Customer Service, Local Business & How You Should(n’t) Do It

Area Roofing, Windows & Siding Co.

area roofingA few years ago I got a quote from Area Roofing, Windows & Siding Co. That’s not their real name, but you get the idea, they’re a local small business. At that time I was only interested in getting my windows replaced, so the quotes I received for siding and roofing were not that relevant. We ended up selecting a different company to install the windows, but the quote process with their salesman (we’ll call him Joe) was well done and professional.
As a result, I recognized the company name when I recently searched for “roofing company Annapolis” or some similar phrase. I called and left a message with their answering service, and “Joe” showed up to give me another quote within a day or two. Everything is rolling along very well. I’m a happy customer.
Joe and I shake hands and recognize each other.

The Background

So here’s a little background story. At the time I was in the process of selling my house. There’s a big red Realtor sign in my front yard. I’m getting quotes because I’m going to put on a new roof at the buyer’s request. I acknowledge and agree that the house needs a new roof and I’m going to purchase that roof from someone.

The Sales Pitch

Joe says something like, “Oh yeah, you definitely need a new roof.” I’m thinking to myself, ‘Joe, I didn’t call you all the way out here for you to tell me I need a new roof. I know I need a new roof.’ I’m slightly annoyed, but it’s no big deal. I’m still buying a roof from someone and Joe’s here right now, so he’s got a really good shot. And I let it go. ‘Customer service’ starts when that first contact is made, and in my opinion it’s one of the things that a small business should be built on.
I also declined to comment when Joe informed me that I should have done this a few years ago when he had provided me with the initial estimate, “the shingles were much cheaper,” he explained arrogantly. You see, at this point I don’t really care how much shingles cost in 2008. All I want is a quick and painless end to the new roof project. If Area Roofing, Windows & Siding can be within a few hundred bucks of the other quotes I’m getting, and deliver the new roof within a short time frame (two weeks), they’ve pretty much got the job.
So on April 23rd Joe gave me a printed, line item quote after he took some measurements and input the data into his laptop: $4,010.00. I’m still relatively impressed with the quote process, which  remained efficient and professionally delivered. Joe is the sales guy, so I guess it’s his job to tell me I need a new roof. Maybe he’s disappointed he didn’t get the window job, so he felt like needling me on all the money I could have saved on shingles (which was maybe 15% of the total cost). So after receiving two similarly priced quotes, I decide to go with Area Roofing.

area roofing coupon

The Coupon

Joe comes to pick up the contract the next Monday. We had received an Area Roofing coupon in the mail for $50 Off and presented it to him at the same time we were handing him the signed quote. Joe says something like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. I’ll have to ask the boss. You guys have already signed the contract.” At this point, I just said “Ok, do what you can,” thinking to myself  ‘the boss,’  we’ll call him Kent, must be the decision maker.
Now keep in mind that the coupon says “Please Present After Estimate is Given,” and this is the first time I’ve seen Joe since he handed me the estimate, i.e. the first time I’ve had a chance to present the coupon. It also says “Not Valid On Prior Contracts” and Joe has chosen to interpret the signed contract that he has not physically touched yet, as a prior contract. I’m starting to wonder ‘What’s next?’ and keeping my fingers crossed for the best.

The Sign

Did I mention my house was for sale? Big red Realtor sign? I know, let’s put a roofing company sign right there too. I’m sure that will help the owners sell this place. Yeah, let’s also put a banner on the roof that reads ‘This Roof Has Issues,’ that will really put the buyers at ease.
I removed the sign, called Joe, and left a message asking him not to replace the sign. My experience with Area Roofing is not great at this point, but I’m in it for the long haul. Fingers still crossed.

The Buyers

Our buyers deserve and will receive a post dedicated specifically to them, but they play a part in this story too. They called Area Roofing, talked to Joe, and then tried to tell us that Joe said the roof needed new perforated soffit after Joe had provided me with a quote that did not include new soffit. That Friday, when Joe handed me his quote it included a ridge vent, something not previously in place, to allow for ventilation in the attic. The soffit was overkill and our buyers were overstepping their bounds by contacting the roofing company directly.
I called Joe to find out what was going on and he said something like, “What have I gotten myself into here?” and I said, “I don’t know, what did you tell the buyers?” This little incident is one I blame on the buyers more than Joe, but Joe is now digging himself a reputation hole with me.

The Job

Meanwhile, sprinkled in with all that drama, I get a call from Kent saying he can put me on the schedule for the install on May 4th, nine days after I signed the contract. Good news! Kent gets a point back for Area Roofing. The roofers show up on May 4th and are finished the same day. Great News! Kent calls me to get payment and informs me that the total was $50 less than the quote price. Oh yeah, Kent gets it. It’s not something to hesitate on or argue about. It’s 1.25% of the job, and there’s good profit in roofing. The coupon should have never been an issue to Joe, and it wasn’t an issue to Kent.

The Invoice

My Realtor requested a copy of my paid invoice on 5/11. Our closing was on 5/14 and I’m sure my invoice from Area Roofing is in the mail. In the meantime I need to get a copy of it sent to me via email or fax. So I call Joe.
Joe says he can’t send it and that Kent would have to do it. He tells me Kent doesn’t have the invoice anymore because he mailed it to me. He also told me I “should have mentioned this earlier.” I literally laughed out loud at Joe, and then, as politely as I could, I asked for Kent’s number. Joe called me back and gave me Kent’s number a few minutes later and I had a copy of the invoice within the hour, via email.

The Lessons

I really hadn’t even considered writing this post until my very last interaction with Joe on 5/11. I have a zillion other things to worry about right now, but I just could not pass up the documentation of this process. And I think there are a few things small businesses and their staff can learn about customer service from my experience:

  • Know when to stop talking. Several times during this process, Joe chose to dig himself deeper into the reputation hole when he didn’t have to. He could have easily avoided my mounting distaste by knowing when to STFU. But he finally dug so deep with that last interaction that he hit a pipe and it exploded into this post, which would have included the actual business name had Kent not handled everything so well from his end.
  • Forget the past, live in the now.
    • If you’re quoting a customer for a second time, years later, just forget about the first quote. Unless they are getting a better deal, nothing good can come from talking about the old quote.
    • If a customer needs a receipt from you, give it to them. In the format they want. Without putting up a fight.
  • Read your situation. If your sales process and services require a significant amount of interaction with a customer, try to get a feel for them. Know that things like selling a house are potentially stressful and that they might not respond the same way the average customer would.
  • Use common sense.
    • Just because you always put a sign in the yard before you do a job, doesn’t mean it’s always OK (see previous point).
    • When a customer hands you a coupon with your name on it, accept it.
    • Don’t talk to anyone, other than the guy who is paying the bill, about a job.

There are other lessons mixed in there too. What did I miss?

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Tim Staines is a marketing strategist with a background in search engine optimization and business. Connect with him on twitter @Staines


  1. Joe sounds like a real gem. Shows you how important it is to have the right people “on the bus” – anybody who interacts with a customer has the ability to build, or destroy, your brand.

    Sounds like you need a beer after this one.

  2. @MikeTek Wouldn’t it be great if there was some way to track the number of sales lost to bad customer interaction?

    anybody who interacts with a customer has the ability to build, or destroy, your brand

    That’s true with any size company. In a small business environment, bad customer interactions have the potential to cripple a company. I’m pretty sure “Joe” is the face of the company for about 50% of their new business. It’s sad really.

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