Charge a lot and deliver an absurd level of quality and service

My new bathroom, by Britton Homes. (The paper is there because we don’t have curtains yet.)

Just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you need to be arrogant. That’s what I learned from my remodeling contractor, and it’s my philosophy, too.

I recently launched a significant remodeling job on my 100-year-old house: rip and replace everything in our two main bathrooms; replace a rotting front portico; and update a laundry room with some insect damage. I expected the job to cost more than $100,000, and it did.

Three companies came and inspected the house, and I initially liked all three. One, despite pestering, never came back with a quote. The second delivered a detailed quote. So did the third, Britton Homes.

Britton’s estimate was about $40,000 higher than the second contractor, so I decided to use the second contractor. I sent a list of questions we had. I heard nothing. I nagged them again. I heard from an office manager, but nothing from the contractor. Two weeks passed.

So I called Britton back and explained the difference. Could they improve their price? They came back, re-examined the job, found places where more economical methods would yield the same results, and redid their quote for a lot less. We made the deal.

What happened after that is what surprised me: the highest level of service I’ve ever experienced in a remodeling job or, frankly, anywhere.

The key was Britton’s project manager, Ryan Wilkinson. Ryan was on site every day. He answered every question I had, in person or by email, no matter how stupid. He sent detailed schedules. When an issue arose that would require us to make a choice or would potentially cause a delay, he anticipated the problem and let us know ahead of time. And Britton’s workers were just as accommodating — always willing to stop for a moment and explain what they were doing.

The real measure of anyone working on a big job is what they do when things go wrong. Britton never made any serious mistakes, but we still had problems to deal with.

My washer and dryer needed replacing in the middle of the job. They worked around it, and even arranged work on an exterior door so we could use the opening to get the new appliances in. And they removed the obsolete gas connection for no charge.

My roof started leaking. We contracted separately with a roofer to fix it. To redo the roof properly and prevent winter leaks, we needed to modify some windows. Britton quoted and completed the additional work and worked around the roofer’s schedule.

The plumbing supply company that my wife and I had picked delivered the wrong items for several essential parts of the job. Ryan checked every single item that came off that truck. When they were wrong, he negotiated with the supply company and got us the right items, at the exact moment they were needed, without any additional cost.

In the few cases where they caused or encountered other problems — like cracking a wall adjacent to one of the bathrooms — they fixed it at no cost.

And when the final bill came, there were no surprises. Every additional charge was something we’d explicitly asked for. Some of those extra “asks” weren’t billed at all. And where they were able to complete the job with less work than originally quoted, they actually credited us for it.

It’s not often that you spend six figures of your own money and then smile at the end. My old bathrooms were dreadful. The new ones are great. The quality of the work is excellent. I’m poorer, but very happy. And I’m so pleased with my contractor that I’m blogging about it.

This is how I work, too

I have deliberatedly decided to build my own business with no employees other than myself. I edit books, run writing workshops, and ghostwrite articles, book proposals, and books. My work costs a lot. I justify it based on my specialized training as a former analyst and my writing expertise. The people who need what I do will get a lot more value from me than from a typical writer or editor.

My philosophy is like Britton’s — the price is the price, but once we make a deal, you will get what you paid for at the price you paid for it.

I am in California as I write this. I just met with two companies I’m doing writing jobs for. One of the clients asked “What’s the cost for this trip?” He was surprised when I told him it was just the cost of the plane ticket — because meetings like this are what I need to do the job right.

Another pair of authors for whom I’m editing a book wants to brainstorm better ideas, even though the writing is supposed to be well underway. I’m on a train to New York to meet with them next week. This wasn’t part of the original deal, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s what the book needs, so I’m doing it.

One article I’m ghostwriting is about to go to its sixth draft. I didn’t plan for so many reviews. But I can see the end, and the quality of the work demands it — we’re pitching a very high-level publication to run it.

Of about 20 clients so far, only one has been unsatisfied. He said the quality of my writing was inadequate, although his requests for improvement (“Write like Daniel Pink”) weren’t something I could act on. I went as far as I could with the source material, but when it became clear we weren’t going to get to a point where he’d be satisfied, I refunded part of his initial payment, gave him the rights to everything I’d written so far, and cut him loose.

Anyone who does work for hire will tell you this is no way to run a business. As far as I’m concerned, it is the only way to run a business.

Like my contractor, I quote based on my best visibility into the job and then do whatever it takes to get to the end.

While I’ve only been doing this for two-and-a-half years, I’ve developed some principles that allow me to do this:

  • I charge what I’m worth. You pay a big chunk of that up front. I never discount.
  • I only do jobs that I can do really well. I don’t copy edit. I don’t write material you could get any writer to do. If you hire me, it’s because I’m exactly the right person for the job.
  • I choose my clients carefully. I need smart clients who have great source material, are comfortable with an intellectual give and take, and share my concept of good writing. Sometimes I actually check clients’ references before agreeing to work with them. If we’re going to partner on a job like this, we’ll have to be compatible.
  • I only do quality work. You can’t pay half and get something half as good for half as much of my time. I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t want see anything in print that I’m not proud of.
  • I’ll do what it takes to get to the end. If you change the scope of the job in a major way, we’ll have to talk about it. If the way you work is causing me enormous pain — for example, if people inside your company can’t agree on what they want — we’ll talk about that, too. But once I quote it, I’ll go to any reasonable level of effort to finish it.
  • I’m absurdly responsive. I respond very quickly to client requests, and turn around quality writing very fast. I want every client to feel as if I’m doing nothing but their work. To do this, I need to limit the number of jobs I work on at once, but I prefer to work that way. And I never miss a deadline.
  • I’ll challenge you. Even if you’re the CEO of a company that’s hired me, I won’t allow you to fool yourself about the quality of your ideas. When you’re wrong, I’ll tell you you’re wrong — nicely and respectfully, of course, but I will tell you.
  • I only work ethically. I won’t steal anyone else’s idea and let you pass them off as your own. I won’t lie or deceive to get somebody else’s secrets for you. I won’t fabricate quotes or allow you to use poorly sourced or deceptive statistics. Even if my name isn’t going on it, I obey these rules.

I guess that’s why I admired Britton Homes’ work — because I recognized a work ethic that’s similar to my own. Do the work that matches your expertise, charge a lot, and deliver an absurd level of quality and and service.

This is not the only way to run a business. But it’s the only way I can run mine.

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  1. Hear Hear,
    I have been doing something similar for 22 years as a bloke who helps fix broken small/medium sized manufacturing businesses.
    Not a smart way to run a business, I keep on being told (correctly) it does not scale, and the cash flow is, well, intermittent, but my clients thrive, and so do I.

    1. I agree. I have nowhere near the level of expertise as either of you, but I feel that if my and my company’s name are attached to a project, I have a responsibility (both to my client AND myself and my company) to provide high-quality work. Thus the high fee. Thanks for this post.

  2. thoughts on sample work? would you supply samples of your work to potential clients? I was recently asked to provide nine specific documents that would be client-specific (i.e., confidential), unless I scrubbed them, which usually makes them read like Mad Libs(R). I thought about it and declined. I think he was looking for me to do the work for him in hopes of getting a job. No thanks.

    But I debated about it with myself, and fellow professionals, so I’d love your take. Thanks.

    1. My policy is, you set a limit and you stick to it. For example, I always do a free consultation, I will share anything I have completed and, similar to what you describe, will share samples that were confidential and are now anonymized (I have a couple like that I can send out).

      But 9 documents is silly. You don’t want a client like that.

      1. TY. I’ll have to try to put together some documents (I did send him 13 pages of hard work), maybe chapter from my book on occupational safety.

        Thanks again.

        1. If there’s any way to have one set of samples that’s applicable to everyone, you’re in good shape. I’m sure that’s not easy for everyone to do. For me, doing book proposals, I can do that.

  3. The remodeling job was the perfect example for the latter part of the post. I loved what you have written about editing. That’s exactly what I feel as well. Deliver quality always. And hence, quote accordingly. The one line that made me grin fit to engulf my ears is this:

    I only do quality work. You can’t pay half and get something half as good for half as much of my time. I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t want see anything in print that I’m not proud of.

    That… is IT for me. I don’t ever want to come across a piece of work and feel ashamed that I did it shoddy job on it. No matter what I get paid, the quality of my work remains consistently high.