Two Coats Plus Prep Work

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

 – Jerry Garcia

I just read a blog about the implied value of certifications, and finding some limitations to the practice.  The context for the blog was about commonly sought certs in the technology and project management space.  It reminded me that it was time to write this message about the perceived value of tangible evidence and how it can be used to make… or undermine… a case.

A zillion years ago, my wife and I bought our first house.  Perfect starter house, warts and all.  [Bought it from a famous aviatrix, Elinor Smith Sullivan… cool lady who just passed away.] As first time home owners are given to doing, we started sprucing up the place, which included exterior paint for the wood shingles.  Given the grading of the property, the first floor was actually 3 stories high in the front, which made it way out of my league for ladder safety, so we looked for a contractor.  Found two in the local paper.

The first was Sam, an experienced guy with lots of local references.  He let us hang with him as he’s working up the estimate, and we could tell he was a pro, seeing tons of stuff that just wasn’t distinct to us. The second contractor was the Garry Brothers, who were basically just a bunch of kids (really were brothers) hungry for work.  The thought of them on ladders 50 feet up in the air was a little scary, but we continued to talk.

After each visit to prepare estimates, both contractors went away to figure it all out.  When we received the estimates from each, I was struck by the fact the both estimates were worded exactly the same way:

Two coats plus prep work                            $xxxx.xx

Sam was just over double the price estimate of the Garry Brothers.  So I called up the brothers.  What did they (or was it we) miss? Were they going to use cheapo whitewash? Nope, they’d use any brand and color paint we like.  Did they include the back porch and basement windows? Yup, they were in there.

Here’s the point: my wife and I just knew that Sam would do a better job.  His experience and his body of work supported that.  But the way both estimates were identically phrased kind of neutralized his value proposition for the service.  Either way, we bought the same thing: two coats plus prep work.

The insidious nature of any service business is that each service event cannot be judged until it has been delivered.  So we look for clues to set our expectations and base our selection. The intangibles tipped toward Sam, but there was no basis to measure the value.  The tangible wording of what was to be delivered leveled the playing field.

We went with the Garry Brothers.  At half the price, we figured the worst case was that we could get the place painted again in as little as a year and be no worse off.  Fast forward: the boys did a great job, no accidents… even refunded a few bucks because they over estimated.

So certifications… or any other example of a tangible item meant to represent an intangible… are meant to assure us that we’re getting the real deal.  But for the service provider (and aren’t we all service providers), they are a double-edge sword.  They make unproven quantities look stronger, but they also neutralize over-performers to look like everyone else.  Sometimes you get lucky, as we did.  [Luck counts, so enjoy the good fortune and accept the bad… you own it either way.]  It’s little wonder that the best people and organizations hate any process that could make them look like everyone else.  It’s even more curious that they use the same descriptors to not only to describe themselves, but even to define themselves.  Certifications, RFPs with rigid response guidelines, etc., all work to create the illusion of assurance where none can be provided.

The best alternative is to be unique, to offer so much value that customers see you as the only one who can deliver what you do.  There are unlimited ways to do that if you listen to what customers need, or want, or what bothers them.  The Dead (miss you, Jerry) could have acted as if they were yet another band.  True, they made great music, but their business model was unique, since embraced by Phish.  They were the only ones who gave away the music, building a following to fill their (paid) concerts and merchandise.

Besides, if everyone has a unique value, everyone can win.  If everyone plays a me-too game, there are usually 1-2 big winners and a ton of losers.  Doesn’t sound very exciting to me...

How about you?