Mike, an anonymous electrical contractor, is almost to the point where he can laugh about an incident that occurred last summer. However, right after it happened, it felt as though he relived his initial frustration each time the subject came up. The other week, he retold the story and chose to emphasize its moral: actions that have little or no relationship to the core values of quality, cost or schedule on a project can end up being the most unforgettable part of a job (or, at least, it’s what the customer will always remember most about it).

Mike was supervising his electrical contracting company’s crew in a situation that many other electricians might envy, based solely on the job’s comfortable surroundings. He and his crew were replacing and upgrading segments of the local electric utility company’s underground residential distribution in a tree-lined, upscale neighborhood full of beautiful homes. Uncluttered by power and light poles, the overall elegance of the streetscape inspired Mike and his crew to do everything with an extra measure of care. The few neighbors, who only seldom made an appearance as they walked or rode by, always seemed friendly, as though they could somehow understand and appreciate the professional knowledge and skills that Mike and his crew of electricians were dedicating to the job. They were hard at work, doing what they know best.

The setting was ideal from the curbside view, as well. The homes had pristine expanses of front yards without fences. Even the neighborhood dogs seemed friendly, never threatening, as they romped around the yards in which they always remained, thanks to the “invisible fences” that safely kept them from leaving the property. Life was better for residents and pets alike with the electrically powered magic of an invisible fence.

When Mike and his crew proceeded, as planned, to cut over their new installation, it necessitated a short service interruption. What they did not anticipate was the effect of electrically powered invisible fences vanishing instantly.

It is difficult to say, “Who let the dogs out?” without thinking of the popular song with that title. Nevertheless, the recording artists who made it such a popular hit never heard so many “woofs” as Mike and his crew did that day, when all of the dogs in that neighborhood realized they were free to run loose, up and down the street, and beyond.

Mike has been told that, when the subject of the new underground distribution system comes up in neighborhood conversation, the “great canine escape” is still what the residents remember most about the job. No one discusses the quality of the work, the cost of the installation, the achievement of schedule milestones, or the compliance with safety practices. Hard data that electrical contractors regularly rely on, and consider prideful, can sometimes be in contrast to softer issues that customers remember. In this case, the residents were not necessarily Mike’s customers, but, as he was quick to point out to us, he considered them all potential clients nonetheless, taking into account the fact that his company’s logo was prominently displayed all over his trucks and equipment in the neighborhood.

Like everyone who we interviewed for this article, Mike was very forthcoming about his experiences with what might be termed “lessons learned the hard way,” in which electrical contractors risk losing customers or reputation.

All of these contractors, who nicely and helpfully contributed firsthand accounts, will remain anonymous. As a result, they provided us with candid information, about various on-the-job situations, which potentially could have jeopardized long-standing customer relationships. Across the board, they explained a common belief that, while such problems inevitably arise from time to time, a contractor’s best antidote for them is an immediate response and top-level attention to correct the problem or situation. Unintended actions do not have to leave a customer with a lasting impression that focuses on the problem. Quick and attentive solutions might even strengthen the relationship.

One of the contractors we interviewed strenuously underscored another point: the fastest solution is always the least expensive solution as well, no matter what the out-of-pocket cost may at first appear to be. It is the cheapest way out and a sound investment in keeping a customer.

Another contractor explained how her company’s long-standing relationship with a customer was nearly ended by one of her best-trained service electricians. The employee entered the customer’s equipment room and, disapproving of the untidy state of its housekeeping, loudly blurted out, “What a dump this place is!” Those were not the exact words but a polite way to paraphrase what the employee said. A staff member unfortunately overheard the statement and reported it to senior management in the customer’s organization. At that point, the much-touted training level and personal qualifications of this ace electrician did not matter in the slightest. At least for a moment, the absence of soft skills was what mattered most. Thoughtless, rude behavior almost caused the contractor to lose a big account. She managed to save the relationship through a significant expenditure of her personal time and effort. Clearly, unintended actions can leave a customer with a lasting impression that focuses on that failure, not years of success.

Furthermore, one contractor pointed out that electrical contractors can encounter situations where they might even, accidentally, of course, cause a shutdown to a customer’s facilities. As expected, this would result in major setbacks in customer relations. Unlike Mike letting the dogs out, a minor version of a shutdown, the impact of the ensuing business interruption could also lead to a contract termination for the contractor or even worse. To this point, attorney Mark S. Shaffer, who focuses on all facets of construction law, reminds us that electrical contractors should include in their service work order agreements appropriate language, which will protect them from the risk of “consequential damages.”

But most of the transgressions that imperil customer relationships are wrapped up in “people problems” on the job, not physical damage to the facilities. Unfortunately, customers remember less how electricians construct (on budget, with excellent quality, on schedule and safely) than how electricians conduct themselves.

Successful contractors understand that there is usually a remarkable difference between what we, as contractors, think is important and what customers see and value most—and may never forget.


MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.