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Trust By Verify with Jeff Cochran

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Trust by verify, it sounds good in theory, but how can it really be implemented? At SNI, we typically advise our clients not to make adjustments to their prices when a potential buyer claims that one of their competitors is cheaper until they see hard evidence.

I asked my colleague, Jeff Cochran, for his thoughts, and with a chuckle he said he could tell me a story about how he recently implemented it.

I had a project; I needed to get my driveway paved. Being a negotiator, I knew that I needed to do good preparation. The first step in preparing was to collect estimates so that I would have alternatives. Therefore, I contacted three contractors, provided them with the details of the project, and collected estimates. Of course, all three estimates were different. The most and least expensive estimates were significantly different. The first contractor I called was an acquaintance. He gave me an estimate of $8,500 to do the job. The second estimate came from a contractor who I found from an ad in my local paper. His estimate for the project was $7,500. Lastly, there was a sign on the driveway up the road. When I called the number on the sign to inquire about the cost of my project, I got an estimate of only $6,000.

Naturally, I was inclined to choose the least expensive contractor. However, his offer seemed too good to be true. I did some research, and sure enough, I found out that cheaper offers like the one I received for $6,000 raise a major concern that the contractor would skimp on materials. Not using the correct amount of asphalt on the driveway could lead to major problems.

I went back to all three contractors and asked for the specifications on the work they would be doing. All three indicated that they would use four and a half inches of blacktop. Since the first contractor at $8,500 was an acquaintance, I went to him to give him right of last refusal. I informed him that one of his competitors was willing to do the job for $6,000, $2,500 least than his estimate.  I was very surprised with his response because he told me that there was no way for him to drop his price without losing money on the job. In turn, I asked him how come his competitor could do the job for $6,000? His response was that the competitor would most likely skimp on materials and do a bad job.

It was the end of the summer and I wanted to get this project done while the weather was still nice. How could I choose the least expensive contractor but know for certain that he was going to do quality work? I had him put in writing a detailed description of the work he was going to be doing and the specs that needed to be met. I then confirmed with him that what he had written is what he planned to deliver. Still, I remained a bit skeptical. Just his word alone didn’t seem like enough. Thinking back on my negotiations skills, I thought trust but verify. I went back to the contractor who would have cost me $8,500 and asked him if for $200 he could have one of his guys supervise the work of the least expensive contractor, guaranteeing that he delivered what he said he was going to deliver.

It was a good thing I did! In the end, the contractor I opted to go with for $6,000 did not have enough asphalt to finish the job, so he suggested that he use three and a half inches of asphalt instead of the correct amount, four and a half inches, to save time and money. It was one of the hottest days of the summer. He told the inspector that he knew that they were both exhausted from a long day’s work and ready to go home. He even added that I probably would never notice the difference of an inch. He was right. How would I have ever found out until I started seeing cracks and needed to dish out an additional $2,000-3,000, if not more, to pay to repair his shortcomings?

Luckily, the inspector who I hired insisted that he do the job correctly, go back to the asphalt plant, and get another load. The $200 I paid for the inspector to be present was well worth it and it potentially saved me thousands. When I first thought about it, I wondered why he cared enough to prolong the project and make the least expensive contractor use the correct amount of asphalt. In the final analysis, it made perfect sense why the inspector would be adamant that the job gets done correctly. He was not going to let a competitor steal potential business by offering to do the “same job” for cheaper when in reality he was shorting clients.