When times were great, that is, before the recession hit, lots of contractors had as many jobs as they could handle, and probably more. A contracting company, or an individual contractor, could go on operating, or even flourish, while engaged in all sorts of practices that hurt the business.

That time is over, and my guess is that we probably won't be returning to it anytime soon, if ever. When the economy gets stronger, things won't go back to being the way they were. The days of running a successful but sloppy business are gone. Customers will expect more. What they have learned from this recession is that if one contractor doesn't give them courtesy, consideration, and professionalism, they can easily find another who will.

Three Big Mistakes

Here are three practices that are common among contractors. Make a habit of any, let alone all of them, and it will absolutely kill your business.

1. Where is he? The first, and maybe the worst thing to do, is to not show up when you say you're going to be there. There are a few variations on this, such as not showing up at all, or not getting back to the customer after the initial contact, or showing up to inspect the job, then never calling back - even if it's to explain that the job is not quite right for your company. Instead you just disappear.

I hear such complaints from customers all the time. Clients tell me they called a contractor to ask for an estimate and the contractor either didn't show up or he came to look at the job and then didn't bother getting back to them. He left them hanging, when they wanted and needed information and solutions.

I've also heard about contractors who show up late for an appointment, then express surprise because the customer feels that's a problem. If you are going to be late, it's common courtesy to call and let people know. If you and the customer have agreed on a time for a scheduled appointment, assume that they'll judge your character and dependability by whether or not you're punctual. If you're on time, it says that you mean what you say.

2. The so-so job. A second mistake: Many times employees will do a so-so job because it was difficult to do it the right way or the way it should have been done and because the job is not required to be inspected. If we, as contractors, let them get away with this, it will hurt our business and our incomes. I tell my employees, "People don't hire us to do a half-right job and then make excuses for it. They hire us to do the job right. If we don't do it right, they'll find someone who will."

We, as owners, are ultimately responsible for setting the standards for what is or isn't an acceptable level of craftsmanship. If we always do an excellent job, people will refer us to their friends and call us back for more work. If we just do an OK job, we may not have to come back out and fix something, but we won't get the referral and repeat business that we need either. It really doesn't take much more effort to do an excellent job. What it takes is a system and standards that are communicated to employees and understood by them.

3. No time for callbacks. No one does perfect work all of the time, but if we correct our mistakes, it will go a long way toward building lasting relationships with customers. I remember one job that we did where the siding was spaced differently than the customer wanted. We went back and re-did it with no questions asked. Later, that customer referred us to others. He told me that the reason he was not afraid to send me more work was because we corrected his job with no arguing. It may cost us a little time and money to correct our mistakes, but it can pay off in future work.

Just the Most Common

These aren't the only mistakes contractors make, they're just the most common. In good times, some customers were prepared to tolerate these habits that too many in the contracting business had developed. But in tough times, we have to do whatever it takes to build relationships with customers and get referral business.

--Herb Reinhard has been a home improvement contractor since 1984. He operates Christian Brothers Remodeling, in Fort Wayne, Ind. You can reach him at www.contractorriches.com or e-mail him at herbreinhard@gmail.com.