire me, but after having researched their options, come to the conclusion that they do need to enlist our services, based on the sheer fact that they are a stickler for a highly harmonious result. With these individuals, I always try to do a reality check and explain that the last thing I want is a situation in which, at the end of the project, I’m told that the work is great but the price too high. I further explain, that although I would otherwise be more than happy to do their project, should this in fact be their sentiment, I wouldn’t want to proceed since their feeling would indicate to me that they are prioritizing price over outcome; and while there may be nothing wrong with that, it would mean that I am not a good fit for them; and as such, they should stick to their guns and try and find another company that will be more aligned with want they truly want: an acceptable job at a much lesser price.

And at times, there are those who unfortunately have not done enough homework / due diligence and decide to hire me nonetheless not knowing fully what's involved; or one of the partners badly wants our services while the other resents the price. These last two customer profiles are the most hazardous to me as they can slip by unnoticed: it appears I’m working for my target audience, but I’m in fact not.

I’ve had one fall through the cracks this past week that was a combination of the two, which is what has prompted me to write his post.

Before getting to the details of the latter, I’ll add that by July 1st, we had done only three projects up to that point this year. I had initially refused to do two of them, having had doubts that we were the right fit for these clients; however, the owners of both residences did insist that they only wanted to be dealing with Invisible Tuckpointing. They convinced me and so we performed restoration work for them. Jubilance abounded for all three households in the end.

Then, having lumped a few smaller projects in July for which I nonetheless felt we were a good match, we did one such job the week before last, and the clients — husband and wife — were both effusively thankful for the result; while Sandy and I were ecstatic for having meet them and for having had the opportunity to apply our creativity to their home with an outcome that was highly pleasing to the both of us as well. There was no price tension whatsoever. With all the work mentioned thus far in this post, I can imagine how someone could either be horrified as to how much we charge per hour per person, or be fine with it because the result cannot be had otherwise and speaks for itself — all depending on what is most valued.

Then came last week’s job, a very lovely family — all of them, down to the dog. It started last summer when I showed up to provide the wife an estimate for repointing the front of their house. Actually, I immediately said I’d pass and was ready to leave, when she gave me an incredulous look and, of course, asked me why.

I explained that the brick needed to be cleaned and offered my opinion that, as my price is definitely not cheap, it would be a waste of her and her husband’s resources to go ahead and repoint the brick as it was. She exclaimed that the brick had just been cleaned. I replied that it was a poor job then, and I still felt the same way. She asked what she should do. I suggested getting someone who knew how to clean bricks and, upon request, provided her with the name of a respected acquaintance of mine in the field. She asked what my price would be. I told her. I explained what my scope of work would be if I were to do the project. Meanwhile, her husband had showed up and the three of us talked for some time longer before I finally left. I was pretty sure I would never hear from them again.

Lo and behold, I got a call from her in October 2018. She had had the individual I had recommended clean the brick for her and thanked me profusely for having made the suggestion; and she wished to go ahead with the work and wanted it done no later than by March 2019. I replied that I was booked until July or August, and couldn’t change the lineup, at least until the end of June. After a moment of silence and expressing her clear disappointment, she agreed that she would wait and mentioned that July would be better than August. In the days that followed, I checked out the property and agreed that he bricks had been cleaned beautifully. I made a couple phone calls and was able to book her around mid-July. I called back to confirm and her husband signed the contract. I had assumed, based on the above-mentioned events, that they were by now in the first bucket of client types I mentioned earlier.
Last Monday, I finally arrived and was greeted warmly by the wife who was at home that day. Theirs was a tricky job in terms of colour match, which required all of our prior experience to successfully pull off, and which I believe we did. But it wasn’t a time consuming job, as many all-too-often are. I had sold it as “1 unit” — my own methodology for selling work that IMO works better than any other method, such as pricing by the foot, by the brick, etc. One unit can range from 4 light days to 5 long days, although I’m always clear that I do not sell time, but a result. Anyway, I had seen her on Thursday afternoon and she had liked the outcome, calling it “seamless”. I mentioned we were essentially done, although we had to come back on Friday morning to do some final tweaks and to clean up the porch floor and window sills with soap and water and pick up our equipment. We made an appointment then to meet at 2:45 on the Friday so she would pay us.

The following day, as she came out with her checkbook, she mentioned that her husband felt they were overpaying, and as the work had taken less time than they had thought it would / should, she was asking for a 10 % discount — not unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination, and she was kindly asking, but definitely not what I had bargained for.

I must admit, I never get upset with customers -- not even the only one who has ever screwed me -- but I did initially get angry. I felt it was unfair to re-negotiate after the job was complete; and so beautifully done to boot. My personal contention was I had never twisted their arm. She had insisted we be doing their work; and as long as the result was as artful as all our other work is, we deserved to get paid what had been agreed beforehand..

She remained remarkably composed and polite, but kept shaking her head slowly while looking at me as though she really needed this concession. I offered to charge her nothing -- not a penny -- as long as she’d let me take out all the mortar joints that we had put in so she could find someone cheaper to fill them back in (good luck on getting it matched, however). She didn’t want that. I pointed out toward the second neighbour’s house where some unsettling pitch black repointing had been performed and contrasted sharply with the original mortar. I asked her whether she would honestly have preferred to pay someone else half my price to get that result. She said would not have wanted that. She mentioned that what happened was they had no idea about what was involved about this type of work and, although they were perfectly happy with the work, they simply felt it had not taken enough hours for the money charged.
So, having learned better about keeping harmonious relationships with clients than to make a big fuss about something, I calmed down and told her I accepted her offer in order to take my share of responsibility for how she and her husband felt about my pricing, and for not having seen this train coming. I was still less than pleased about the situation, but I went along with it. She wrote the cheque, thanked me profusely for having obliged her and we talked some more, rather cheerfully actually. It was during that last bit that it dawned on me what had really happened, and I put forth to her that perhaps she had been the one to insist on getting the work done while her husband had not really wanted to go ahead, and now maybe — just maybe, she had put herself between a rock and a hard place, having to pay heed to her husband’s sentiments that surfaced when our price-to-hours ratio became evident. She replied that I had nailed the dynamic "on the head". Knowing this made me feel okay about having to part with the 10%, but I'm resolved to make sure it never happens again.
I often tell prospective clients that essentially the only “downfall” with me is the price, (which usually yields a laugh or two). I then clarify my statement by promptly adding that nothing else will go wrong.

You do get what you pay for” is often an accurate statement....

I will also say that my price may seem high, but only compared to the companies I find myself in competition with in the residential market. I don't think personally it is high at all. In fact, the very premise of this blog is that it aims to suggest to residential home owners that they can avail themselves of institutional, historical landmark level, heritage work at a reasonable price, hence this blog's subtitle, "A refreshing perspective for residential owners of historic brick / stone homes -- when you're the one footing the bill, not the government." Go to the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals' website and locate the firms who have worked on Old City Hall, the Ontario Legislative Building, Casa Loma and Parliament Hill, amongst others, and ask for an estimate! That would certainly offer another way to look at things.  

Everything is relative and keep in mind, I live in a world in which clients will gladly spend $40,000 on a trendy fridge and a fancy French oven, but would consider it heresy to spend that much on the exterior of their home, save for windows and landscaping. That is just the sad reality of it, I'm afraid.

In this same world WSIB, since 2013, wants up to $10,000 yearly to insure small masonry business owners on a compulsory basis, whereas in the past, only one’s employees had to be covered through them; and a $175 monthly independent insurance policy would be all that was required for the principals of the company. And we all know what the implications of income tax are.
In short, in addition to be performing the work myself with my business and life partner, I also have developed an intellectual property related to our work which I do license to others outside of Central Ontario, and which I feel I deserve to get paid for, whether I'm doing the work myself, or someone else is "upping their game" by using my system. I’m also a musician and science-fiction writer, but I don’t realistically expect to ever get remunerated for those endeavors. The masonry work is a creativity outlet I very much enjoy, but it is also the one I can and do monetize.
If you value the work we do and want to avail yourself of it, I ask that you please make absolutely sure that you are comfortable with the price we command, and focus solely as your yardstick on whether we succeed in blowing you way with the result.
And we shall give you our 110%.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Harmony versus dissonance

I entered the masonry industry while I was still the owner of a roofing company. I couldn’t believe how ugly the majority of repointing projects getting done around Toronto at the time were.
At times, the work wasn’t too badly done, but the repair was still “visible”.
I made an effort from the onset to produce nicer-looking work than most of what I was observing being done.
I heard it being said one day that a percentage of customers wished that tuckpointing work could somehow be blended so well that it would in fact become “invisible”. That set off a light bulb to ignite in my head and I knew right then and there that I could be the one who would figure it out. That took some doing, obviously, but I got there and so Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd. became the one company that could and can be counted upon to deliver a real match every single time.
Promising that the replacement mortar would match the original to the point of customer elation was most always adding pressure to my life, but it kept me on my toes and forced me to continually challenge myself.
Came a point, though, when the endeavor crossed over into the field of the arts and the objective became to produce a result so harmonious that it could be considered a form of artistic expression, much like a musical composition, a play, a novel, etc. would.
This year so far has been particularly artful. I’ve just finished my third facade restoration of the season and I feel as though I’ve just completed three highly satisfactory (to me) paintings.
I love the creativity element of this line of work.