A salesperson's job at a home improvement company is to bring in work, and a good salesperson is willing to do just about anything to win a customer's business. But what do you do with a salesperson who, in the heat of the presentation, consistently promises goods or services that the company either can't deliver or isn't aware of because they're not written in the contract?

“The nature of a salesman is to overpromise,” says Tom Audette, vice president of sales for Renaissance Exteriors, in Minneapolis. “Where it becomes an ethical matter is when you sell the customer one product, then install another, thinking he doesn't know the difference.” Audette's example: “Installing white windows, when the customer paid 15% more for wood-grain.”

PREVENTIVE SYSTEMS Whether these overly elaborate promises stem from dishonesty or enthusiasm, not being able to deliver sets up the company for failure in the customer's eyes. So, many home improvement companies have systems to check contracts and poll customer expectations in an effort to prevent such misunderstandings.

For instance, several months ago, The Window Replacement Co., in Winchester, Va., put in place a new system designed to eliminate what owner Don Henley calls “salesman saids” from the contract process. Once past the three-day right of rescission period, reps are required to meet with production to make sure there are no omissions in the contract. At that point, the company dispatches a project engineer, who re-measures and verifies the entire scope of work with the homeowner. “We want to be sure,” Henley says, “that two months down the road we're building what the customer ordered.”

WE CAN START TOMORROW Fick Bros. Roofing, in Baltimore, was once plagued with a problem many roofing operations experience: Reps were only too happy to assure panicked customers with roof leaks that if they signed today, the job could start tomorrow. This in spite of, typically, a five to six week backlog.

Company vice president Jeffrey Fick says his solution was to print out and distribute the company's backlog to the salesforce each week. Fick Bros. will schedule a repair crew to attend to any immediate leak problem, meanwhile adding the job to its regular backlog.

In addition, the company requires that salesmen fill out a job-flow checklist, which goes in the job folder, and schedule a pre-construction conference between signing and job start. At that meeting, the sales rep (and project manager) go over the company's Contract Review Checklist, which clarifies the scope of work, addresses staging and scheduling issues, and makes customers aware of preventive measures they may need to take, such as removing items from the attic prior to a tear-off.

Warranties are also an area where salespeople might feel tempted to stretch the truth in the service of getting a signature.

Lifetime Exteriors in Boston remedies that by posting its warranties online. That, says owner Chris Ripley, gives customers a chance to re-examine what they bought. “Customers will say: ‘I didn't know you had a money-back guarantee.' That's a huge barometer,” Ripley says. “It means the salesperson didn't explain a big value proposition associated with our company.”

HIRE FOR ETHICS Salespeople predisposed to stretch the truth can be screened in the hiring process. A good way to do so is to ask “what-if” ethics questions in the interview. “I ask: What would you say if we're running a two-week backlog and the customer says he has to get it done tonight?” Fick says. Answers to such questions are telling. “Most guys, in an interview, say they'd go to production to see if we can fit the customer into the schedule. That's a better answer than saying you'll tell the customer whatever he wants to hear to get the job.”