I am 6 weeks into living surrounded by rubble. It all started as a simple plan to redo the kitchen, and then somehow morphed into a whole house renovation.
My hair is now permanently set into fixed Einstein style waves thanks to plaster dust and rampant humidity. My skin and glasses are tattooed with indelible paint splots. I can’t remember the last time I saw a room without a drop sheet or innumerable storage boxes piled in corners.
And there are still an estimated five weeks to go.
Originally, I planned to have one company manage the full renovation for me, with their project manager coordinating all the different trades in a seamless dance of redecoration.
That fell through, and somehow, I ended up as site manager juggling a myriad of small local tradies in a pre-schooler red cordial fuelled Nutbush dance of renovation chaos.
Why? I love small businesses, so chose to go local and use micro-businesses where possible for my renovation. This has created a host of additional quirks and challenges and delivered a stack of lessons that other small businesses can learn from.
The biggest lesson is how pet peeves can about each trade can be so easily turned into unique selling propositions. If you want to stand out in your industry, find out what clients hate about businesses like yours and do the opposite.
Warn people before making a mess
The start of the renovation project was the removal of a massive silky oak and other large trees that were too close to the house. While the tree removalists were brilliant, the stump grinders were another thing altogether.
The stump grinders arrived without an appointment a few days after the tree removalists and promptly started work.
The problem was that every window was open, so after they left the house was filled with layers and layers of dirt and grit that took hours to clean up.
Mess is not just a problem for tree loppers. Most trades make a mess as part of their process. The difference between each of the businesses is how you deal with it.
In our experience, some trades talked with us before each mess and asked us to move or cover furniture or bookshelves before they started to work. Others just went into it boots and all, and we only discovered plaster dust, cut off bits of wire, new holes in the wall, and bits of rubbish throughout our books and precious possessions after they had left.
If your business makes a mess or demolishes things (either physically or online) as part of your process, make sure your clients are forewarned and can take appropriate action before you start.
Don’t assume your customers know or understand your business and your process. Help them understand what actions they could take to minimise disruption from the mess to their business or lives.
You can turn your mess mitigation strategy into a unique selling proposition simply through checklists and effective communication processes with your clients.
If you make a mess – clean it up
Linked to the previous point, if you create a mess then clean up after yourself. Ask any tradie on a renovation which trade makes the most mess, and they will universally point to the electricians. Electricians have a reputation for cutting holes and leaving bits of stripped wire and screws scattered like confetti after a society wedding across a site.
Imagine if you turned this industry reputation around and billed yourself as no-mess electricians. What would happen if you carried small drop cloths to every project and ensured all bits and pieces went into rubbish bags as you worked?
If you can’t change your work practices, allow time on each project to clean and tidy as you work. If you make a mess, clean it up thoroughly and don’t leave the client to do it.
Cleaning up your mess before you leave applies to any industry. It goes for everything from shared folders and files in digital projects, through to tangible goods and services. Every project or service across every industry has a component of tidying up to it. Make your cleaning up process part of what makes your business unique.
If you break something, tell someone & then fix it
Not all projects go smoothly, and at times things break when you are working on something. In our case, the removal of an old solar hot water system for the roof saw broken tiles, cracked roof lead, broken ridge capping and a gutter that suddenly developed right-leaning tendencies.
How did we know? Our chippy spotted new tiles on the roof and wet silicone in a few places and commented on the incorrect slope of the gutter that had been fine the day before.
Someone else spotted the error and reported it, not the company that created it.
The stump grinders also managed to break a window. While they said “sorry” when we spotted it, they didn’t let their manager know and left us to get it repaired. When I bumped into their manager later and gave them feedback about the project, the manager said that it was company policy that broken items were repaired at their cost. We will recoup the window repair costs, but how many clients would not be as lucky?
If you break something by accident, let the client know so they can take action to remedy it. Offer to help fix the issue and don’t pretend problems did not happen. Make sure that all your team knows your company policy and actions it if they make an error. How you deal with mistakes can be one of the things that makes your business unique.
If you don’t know how to do something, don’t “wing it.”
Our client loo had seen better days, so we invested in a modern back to the wall toilet to replace it. We couldn’t work out why the plumber made calls every few minutes during the installation process, and why our newly installed loo leaned and wobbled more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa (very disconcerting when you are in mid-contemplation).
What we found out is the plumber had never installed a back to the wall toilet before and had been getting instructions over the phone from someone else in his company. The only problem was they had missed telling him the first step, about removing the splash tiles behind the loo, which created the cascading wobbly problems.
A more senior plumber has to come back and correctly reinstall the loo, costing their business time and money.
Every business has times when they are asked to perform a service that is beyond their current skill level or industry specialisation. While it is great always to learn new things, it is also OK to know your limits and say no to projects outside your specialisation. Make your unique selling proposition your specialist expertise and not your generalist skill sets.
Tell people when to expect you and how long you will take
While tradies, in general, have a reputation for late running and no-shows, what I have found with this renovation so far has been a worrying trend for “surprise” visits.
Tradies get so busy that they forget to confirm when they will be on site, and how long they will be. They put the time it in their diaries and then forget to tell the customer. The first the customer knows of the appointment is they are in their daggie PJs happily enjoying the first coffee of the day when the tradie pulls up in their driveway raring to get to work.
Your clients are all busy people and are juggling life and their work. With any project, build in a confirmation step. Confirm when you will be starting work and how long you estimate it will take.
Taking the time to text or email to confirm appointments means less nasty surprises and happier clients. It also makes you stand out from the other tradies or businesses.
Share your expertise – that’s why they hired you
“Where do you want it?” “I thought possibly over there”. <Tradie grunts and spends a day installing it over there> At the end of the day, another tradie in the company says “We don’t normally install things over there for x,y,z reason. Why didn’t you install it over here instead?” “Because I didn’t know about x,y,z and if you had told me that up-front I would have installed it over here.”
You are the expert in your industry and trade. You have experience and knowledge that the customer doesn’t. Speak up and share your wisdom. Explain options and their implications, and help your customers understand the ramifications of their decision.
Many tradies and businesses fall into the “we are only hired hands and do what we are told” trap. They don’t share what they know, thinking that the customer is always right. Businesses that think strategically and share their expertise with customers are a rare breed and can demand a premium on the market.
If you supply equipment, talk the customer through how to use it
The renovations have come with a raft of new appliances and equipment supplied by different trades.
In all cases so far, not one tradie has talked us through how to use the appliance/equipment they supplied. In some cases, they have even managed to lose the instruction manual, so we have had to chase down electronic copies of the manual from the manufacturer.
Why is a manual or training important? In our case, I couldn’t work out why we had cold water from our new hot water system. Once we found the electronic copy of the manual, we discovered that the plumber had not actually turned the hot water system on and had not set the temperature for the hot water. Without the manual, we would have been flying blind.
How different would your business be if you gave every client a 5-minute walk-through of the main features of the appliance/equipment you supplied and installed? Walkthroughs also act as a final check that everything is working the way that it should with the equipment you supplied and installed.
Take the time for 2-minute finishing jobs
We had a high-tech, quite expensive heat pump hot water system installed. It is a thing of true beauty, yet the plumbers left it covered with muddy handprints, and the clock not set (in addition to not turning it on as mentioned in the previous point).
One minute with a damp cloth would have presented the system in all its glory. Another minute would have set the clock on the system to the correct time. Two minutes would have fixed both annoyances.
But it isn’t just plumbers who skip through the finish. I recently had a lovely grandfather clock from my father in for repair as the clock mechanism needed to be replaced. The bottom wooden spindle had worked loose, and the repairer and I commented on it when I dropped it off. The repair came back with the clock mechanism replaced, but with the wooden spindle still loose. Two minutes with two dots of wood glue would have fixed that issue.
Do you take the time for two-minute jobs that delight the customer, or do you push through to knock off the big things only and then move on to the next project?
Fix other’s mistakes
Renovations always bring to light other people’s mistakes, errors and broken bits. Our house has had more than its fair share of these quirks. What has been different has been watching how different trades deal with these left field problems.
Some trades took the, “I will just walk away now having half installed something and leave it till you get it fixed and then come back two weeks later” strategy.
In our case, this was our laundry tub – the only working water source on the ground floor given the kitchen had been removed and the new one not yet installed. The plumber found a leak in the wall behind the tub, so left us with tap handles that were not attached while we had the wall fixed. For a week we had taps that fell off as soon as they were touched, and we cursed his name each and every time we were scalded from the hot water.
Other trades took the, “Here are some options for fixing the issue, and here is how we can create a solution to help you live in the house until we can get it sorted for you,” approach.
Our chippy is the master of this approach. He has found and repaired roof leaks and bowed wall problems, all the while helping us deal with the challenges of tarps and living spaces.
Can you guess which tradie I will be recommending to other people, and which tradie will never make my recommendation list?
Any renovation, whether of a house or a website, will bring problems to light. Be a problem solver, not a problem adder.
Pulling it all together
If you are struggling to find a way to stand out in a crowded market, find the pet peeves that people have with businesses in your industry and do the opposite.
Another way to find your small business USP is to find the intersection of what you know, love and what people will pay for.
Whichever way you choose to find your USP, in most cases, these are not major changes to your business, just minor process tweaks in your organisation, yet these minor tweaks will be what makes your business memorable for all the right reasons.