Honor the Craft

There was a time when tradesmen were some of the most respected citizens in a community. Until the industrial revolution modernized construction, tradesmen studied their craft. They apprenticed for years with master craftsmen. They learned to distinguish and draw details from the classical orders. They supported the publication of pattern books. They came to work clean shaven, and they were well spoken.

But these days, people who work with their hands have a tough time getting respect. And if the clients we work for don’t respect us, how can we expect them to pay us respectable fees?

A couple years ago I went for an early breakfast at a diner on Long Island. Being close to the Hamptons where only the finer establishments prosper, they were in the middle of a large and elaborate exterior remodel project. The restaurant was full. I’d taken the last seat near one of the front windows, eating eggs and pancakes as two carpenters arrived for work. They drove a big, loud van. Their jeans were worn through with holes and covered with paint, dried glue, and who-wants-to-know-what-else. They wore ragged T-shirts. On the back of one was a large black skull; beneath it the word “Death.” The shirt didn’t bother me. I’d seen a lot worse.

Like every other carpenter, I watched and compared the tools I use to the tools they use. After all the tools were in place, the taller one turned his profile to the restaurant, put an index finger against his nose, and cleared his nasal passages, one at a time. I wasn’t the only customer who stopped eating.

Sure, construction is a great career for folks who want to be free from the cubicle life, but too many carpenters today think they’re also free to dress as they please, free to swear and spit, free to wear their hair in any fashion, free to take their shirt off in the summer, free to leave home for work without shaving, even without showering. If our industry has a problem with respect, it’s our own fault. Many trade contractors and carpenters fail to uphold even the simplest standards of behavior. Some believe that the fancy logo on their business card is the secret to success. Phooey.

In my 30-plus years as a contractor, I’ve probably handed out fewer than 50 business cards — most of my cards go to other trade professionals. Our steady stream of work has always come from referrals. Our most powerful advertisement is our appearance and the appearance of our crew.

When a prospective client opens the door to their home, they’re judging you instantly — first and foremost they’re judging if you’ll respect them — respect their home and their family. Yes, respect is a two-way relationship. If you don’t respect your customers, how can they respect you? For that reason, I always wear a collared shirt to work, whether I’m working on a job or submitting an estimate — you never know when you’ll meet a prospective client. The way you and your crew are dressed, and how you behave, is all your client might know about you.

Respect isn’t something that comes with a handshake. Respect must be earned over time. That’s why your crew must be dressed appropriately, too. A crew that’s dressed alike, even if they have green hair and nose rings, has a professional look. That’s the first step.

There are other steps, too. In future articles, I’ll discuss many ways in which remodelers can improve client relationships. In tight, competitive times like these, nothing is more important than developing long-term trusting relationships with your customers. Being a successful tradesperson is a serious career, requiring serious effort and serious study, all of which can lead to a rich and successful life. Honor the craft and your customers will honor you.