The couple, in their mid-30s, had called several roofing companies. The first said someone would phone to set up an appointment. No one did. The second told them they'd drive by and send an estimate. No one did. So the couple turned to an Internet referral service. The service provided the names of three companies. All set appointments.

Company A's rep arrived, went up on the roof, measured, and left a proposal for $5,100. Four hours later, Company B's rep similarly scaled the roof, examined shingles, and tested sheathing. Estimate: $4,900, which included a discount for using the referral service.

A day or so later, Company C's rep arrives. It's raining and dark. The rep, about 25, is a recent college grad. The company is 30 years old. That and its warranties — 10 years on labor, 25 on product — impress the couple.

Company C's rep tells the couple that he's not actually a salesman but the marketing manager and doesn't work on commission. Moreover, he's prepared to give them two prices: a One-Night Price for that evening only, and a price effective for one year. He can offer the One-Night Price with a few conditions: If they agree to put up a job sign — the couple nods — allow their name to be used in canvassing, and not tell any of their neighbors what their special price is.

The wife, having left the room momentarily, returns to rejoin the discussion. Company C's rep can't go up on the roof, due to the weather, but he can estimate the job from the ground, he tells them. However, he wants to be assured of a decision before he offers a price. The husband just wants an estimate. “We have two other estimates,” the husband tells Company C. “When we have yours, we'll make a decision.”

Company C's rep writes something and pushes the paper across the table.

Is that about what the other two estimates are?

The estimate is for a little more than $11,000.

“No, that's more.”

Considerably more?

The husband nods.

Well, hold on, that's my One-Year Price. I will now write down my One-Night Price.

He does: $9,300. The husband tells him what the other bids are.

If I can get our bid down to $5,100, would you choose us?

He'll e-mail them in the morning and follow up with a phone call, he says. They never hear from him again, which both spouses agree is just as well.

Jim Cory