Saturday, July 16, 2005

Hard heads

Property management is not my favorite job. If I only have to do a project a year, I can work through multiple visions of final outcome. With my detailed paper version to guide me, then I am ready to deal with contractors. Or as ready as I will ever be.

I have been working on a project to build a fence for my dogs. And I have been working with a contractor who is fundamentally a good guy if somewhat disorganized. My style in hiring people is to outline the basic deal I am offering, then to stand back and let them perform. Or not. Once I understand the other person’s operating style, I know what kinds of projects to use them for. A person who needs me to provide a lot of structure will generally not get a lot more work from me, although I will use them selectively. A person who listens to my specific requirements, asks questions or disagrees, then makes the rest come together in a coherent work product will get a lot more work from me. A person who systematically ignores my specific requirements will drop off my list of approved service providers.

So. The fence. I live only a few feet from a town road. Traffic is not heavy but speeds are fast. And dogs, while mostly pretty bright, are no match for cars. It only takes one encounter to deprive me of a dog I love. Since moving here a year and a half ago, I have wanted a fenced area for my dogs. They have not been in favor of this plan, since they enjoy tracking wildlife, visiting neighbor Jake (a dog), and guarding the front of the house from bikers, hikers and (the ultimate threat) horses. I, on the other hand, am not in favor of dogs chasing wildlife, dogs, bikers, hikers or horses, particularly in the vicinity of fast cars.

About a month ago, the dogs barked at a chubby woman walking up the hill with her daughter. I looked up from my hoeing in the garden and called to them, and they stopped and sat in the driveway looking at the woman, who began shouting, “Why aren’t those dogs tied up?” I replied that they are very friendly, but she persisted, “You just don’t understand. I was bitten by a dog! I am afraid of dogs!” and then she started to walk toward me, past my dogs, onto my property. My dogs, sensing intrusion, started barking again, and I said, “You need to stay off my property.” The two then walked on, and that was that.

Now you need to know that in my little corner of Vermont, in my town specifically, it is not required that I tie or fence my dogs as long as I am out with them and they are under voice control. But being legally clear or being right is small comfort if you end up in a bad human-versus-dog situation. As Vermont gets more crowded every day, I concluded it is important that I protect my dogs from humans who happen to pass on the thoroughfare. At least the horses and car drivers have sense enough to stay off my property, but the stupidity of humans appears boundless and boundary-less. So I decided to build a fence.

Do you have any idea what a fence costs? Have you priced lumber lately? Or steel wire? After working through estimates, I ended up using a guy—let’s call him Jack—whose work I generally trust, even though the airiness of his estimate annoyed me. In desperation to move the project forward, I drew a plan, counted posts and measured wire, then went down to the local building supply and ordered up the materials Jack specified and got them delivered. I got my town permit (viewed as superfluous by some, but I have a somewhat public job), put in a call to Jack and within a few days, he showed up to do the work.

Still concerned by Jack’s shoot-from-the-hip approach, I stayed to lay out fence boundaries. For aesthetic reasons, I wanted the long sides parallel to the house, and Jack and his workers appeared to humor me. For stability, I had added corner braces to the fence design, and for cost and stability reasons, I brought in the corner posts a bit. So, some posts were eight feet apart and some were ten feet apart, in an L-shaped configuration. A little bit of complexity, so I provided a plan for post locations and bracing, which Jack and his crew executed flawlessly.

So what I want to know is why he couldn’t put the gate where I drew it on the plan? If he could follow the plan for the posts, why not for the gate? I drew a gate that swings in (because it is easier on the hinges when a dog hits it from the hinge side), a gate that opens from the right (because I am right-handed), and a gate that is open at the top. Jack build a gate that swings out, opens from the left, has a cross-piece on the top for stability, and is located underneath the corner brace. Why?

I asked the question, and he is annoyed. He rightly claims far more experience with building fences in a snowy climate, but I persist. But why not have a conversation with me about it if you wanted to change the plan? And then it comes out…he didn’t intend to change the plan, he just didn’t look at it. He is willing to fix it, but I have looked at what he is built versus what I specified, and it will not be a quick fix. Either the gate would have to be rebuilt to be narrower or a post would have to be moved.

It is the Vermont way to accept what is good enough. It is the New York way to get what you want. I only wish I could convince Vermonters that they would have more work and less re-work if they paid some attention to customer expectations. I expected that I would get a clear, written work estimate. I expected that the contractor would organize materials delivery to my worksite and let me know what payment was needed and when. I expected that my plan would be reviewed with me and followed. I got a fence with the gate in the wrong place. I probably got a cheaper overall price, but I was willing to pay for the service in dollars in Jack’s pocket rather than in annoyance on my part.

I don’t have the stamina or the will to require that Jack go back and comply with what I specified. What I will do is invest in the future of the relationship with this service provider. It is time that we readjust expectations. I use Jack for work projects, and we have had consistent issues with communications and with prompt fulfillment of work requests. It is time to iron those out. We are not a large customer for local contractors, but we are large enough to attract multiple service providers and to choose the ones who provide the best service. I appreciate Jack’s experience and I know he has the capacity to perform well on projects. But not following the plan…not a plan. Thinking you know better than the customer…not a plan.

Jack is angry that I questioned where he put the gate. I am not angry that he ignored my instructions, although perhaps I should be. I will give him the weekend to cool off, then we will have a discussion about how I think projects should go. We will try another one, and if that does not work, I will vote with my feet, as customers generally do. Over the last several months, Jack has gotten the bulk of the work I have to hand out and has attempted—with little success—to take a role in getting subcontractor estimates. I need multiple estimates for the larger projects, and it is likely that much of the work in future will go to different contractors.

It is unfortunate that Jack will likely perceive that he is not getting work because I was fussy about my fence. The unfortunate truth is that he had first shot at a lot of work, which he is unlikely to get because he did not meet my expectations. And because I am still the newbie, I will have to invest substantial effort in explaining this to Jack, to the person who recommended him to me, and to the other contractors with whom I work. In a small town, if I want to get things done, I need to be seen as reasonable. Every day is a negotiation with hard heads—hard headed contractors, hard headed dogs (who really don’t care for the whole fence idea), and some would say, my own hard head.

Sheesh. I need a break. But this is summer, and summer is construction season, which makes it by default the season for hammering on hard heads.


zhoen said...

oh the joys of communicating with foks who really think they know best

but they don't

nothing gets me more in a knot

carlakeet said...

Would he be willing to fix it even if it's not a quick fix? Could something be worked out so that you're satisfied and he makes good (and gets more work from you in the future maybe). In other words, if he's indicating a willingness to fix it on some level, is there a way you can you take him up on that? Yeah, he's lousy at "listening to the customer," but it does seem like he's trying to operate in good faith.

Whatever happens, good luck! It has all the ingredients for a Robert Frost-esque poem. Vermont. Fences. Neighbors. Add: contractors.

Karen said...

I am trying to learn not to get all knotted up. If the guy comes back and offers to make it right, we can talk...but first he has to get over being angry at me for his error. I don't think we have good faith far it is a bully's attempt to bluff his way through.

I am trying to learn that the productive response is to let the responsibility for getting it right lie in the right place. It makes extra work for me to find people who can act like grownups, but it is worth it when I have the right resources.