Not too long ago, a Maryland roofing company sent a crew to a home with a work order to replace the shingle roof. The crew consisted of three individuals speaking only Spanish, and a Korean crew leader whose English was just sufficient to allow him to ask permission to use the bathroom. The crew did a thorough and professional job, one the homeowner had no problem with. They were in and out in a day. But when a customer satisfaction survey went out, requesting referrals, none were forthcoming. Instead, that homeowner sent back a series of blistering complaints. Not surprisingly, every item involved a misunderstanding directly traceable to the lack of spoken communication.

You're From Where?

Roofing companies, especially those with longevity in their markets, typically generate far more referral and repeat work than siding or window contractors. Homeowners who find a quality roofing company make a point of recommending that company to their relatives and friends. Some roofing firms generate as much as 80% of their work from referrals.

That's why the enormous number of immigrant workers in the roofing industry, especially those from Mexico and Latin America but also from Korea and Eastern Europe, has made lots of roofing company owners "change the way they think about how to run their business," says Bill Good, executive vice president of the National Roofing Contractors Association, in suburban Chicago. "How they'll communicate with customers, how they'll train people. . . It's made them much more conscious of immigration and liability issues."

It's also become a thorny customer service issue. At many companies, a sales rep will sell a job and never see the homeowner again. Meanwhile a non-English speaking crew is subcontracted to install that job. Such a scenario, owners say, works against referrals, and must be managed. Jeff Petrucci, owner of Bloomfield Construction, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., whose business in 2007 was 60% roofing, solved the problem by contracting with a Ukrainian roofing crew whose leader speaks fluent English.

"They walked in my office and wanted to know if I was hiring," Petrucci recalls. "They said they had their own truck and were fully insured and licensed." Petrucci says he was "leery of hiring them at first" because of a previous experience with a crew from Ukraine. In that instance, the fact that the crew leader spoke broken English eventually made communication, and the subcontractor relationship, impossible. "Unless the crew leader speaks English, there's a communication gap," Petrucci notes. Not only can the crew not communicate with homeowners, but there's the potentially bigger problem of a failure to understand scope of work.

In this case the two crew leaders were not only fluent in English but also had accounting degrees issued by colleges in Ukraine. In addition to supervising the work and communicating with homeowners, they submitted impeccable invoices.

"Now I give them all my work," Petrucci says. Mark David, of Joseph David Roofing, in Linden, N.J., has a multilingual supervisor from Brazil ? fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish ? managing crews. "I have peace of mind knowing that if he's on the job, he can answer a client's questions. Or an inspector's," David says.

Hired by the Job

Sometimes owners have to reach out to find that multilingual individual who can manage those crews who speak no English whatsoever. A year ago, for instance, Joe Pipkin, general manager of Memphis Home Improvement, in Tennessee, who uses three full crews of Hispanic workers, hired a bilingual manager paid by the job to order materials, set the crews up, ensure that they get to jobs on time, and then inspect the job, meanwhile interacting with the homeowner. "Most roofing companies here don't do any supervision," Pipkin says. "They send a sales guy out. He never comes back. Then they send a Mexican crew and hope it all works out." It often doesn't, he says, because of "small stuff" such as failing to completely remove all tear-off debris or nails. "Somebody needs to be there to represent the company and make sure things are taken care of," Pipkin points out. Hiring a bilingual supervisor to manage has been "super for referrals," he says. "These people feel like they're getting personal attention." And that has resulted in an uptick in referrals.