Earn respect and yield higher profits

There was a time when tradesmen were some of the most respected citizens in a community. Wheel-wrights, masons, joiners, carpenters—people who worked with their hands—were respected like doctors, lawyers, and accountants are today.

Until the industrial revolution modernized construction, tradesmen studied their craft. They apprenticed for years with master craftsmen; they learned to distinguish and draw details from the classical orders, and they supported the publication of pattern books. They lived in neat, tidy homes near the center of town; they wore bib-overalls or heavy pants with white shirts and ties. They came to work clean-shaven, and they were well spoken.

Back in the early 1980s, when the recession stopped my career as a desk-bound general contractor and I started working on jobs as a carpenter, my mother told me that I’d never get anywhere working with my hands. She couldn’t have been more wrong, but her attitude towards tradespeople couldn’t have been more in tune with our society.

These days, people who work with their hands have a tough time getting respect. And if the clients we work for don’t respect us, how can we expect them to pay us respectable fees?

A couple of years ago, I had an early breakfast at a diner on Long Island. Being close to the Hamptons, the diner was in the middle of a large remodeling project. The outside of the building was stripped bare and wrapped with fresh building paper. Carpenters had installed a cherrywood entablature across the upper front of the building, with seven stained pilasters beneath, flanking six picture windows. The design and workmanship were beautiful.

The restaurant was full. I’d taken the last seat near one of those front windows, and was eating eggs and pancakes as the two carpenters arrived for work. They drove a big, loud van. Their jeans were worn through with holes and covered with paint, dried glue, and who-wants-to-know-what-else. They wore ragged t-shirts. On the back of one shirt was a large black skull; beneath it, the word “DEATH.” The shirt didn’t bother me. I’d seen a lot worse.

They slowly unloaded their tools: a miter saw on a homemade stand, a table saw and stand just like mine, a compressor and hoses, power cords, saws, nail guns—tools that every carpenter in the country uses. Like any other carpenter, I watched and compared the tools I use to the tools they used. The taller one unrolled a 100-ft. cord to a power strip, and then, as a final act of preparing for the day’s work, he turned his profile to the restaurant, put an index finger against his nose, and cleared his nasal passages, one at a time. I wasn’t the only customer who stopped eating.

Construction—carpentry in particular —seems to have become the last refuge for the American Cowboy. Maybe it’s because we work outdoors, and we frequently travel from job to job, from campsite to campsite. Maybe it’s because we get dirty; maybe its because we wear leather tool belts with holsters, and we use guns (nail guns, screw guns, heat guns, and so on.)

Sure, construction is a great career for folks who want to be free from the cubicle life of office workers, but too many carpenters today think they’re also free to dress as they please, free to swear and spit, free to wear their hair in any fashion, free to take their shirt off in the summer, free to leave home for work without shaving, or even without showering.

If our industry has a problem with respect, it’s our own fault. Many contractors and carpenters fail to uphold even the simplest standards of behavior; some believe that the fancy logo on their business card is the secret to success. Phooey.

Most carpenters and small contractors know they can’t rely on advertising to build or support their business. In more than 30 years working as a general contractor and more than 25 working with my brother as a finish contractor, we never advertised our business. I probably handed out fewer than 50 business cards—and most of them went to other trade professionals. Our steady stream of work always came from referrals. Our most powerful advertisement was our appearance and the appearance of our crew.

First impressions last beyond the first meeting

That first knock on the door at an estimate or at a new job carries a lot more weight than most people think. When a prospective client opens the door to their home, they’re judging you instantly. First and foremost, they’re judging if you’ll respect them, their home, and their family. And yes, respect is a two-way relationship. If you don’t respect your customers, how can they respect you?

For those reasons, I always wear a collared shirt to work, whether I’m working on a job or submitting an estimate—since you never know when you’ll meet a prospective client.

The first day on the job is crucial, too. When a customer opens their door to your crew, they’ll be judging you all over again: They’ll be wondering if you’ll keep their home clean; if you’ll do good work and not overcharge them; if you’ll work regular hours and arrive on time each morning, and finish their job on schedule. The way you and your crew dress, and how you behave, is all your client might know about you.

Respect isn’t something that comes with a handshake. Respect must be earned over time. That’s why your crew must be dressed appropriately, too. Getting some of our carpenters to give up t-shirts isn’t easy, but we try to discourage the habit. We provide our crew with collared shirts and t-shirts with our logo. A crew that’s dressed alike, even if they have green hair and nose rings, has a professional look. That’s the first step toward earning respect.

Here are a few other tips that could help separate you and your crew from the competition:

For the Estimate

  • Carry booties for bids and estimates, or remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.
  • “Do you have a cat or dog?” should always be one of your first questions. Ask questions about your customers and how they live so they’ll understand you care.

For the Job

  • Never approach the front door without a roll of rosin paper, a drop cloth, and blue masking tape in your hands; don’t step foot in the house without rolling out drops.
  • Be polite.
  • No swearing.
  • No yelling.
  • No radios inside a home; no loud radios outside; no offensive radio stations period.
  • No smoking, eating, or food—that means coffee!—of any kind inside the jobsite.
  • Always keep the jobsite clean and neat.
  • Every day, stop work half an hour early to do a thorough cleaning.
  • The word “NO” is a dull chisel. Try not to use it.
  • “Let me ask my boss about that,” is the best response to most questions.

My mother was wrong. Working with your hands isn’t a job that goes nowhere.

Being a successful tradesperson is a serious career, requiring serious effort and serious study, all of which can lead to a rich and successful life. Honor the craft and your customers will honor you.

This article appeared in Katz' publication, ThisIsCarpentry