Service--a goal for the millennium

Last summer, I purchased an old house, and over the past six months, I have been fixing it up. Some of the work I`ve done myself, but I`ve also had occasion to call in a number of contractors--electricians, plumbers, and carpenters--to work on the bigger projects. As I have riffled through the Yellow Pages, left messages on answering machines, met contractors for walk-throughs, and haggled over estimates, it has struck me just how important service is in any contracting business.

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Chief Editor

Last summer, I purchased an old house, and over the past six months, I have been fixing it up. Some of the work I`ve done myself, but I`ve also had occasion to call in a number of contractors--electricians, plumbers, and carpenters--to work on the bigger projects. As I have riffled through the Yellow Pages, left messages on answering machines, met contractors for walk-throughs, and haggled over estimates, it has struck me just how important service is in any contracting business.

For instance, one electrician who met me for a walk-through spent less than five minutes looking over my $1000 job, implied that it wasn`t very important compared to the $50,000 commercial job he was starting next week, told me he couldn`t start work for a month, and then never bothered to get back to me with a formal estimate. Needless to say, his name went off my vendor list, not only for the work in progress, but for any future projects as well.

Another contractor went over the house from top to bottom, including climbing up and poking around in an unfinished attic. He spent an hour with me, carefully explaining what needed to be done and why. He even suggested things I could do myself, to save money. That contractor got the job, and he`ll be invited back to give me an estimate on any follow-up work.

I don`t think my good contractor/ bad contractor dilemma is unique to me. At a meeting of a national contracting association that I attended recently, I listened to how the word "contracting" was used and found two conflicting meanings. One referred to work perfunctorily done, meeting the specs but providing nothing more; the other implied a special expertise and a pride of craftsmanship not usually associated with contracting. The first definition is the dictionary meaning of the word--a contractor, after all, is one who fulfills a contract. The second definition, I suggest, is the one that the cabling industry should take into the new millennium--and the key to this definition is service.

Cliches about service are legion: "We work in a service economy," "Service is the key to a successful business," and so on, ad nauseum. But there is usually some truth in cliches, and there is certainly much validity to the notion that service can make or break a small company (and sometimes even a very large one).

One of the more successful cabling contractors with whom I`ve spoken told me that his secret was that he built lasting relationships with his clients. This guaranteed him repeat business and often took him out of competitive bidding situations altogether. Getting repeat business, he said, called for good communication, building trust, and gaining the respect of the customer.

Equally clear to me as I have covered the cabling industry is that the physical layer, or the cable plant, or the network infrastructure, or whatever you choose to call it, is a specialized field unto itself, requiring its own experts. Many network managers and other information-technology personnel responsible for telecommunications infrastructure do not fully understand the cable plant. What`s more, they do not have the time, and often do not have the inclination, to learn more about it.

This means that the cabling contractor becomes, by default, the expert, the specialist, the person to whom clients turn for high-tech answers. This is a position of great trust, but it is also one that can offer great rewards, both financially and otherwise.

arlynp@pennwell.com

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