Customers warm to people who care about them. There is no question that when homeowners call in electricians, what they are looking for is competent work. However, fair treatment is important to consumers; a sense that we care inspires trust.

This column is the first in a series looking at the advantages, and, to some extent, the pitfalls of respectful interaction with customers. It will not address the ethical foundation for this approach to our work, which is significant to me and to many readers, nor the substantial advantages in terms of personal satisfaction. Before talking cases, though, we should establish a solid basis for the claim with which I began, and demonstrate the business justification for showing trustworthiness. There’s scientific research to back those statements up, by reasonable inference.

The first study that applies concerns two groups of professionals who, like residential electricians, demand very personal trust from their customers, and whose skill, like ours, can’t be judged by laypersons except indirectly—by the consequences of their work. An article printed in 2002 in the journal Surgery studied the voice tone—not even words—of primary care physicians and surgeons. It compared professionals who had been sued twice or more for malpractice with those who never had been sued. Those who were lawyer-bait were much more likely to sound bossier or less caring. Lawsuits are as close to a dollars-and-cents a consequence as you could ask for. Sure, these weren’t builders, but would you gamble that the principle does not apply to us?

The second set of evidence is a pair of articles summarizing dozens of body-language studies, excluding voice. These 1992 and 1993 reviews showed that silent videotapes of instructors as brief as six seconds predicted very well how effective they would be with students, and how well they would be liked.

This is only some of the evidence that professionals who look, sound and act as though they genuinely care are better liked and less likely to face lawsuits, and have an easier time getting information across––even persuading people to take difficult steps for their own good.

There is some circularity to trust. When you’re less bossy, less patronizing, customers are more likely to trust your advice and let you go full-steam ahead. Obversely, when you feel as though there is mutual trust, you are comfortable granting them increased choice, for instance offering to take halfway measures out of respect for customer issues such as budget limitations.

This presumes, of course, that you can in good conscience perform a partial job. Different electricians’ judgements differ about how incomplete a job is safe, just as we differ about how much to trust any individual customer.

Consider two drawbacks to doing a reasonably safe but less than complete job. First, it earns less money. Second, a customer may be conscious of its inadequacies long after forgetting the immediate savings in terms of cost or inconvenience. Trust makes a difference with respect to both issues. First, it’s much better to cement a long-term relationship, one that may well generate referrals, by earning a little less money right now. Second, if you hold off because a customer says, “We’d rather not fix that now because we don’t use it anyway, plus which we expect to be redoing that whole room,” then you rely on the accuracy of their prediction and their memory.

Next month, I’ll talk about a couple of troubleshooting cases that I left rather unsolved—by mutual agreement. In one example, offering a halfway fix barely worked out. A dozen-plus year customer had me over to check out two recessed luminaires that didn’t work. One of them, she said, was the fixture I’d replaced five years earlier. Why should it go bad again so soon?

My records indicated something different. They read, “Troubleshoot Dec 1997: Lightolier recessed lights with 2-screw lampholders have corroded center contacts. Need replacing.” “Need replacing,” not “Replaced.” Fortunately, when showed my notes, she recollected having deferred replacement. The center contact was flattened and blackened, just as in 1997. I again told the customer that it needed replacing, but for now, on her decision, I again just pried the contact outward. I told her this “fix” might last five days or five months, but it was up to her. EC

SHAPIRO, author of Old Electrical Wiring: Maintenance and Retrofit (McGraw-Hill 1998) is a contractor, consultant and writer based in Colmar Manor, Md. He is also affiliated with IAEI. He can be reached at writer@davidelishapiro.com.