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Compete for Work, But Do It Respectfully

Picture of David StephensonMy grandfather was a Marine in World War II. When he came back from the Philippines he started an air conditioning company in Houston. His business grew fairly large and he was very successful.

As a child I used to sometimes go with my grandfather to breakfast. We always went to the same place and he sat with a regular group of guys. The interesting thing about this is that the group of men that my grandfather had breakfast with were all in the air conditioning business and were his biggest competitors. It didn’t strike me odd at the time, but if you think about it, these guys fought against each other all day for every customer or available dollar, but they drank coffee together every morning. They had respect for each other.

One of the major issues that I have noticed in the decorative concrete industry is that most contractors in our business do not seem to have any respect for each other. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part this statement is true across the board.

I am going to describe a couple of examples of this that I have seen repeated over and over through the years.

Let’s say that a job is up for bid and the customer wants to get pricing from several contractors. Two contractors are asked to come out and view the project at different times on the same day. The first contractor gets on-site and does a project walk-through. He discusses all the issues that he can think of with the customer and then sits down to put together a price.

Before he leaves the parking lot contractor two arrives. He sees contractor one in the parking lot, and all of a sudden his game plan changes. Now when he walks the job he is thinking, “I wonder what contractor one said. I need to make sure that I say things that will lower their value in the customer’s eyes.” So he does.

The customer becomes totally confused about what is right or wrong. The contractor choice is now based on a trust issue, whether the customer thinks that contractor two is being honest. There is no respect here. The bid award doesn’t come down to price or experience. It comes down to backstabbing and misinformation.

The second scenario that I see happen time and again is that contractor one does a hard bid project. The customer feels that the floor is not up to expectations. So what does the customer do? They ask contractor two to come out and give them an opinion about the project. They do this because contractor one is not telling them what they want to hear.

Contractor two comes out and walks onto the job like a hero. He has no idea what has transpired to get the job to this point, and he wouldn’t think of calling contractor one to discuss the project. Instead contractor two proceeds to tell the customer, “I would do this and that, and that right there should never have happened. Our company never has problems with poor-quality concrete work because our company does whatever it takes to make the floor meet your expectations.”

All that contractor two has done is hurt part of our industry. When the customer faces their next project, they will think, “I don’t want to do decorative concrete again. I remember what happened on that other project, and I can’t ensure that we will get the floor that we want, so let’s go another route.” This happens every day. I have seen this happen on small one-time projects and with huge commercial clients that move away from decorative concrete in favor of other materials that have a more consistent installer base. This type of disinformation goes a long way toward hurting the future of decorative concrete.

The saddest part to me is that due to contractors’ lack of respect for each other it seems that many have lost respect for themselves. The projects keep getting cheaper and the quality of the end product goes down accordingly. Architecturally polished concrete should be $8 to $12 per square foot based on the amount of work that goes into the floor. Our floors require just as much work as high-end tile, our materials cost a lot of money and the fine detail that goes into a high-end project is amazing. So what is a typical price for this type of work right now? It’s around $3.50 a foot. And we wonder why polished concrete contractors are struggling even when the market for our work is on the rise.

We should view competition as healthy. Without Larry Bird, would Magic Johnson have been as good a player? Probably not. In the face of competition, human nature compels you to work harder to become better. In our industry most contractors have instead gone the route of hurting our opponents’ reputations and cutting our prices.

My advice is to get to know your competition on a personal level. Most of the time, you will find out that they are just like you. They have drive and passion for decorative concrete. They are responsible for employees and dream of success. As you get to know them you will develop respect for them as people and contractors. Eventually this will result in sharing thoughts and ideas and, yes, even helping with processes. I am not saying don’t compete. I am not saying to lie down and always play nice. Go hard, but respect your fellow contractor. Without competition your company will never be as strong as you dream about it becoming.

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