Legend has it that, at the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field instructed his salespeople that the customer is always right. Coincidentally, across the Atlantic, French hotelier César Ritz was telling his staff, “Le client n’a jamais tort”—“The customer is never wrong.”

So, for the last century, purveyors of products and services have grappled with the implications of these pronouncements that have become deeply ingrained in the consciousness of their customers. The problem is electrical contractors sometimes must decide when and how to tell the customer he or she is not necessarily exactly right.

“The customer is generally right about wanting to get an electrical project completed or a problem solved but probably not right about what information has to be exchanged and how the job should proceed,” said Joe Crisara, president of consulting firm ContractorSelling.com. “A given customer calls in an electrician perhaps once every five years or more, but an electrical contractor is handling 400 to 800 calls a year. So who is most likely to know the right way to make a sales call successful and get the project moving in the right direction?”

Controlling a project isn’t always easy because customers behave differently when a contractor enters their living space than they would when they go out to purchase a product or service in a retail store. They wouldn’t think of telling the store proprietor to rearrange his displays and shelving or start bargaining on price. But on their own turf, customers have control issues, and the contractor making that initial sales call has to understand this complexity and proceed with care.

“Start by telling him you appreciate what he wants, but you need to clarify a few things first,” Crisara said. “You have to diplomatically shift the focus from getting a price, and refocus on quality, choices and expected longevity of the installation.”

The four be’s
Over time, Crisara has developed a set of tactics for the first sales call that he refers to as the four “be’s.”

• Be skeptical. Ensure you get clear game plans from customers that they want to get their projects done within specific time frames.

• Be a student of your customers. Ensure you understand them and their values. Ensure they are center stage in the discussion, comment on their house and property, family photos, the fact that their neighbors must like having people like them around. Don’t ever make condescending remarks about another job you just completed. A courteous show of admiration for their lifestyle makes it easier to suggest modifications to their plans if they feel you really know what they like and want.

• Be in motion. Move around the house to look at all the places where work is going to be done, and keep an eye out for situations the customers hadn’t thought of that could represent potential problems for them in the future.

• Be determined. Once you have a clear grasp of the project and understand what your customers want and they understand the validity of the solutions you have suggested, get a commitment from them, and be determined to follow through.

Even when following the four be’s, there are going to be some rough spots in the initial negotiating process as to how things are going to get done, and often electrical contractors have to draw their own line in the sand.

“Interestingly enough, one of the best ways to gain a customer’s confidence is to refuse to do something that he wants but that you know would create a safety hazard in the future,” Crisara said. “If he wants a fixture in a place that would violate the Code, and you say you’ll have to respectfully decline to go on with this job, you’d be surprised how this impresses the customer with your professionalism.”

Price and Cousin Vinny
Price is an unavoidable question in the opening sales call, especially in these dismal, cash-constricted times.

“Obviously, in today’s economy, price is more challenging across the board, no matter what the nature of the project is,” said Craig Pierce, president of consultant firm Atalanta Enterprises Inc. “The electrical contractor has to get a clear idea of the customer’s financial situation, what he wants and needs on the job, and then make a reality check and find ways to cut costs wherever possible.”

Pierce feels that far too many contractors fall into the trap of negotiating on price instead of expertise: “How does a heart surgeon gain the confidence and respect of a patient? Does he say he’s the cheapest surgeon on the circuit, or does he say how many successful operations he’s performed, what hospitals he works with and, in the process, gains the patient’s confidence by communicating in a professional manner? The electrical contractor should be doing the same thing.”

The problem, unfortunately, is that there are a lot of sketchy moonlighters out there, capitalizing on today’s tight money situation.

“It’s a fact of life that every family and neighborhood has a Cousin Vinny or a Cheap Charlie who ‘does this kind of work all the time’ and can give you a good price,” Crisara said. “Of course, he can give a low price because he’s working out of a second bedroom with a desk, a light bulb, and an answering machine; doesn’t stock any materials; and takes two to three days to answer a call.”

He also believes that many legitimate electrical contractors mistakenly overestimate this kind of competitor and underestimate their own ability to effectively counteract the selling-on-price tactic.

“Price is only a result. It’s not an issue in and of itself,” Crisara said. “The equation is quality plus service plus time frame equals price. How fast does the customer get a response, and when is there a man on the site? What many contractors don’t understand is that the price is largely shaped by the actions of the contractor. While the customer may often have a price in mind before the contractor gets there, that price can be influenced by the behavior of the contractor before and when he arrives on site.

“Was there a professional person on the phone; was the call to the location booked right away? Did the man arrive on time, neat and clean in a decent uniform, driving a clearly marked company truck? Did he talk like a professional with credibility? If so, then people generally expect to pay more.

“In fact, the contractor shouldn’t hesitate to say right at the front door that if the best price is the only consideration, then we might not be a good fit,” he said.

The customer isn’t just like you
One of the biggest mistakes a contractor can make, while he is sincerely empathizing with the customer, is to subconsciously assume that they’re both fundamentally alike.

“Each customer has his own set of values, identity and unstated propositions,” Pierce said. “You should never believe he’s just like you and makes his decisions accordingly. In a given situation, you may be hungry for work, but he may actually not be looking for the lowest price. You may be an expert on controls or lighting, but those aren’t his major concerns.

“And you have to stay close to the customer because times change, and people change their minds and attitudes. Never take the customer for granted because you’ve done business with him over the years. People are thinking a lot differently in 2011 than they were in 2000.”

Pierce also said the electrical contractor should always maintain a two-tiered sense of customer awareness whenever there is a general contractor involved in a project. In that case, there are two customers—the general contractor (GC) and the owner.

“There are two things that GCs and owners often don’t understand—schedule and design documents,” he said. “The owner/customer is used to instant product purchase gratification. He can change his mind at the point of purchase in a store. But changing his mind on electrical installations at the last minute can be very time-consuming and expensive.

“Also, the electrical contractor should prepare his design documents, not so that another electrician will understand them, but so that the GC and owner will understand them because they’re paying the bill,” Pierce said.

Again, it’s a question of not taking for granted knowledge or comprehension that the customer simply does not have.

“Most importantly, you have to think like the owner,” Pierce said, “because the GC is only interested in whether the owner liked the job. If the owner says you’re the best electrician he’s ever seen, you’ll get more work on other jobs from the GC and also maintenance work from the owner. You always have to view the job through the owner’s eyes.”


QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and mirabel@snet.net.