How this Denver painting business built systems with better service

In the painting business industry, the barrier to entry is pretty small.  I recently wrote a blog post on titled: Are all Denver Painting Contractors Idiots?  Now, I know that may be offensive to some, but in reality that is the perception that most people hold about our profession.  To be a Denver painter is a difficult business, and to grow into something larger than just one guy, a truck and a few helpers/painters, you need to have systems.

Denver Painting Business

How I started my Denver Painting Business

I started my Denver painting business like many…in college.  I first worked for a company that “hired” all college students, and “taught” us to paint, sell, manage, and market all in one week.  And of course, since I was 18 years old, I was naive enough to believe that I could be successful, and that was plenty of training.  Working my way through college, I made good money, but I was simply flying by the seat of my pants.  Through it all, my dad would tell me, “Now Nick, remember…you are going to school so you don’t have to paint for the rest of your life.”  Well, 26 years later, boy have I shown him!

I did get out of painting for about four years.  After getting my degree in marketing, and working for a few different companies, I realized that I was pretty unhappy working for other people. In 1999, I started my Denver painting business.  But this time, I wasn’t going to be un business just for 4 months in the summer…this time it was for real.  Up until this point, I had only really known how to paint exteriors.  I had done a few interior jobs, but boy, did those not go well.  So, I knew the best thing I could do was to hire someone that had interior painting experience.  From there, I just kept hiring people.  Today as a Denver painter, I have a staff of  17 painters, two office gals, two sales/project managers, and two logistics guys (one is very part-time), and me, the CMO, or Chief Marketing Officer.  A lot has happened in the last 17 years, but it all changed when I started to build systems for my paint contracting business.

I believe what separates the mediocre Denver painting contractors from the truly exceptional ones is systems.  Any Denver painter can have the skills it takes to paint a room…we are not talking brain surgery here.  To deliver on a promise of showing up, and getting the job done day in and day out, takes systems.  If a painter is reliant on just himself, or maybe him and one other really good guy, the system will break down.  He will over promise, get sick, or his back-up will let him down.

How we created painting business systems.

About five years ago, my wife and I were up in Breckenridge, CO for the weekend with friends.  One of the evenings, we were playing cards, and our friend Jaime told us she wanted to start a business building systems for small companies.  She had a background (when she was younger) working on logistics and systems for a large company, and thought there might be a need with smaller companies.  I jumped on it, and said, “Well, you can start with me!”  I had read Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth TWELVE times, and still could not figure out how to do it myself.  We had even written an employee manual, and had attempted writing down systems SO many times.  But you know how it is, you have to RUN the business. Who has time to write about the business?  Well, today, I have time, but we will get to that.

The process took us about 8 months.  We would meet regularly, but the great part was Jaime documenting our processes from an outsider’s perspective.  She would sit with me, sit with my painters, my office staff, AND she even met with some of our customers.  She did not just want to get my ideas on how things should be done, but how things were BEING done in the field, AND how is all of that impacting the customer.  She helped me identify not only the things that were not working in my painting business, but also helped me see things and problems that I wasn’t even aware of.  To this day, we still try to identify problems and document any new changes to our procedures.  At first, it is  a bit daunting, but once you start down the road, see some of the affects, and get control of your painting business, you soon realize (or at least I did), how valuable these systems are.

Jaime mainly helped us document and systematize our production procedures, but once she showed us how, we were able to document and record our systems for most of the areas in my Denver painting business.  Here are some of the areas you will need to consider:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Project management
  • Production
  • Office/admin tasks
  • Hiring
  • Communication

How has this changed my painting process?

From a painting business owner’s perspective, it has changed everything.  My wife and I were able to take two weeks off last summer to go to Italy (and my project manager at the time had just quit).  I took three vacations this summer for a total of four weeks (and we had the biggest sales month ever in August), we have doubled in size this year, and will have our biggest sales and production year in company history, and personally, I get to focus on what I love to do…and be out of some of the day to day business management tasks that I dislike.

You might be wondering, why does this matter to me, the homeowner? All I care about is you do a great job painting my house.  But I want to assure you, it has everything to do with why you should choose Walls by Design to be your Denver painter, and why you should not settle.

Setting an Appointment

Every homeowner knows what it is like to get bids from a Denver painter or any other contractor.  I am experiencing it right now for a patio.  You first search around for who to call, and then you have to make the calls.  If you are anything like me, I just cringe when I have to start this process, because I know I will be waiting a long time on most of the steps in the process.

Once you start making phone calls, you have to wait to talk to someone.  On my first contractor, I called and waited three days to get a call back, and I sent an email through his website as well.  Granted, I did call on a Friday, but it felt like eternity.  It would have been nice to at least get an email letting me that they would get back to me.

On the Phone.

In our Denver painting business, we have a system for answering the phones.  We have two gals in the office to answer the phones.  So most calls get answered, but if they do go into voice mail, a call back happens usually within a few hours, if not a few minutes.  If a request comes through our email or through Facebook, we have an automated system that responds to each homeowner.  My staff also watches the emails that come in as well, and we personally respond to all calls and emails that come in late on Friday and on Saturday, letting homeowners know that we are thankful they reached out to us, and that someone will call them to set up an appointment on Monday.

In addition to all of this, we also have a backup answering service that answers our phones from 4 to 6 pm each night so homeowners have a live person to talk to.  In the near future, we will also be offering an online appointment option.  We find that more and more of our customers are busy and hard to connect with directly on the phone, so allowing people to book their own appointment times will really expedite the process for some people.  I truly believe to offer good customer service, a Denver painting contractor needs to listen to their customers, and sometimes, that means watching behaviors and reacting to what might best serve all parties involved.

Awkward Estimates.

Once you have finally gotten an appointment with your Denver painter, now you are hopeful that they just show up.  In my instance, all of the three contractors I set appointments with did show up, two were right on time, and one was late.  I have heard from customers that Denver painters are often times either way too early, or routinely late. Being early for an estimate is great, but if you are an hour early, and do not call, I find that just rude.  What happens most of the time, however, is Denver painters showing up late.  Things happen, I understand that, and most homeowners do too, but all one needs to do is call, and the appropriate time to do this is 30 minutes or so prior to the appointment, when you know you are going to be late.

Once the Denver painter is there, how does he or she show up?  Are they covered in paint, or do they smell like they just got out of a smoke filled bar?  Many times when I show up to an estimate for a new home purchase, I will find myself estimating the house right alongside of another Denver painter or two, and most of the time, they look as though they literally just came off a ladder.  Not only is this uncomfortable for the homeowner, but it communicates that they are the chief cook, bottle washer, and sales guy.

Another interesting dynamic that I see often is the tag team sales appointment.  Not sure what else to call it, but you may have experienced this in the past.  You are expecting to meet with one person to come and give you an estimate, and when you open the door, there is Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb.  I’m sorry, but I have always found this to be the most ridiculous thing ever.  Two guys show up, usually one super big guy, and one super skinny guy.   Typically, only one of them talks to you, but neither one really knows what they are doing.  They may know how to paint, but they often times, completely disorganized and just trying to score their next paycheck.  If you don’t believe me, the next time you run into this, make sure to walk them out to their truck on the way out.  I would put money that the dash board is full of receipts, and trash, the floorboards and back seat are littered with tools, empty food wrappers, and trash.  Run from this contractor like the wind, especially when they offer you the “cash discount” which inevitably comes.

First impressions.

When it comes to sales, a system that helps gather information and solve problems is the only way to start a relationship.  At Walls by Design, we teach our estimators a process that not only shows our customers that we respect their time, but we do our best to gather all the appropriate information on the front end which builds trust. First of all, our office staff will confirm each appointment the day prior to any estimate to make sure schedules are still in sync.  Next, we teach our guys to arrive early to every appointment and to wait down the street until about 10 min prior to the appointment.  Then, and only then, is it appropriate to ring the bell.

On opening the door, you will see an appropriately dressed estimator with a logoed Walls by Design shirt and an iPad.  We use technology as often as we can to ensure accuracy and to speed up the estimating process.  Our team member will ask you about what you are considering for your project, and they will make suggestions and help find solutions to any problems.  We believe highly in educating customers not only on “what” to do, but also “why” something should be done a certain way.

As for our estimators, they are not just sales guys, they also project manage their own projects.  We found out the hard way that homeowners appreciate dealing with one person from start to finish on their projects.  When we handed a homeowner off from the sales rep to a completely different project manager once we had built a trust with someone made things hard.  Once we shifted to our current system, we found that our customers were consistently happier and more confident in us as an organization.

The Estimate.

Waiting for an estimate to arrive can be frustrating.  For my patio project, I received the first estimate a week and a half later, after I had to follow up with the contractor.  One estimate was returned within a day, just as planned.  I am still waiting on the last estimate more than two weeks later.  Who do you think I am more inclined to sign with?

I understand that with a deck project there are a lot of different factors that go into an estimate.  What baffles me is how it could possibly take a Denver painter 3 days or a week to return a paint estimate.  Painting is primarily straight forward.  I once worked on an estimate for a 30,000 square foot project.  It did take me several weeks to put that bid together, but I put together a whole packet of information on each room, a spreadsheet that broke all areas out, and had to consult with three different people for the estimate.  But this is not typical.

For most Denver painters, I believe estimating is an afterthought, and there is no rhyme or reason to how they put together their estimates on a consistent basis.  The biggest factors being how busy are they, and what part of town is the customer. As to why it takes so long…it comes down to organization.  They have too many things on their plate, and sitting down on a computer at the end of the day is the last thing they want to do.  I believe most contractors in this scenario would be better off hand-writing their painting estimates, and leaving them with the homeowner on the spot.  But often times they do not have time to do this.  They only allocate 15 min to walk each project, as they either have to get back to their current project or they have too many fires to put out.

Estimating different.

I understand as a homeowner, if you have called looking for an estimate on something, you are ready to buy.  Maybe not all the time, but at least 75% of the time.  Sometimes you just don’t know if you can afford a certain service.  I know I have been there.  I had no idea how expensive a porch and patio cover would be.  I know now that stamped concrete runs about $15/sq. foot, and a covered 14’ X 14’ roof is about $8000.  I learned a lot about the process, but I had to ask questions, and gather information.  You as a homeowner are in the same situation when you bring Denver painters out to your house.  You have no idea what it takes to paint the walls in your 18’ X 20’ family room with vaulted ceilings, or how much it costs to paint your kitchen cabinets.

Because we have set questions to ask when we arrive at your home, we will help flesh out a lot of issues most homeowners never think to ask.  Where will we clean equipment?  Will we be the only contractors in your home when we come to paint?  What will you do with the dog while we are painting? What bathroom would you like us to use?  All great questions that most homeowners never think about and most painting contractors never ask…even after you have signed a contract.

Next, because our estimators use an iPad to collect project details, we are able to return all estimates back within 24 hours, but usually within the same day.  Most homeowners are shocked actually, but it makes sense.  When the project is fresh in our mind, we can give a much better estimate of what it will take to complete a project; items are not missed and pertinent details are included.  To be honest, most estimates only take us about 10 minutes to type up once we have met with a homeowner, so it only makes sense to send it to you as soon as possible.  And because we have a system for estimating we can follow through on this on a consistent basis.

Follow up is Key.

Unfortunately, most contractors will never call you or follow up with you, unless you have called at a time when they have no work; in which case you will most likely hear from them daily.  At Walls by Design, we have a system for follow up.  After your estimate has been sent out, our office will call you to ensure that you have received your estimate.  It has been our experience that email addresses can get transposed, and spam folders are alive and working overtime.  We want to make sure you know we sent you your estimate, and if you have not, our office staff can re-send your proposal.  I cannot tell you how appreciative our customers have been for this over the years.

Moving Forward.

This might be where my knowledge of other Denver Painters weakens.  I am not privy to what happens next for most contractors.   I do know that many Denver painters, as well as painting contractors from across the country run their business with subcontractors.  The danger of this is that you are removed from knowing if the team you have on your project is covered for liability and workman’s compensation insurance.  Even if you receive proof of insurance from the Denver painter who give you a bid, it does not mean that the workers on your house are actually covered.  I am not an insurance guy nor am I a lawyer, but you may want to ask your insurance provider to find out what types of coverage you should see to insure that the company is properly insured.

Often times, Denver painters will promise a completion date, only to completely miss the deadline and to tie up a homeowner’s house for weeks.  These delays are usually caused by lack of staff or working on multiple projects at any given time.  To avoid this problem, it is best to put in a guaranteed completion date with a penalty for each day the project misses the deadline.  A $50 or $100 penalty is usually sufficient.  Allowing the painting contractor to set the completion date is fine.  You are not looking to speed them up on the front end, just guarantee the one or two week project does not go three or four weeks.

Systems difference.

At Walls by Design, we do several things to ensure that a project goes smoothly, and it all starts with our project review meeting.  We usually schedule these about three days to a week prior to the start date of the project.  Prior to this meeting, our homeowners work with our color designers to help select the colors for their project.  We find that most of our homeowners appreciate the assistance on color selection, not that they always need the help, but they comment that it is nice to have the reassurance from someone that works with color selection on a regular basis.

After the color selection is done, our homeowners meet with their project manager (also their estimator) to review the project scope, discuss the colors and where they go, and adjust any additions or subtractions that have occurred since the initial estimate appointment.  I believe that we have changes to our project about 70% of the time, and it is good to make sure we are all on the same page.

To ensure that all information is transferred to our team of painters, we have several checklists that spell out where things are to be cleaned, what room is to be started first, and where accent colors go.  To further ensure that all information is available to our teams, we have created a digital system that does not rely on papers that can get lost.  Again, we have found that technology, even for a Denver painter, can help create a better experience for homeowners.

As for scheduling and timeframes, we know that our teams of two can produce about $3000 worth of production in a week, and have found that a team of two is the most efficient way to execute on most painting projects.  More than two crews causes confusion in the average home.  We have a system for accountability, and unless forced out by other factors, our teams start and complete each project before going on to their next.

As for schedule guarantees, we have provided this on an as needed basis, but have always met the deadline.  We have a good track record of completing all projects on time, and we actually had an upset homeowner (only temporarily though) when we finished two days early on his project.  We try to stress that our guideline is an average ($600/day), as we have some painters that are faster than others. Our biggest focus is to make sure quality never suffers, and that we are not taking too long.

I will not go into our system for training our team in detail, but I will say we hire all our painters with little to no experience and teach them our system.  It is one of the biggest strategies that gives us a competitive advantage over any other Denver painter. Most painting contractors do not know how to train people, and thus always complain that their painters are idiots.  We start guys prepping, cleaning, and moving drop cloths, and let them prove to us that they want to learn, and that they are trainable.  We have built a system with four levels of prep painters, and four levels of lead painters, so we always know what each team member is capable of doing, and we set them up for success.  So know that if you have a new painter on your project, we will not let them do any task they are not capable of doing correctly.  It’s all about checks and balances.

Follow up after the project.

This may be the worst area where the average Denver painter fails. Once a paint contractor leaves your home, how will you get them to come back if you find something?  If the Denver painter you hired has only a few painters or helpers, they are most likely so focused on their next project, bids, or a million other things, and it will be next to impossible to get them to come back.  If you had a small project (under $2000), there should be little to no issues, especially if you were around to do a proper walk-thru prior to the team leaving.  If the Denver painter you hired hires sub-contractors, and is not present working on the project, wrapping up the project can be very difficult, as subs will have a tendency to run out as soon as possible.

Team focus.

When I started my Denver painting business, I never wanted to be a solo painter working by myself.  I knew there was power in building a team.  My last job I held in corporate America I had the opportunity to volunteer on a training team that was designed to help people in the company to understand their roll in the bigger organization, and I loved being a part of that. The larger we are, the easier it becomes to move, shift, and serve our painting customers.  Because we have over 9 teams of painters and two project managers, we are able to service our customers far better than the average Denver painter.  If we missed something on the walk through, our project manager can easily come back and take care of the issues.  If our customers move into a new home and the movers or carpet installers ding up the walls and trim, we can have a painter easily come back a week later to do a few touch-ups.

About 5 years ago, I realized that we had a few customers that would consistently ask us to come back to do touch-ups year after year. In response to this, we now offer a free touch-up program that allows a homeowner to schedule us year after year, to touch-up anything we have painted for them.  Our customers, especially our customers with small children really appreciate this service.  This along with our Lifetime Warranty truly helps differentiate our Denver painting business from other Denver painters.

The Value in Systems

With all that said, do you now see the difference between an average Denver painter and a painting business in Denver with systems?  I can explain it until I am blue in the face, but if you would like to SEE the difference, I recommend you grabbing a few estimates from some of the best paint contractors in Denver that I spoke about in a previous blog post, then call our office, and see for yourself.  We would love to show you, and not just tell you.

See you soon.

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