Ask Tim Garrison - The Builder's Engineer

I Like You, If...

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About 15-years ago I designed a pole barn for Mr. Potroste. He’s just now getting around to building it and ran into trouble during plan check because the codes have changed three times since 1998.

“Yeah, Garrison,” he said, “they’re making me re-engineer this thing. Seems the wind loads got ratcheted up. Since I gotta do that I may as well make some other changes I’ve been thinking about. I want to widen the building 12-feet and move some doors around. I hope it don’t cost too much money. And, oh yeah, I was also wantin’ to raise up the shed rafters and add an 18” roof overhang.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “But it’ll take a few hours of my time. How much did I charge you for the original design?”

He gave me a, you’re not going to believe this, but... look and said, “Five hunnerd dollars.”

To which I replied, “Well, that certainly was a good deal. Unfortunately it’ll be at least that much again. I can’t tell you the exact amount until I prepare an itemized estimate, which I’ll do and email you later today.”

We exchanged a few more pleasantries before parting ways. He was sooo nice.

Back at my desk it became clear that I would have to redesign nearly the entire building - there was almost nothing I could reuse.

My standard contract is a one-pager, the top portion showing an itemization of tasks, time, and rates. I don’t recall what my hourly rate was in the ‘90s but as one would expect it was lower than today. The bottom line came to $775. I emailed this with a short explanation.

A day went by without reply which surprised me because Potroste seemed in a rush. The following day my phone rang. “Garrison, this is Potroste. I got your contract and I gotta tell you I’m shocked. You told me five hunnerd and now it’s up to 775. That’s too much. Just cancel the whole thing and mail me back my old plans.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll do that today. But the fact is, I did not tell you the cost would be $500. I said it would be at least that much and I needed to do a breakdown to determine the exact amount. I’m sorry if I was unclear.”

“I know what I heard, Garrison. You said five hunnerd, which in my way of thinking is a man’s word. I don’t like being jacked around.”

“Again, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. I’ll mail your old plans today. Best of luck.”

I got off the phone and immediately addressed an envelope. My thoughts were along the lines of, good riddance.

Ten minutes later my phone rang. “Say, Garrison, Potroste here again. Y’know, I got to thinking and changed my mind. You can go ahead and do the engineering. I figger I could either pay your 775 or hire someone else and pay them a thousand. I appreciated that you were early to our meeting the other day and so I’d just as soon give you the business. Most engineer-types make me wait, and it seems they like doin’ it.”

I’m a big believer in true colors. I’ve written about it more than once: When someone shows you their true colors, pay attention. Potroste, ten minutes earlier, had shown me some of his. Essentially he had called me a liar. I am many things, but liar is not among them. In fact I go to great pains to ensure that I don’t even accidentally mislead someone.

Dilemma: Do I take the job or pass?

Knowing it was a gamble, I went ahead and took the job.

“Okay, sounds good,” I said. “I’ll get on that tomorrow and will be finished by end of the week.”

“Oh, you don’t have to bust a gut getting ‘er done,” he said. “The week after is fine. And by the way, I’m sorry if I came on a little strong. I just don’t like being jacked around and I thought you put it in concrete that the cost would be five hunnerd.”

“I understand,” I said. “Again, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. Let’s just put that behind us and get this thing done.”

I think we’re all guilty of modifying our behavior to some degree depending on whether we want something or whether we possess the thing someone else wants. As long as I could provide Potroste with the revised design he wanted for free or nearly so, he was so nice. But when my needs exceeded his willingness to give, his mannerism flipped. In truth, there was nothing vague or confusing about my original statement as to fee, even though I let him save face by saying it was a misunderstanding. Maybe his first phone call was a strong arm attempt to coerce a cheaper price?

On a related note is the arrogant building official who has a monopoly on a critical thing I frequently need: a building permit. It’s not like I can employ someone else to provide one. No, we are all stuck with the staff our jurisdiction has hired. Few things in life are more maddening than an incompetent or conceited plan checker or inspector. Have you ever known a public employee who quits for a job in the private sector? It’s amazing how they adjust their disposition when their paycheck depends on being likable.

In summary, do you behave differently when you want something as opposed to when you have the thing others want? The “thing” can be tangible like a building permit or a set of plans. My teenage son provides another excellent example. He’s so friendly when he wants money – he’s been known to actually initiate a conversation when he’s broke. But when I want chores done it’s a different deal.

The “thing” can also be intangible, like a friendship. How about people new to an area going out of their way to put forth a friendly face, then after they’ve built a social base, become snooty?

We shouldn’t make being nice a matter of if.




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About the Blogger

Tim Garrison, P.E.

thumbnail image Tim Garrison, the Builder's Engineer(tm), is the president of ConstructionCalc Software, Inc. He is the author of four books, including, Green Framing, An Advanced Framing How-To Guide. Tim stays current with industry trends as a practicing professional engineer. He is an active member of his local builder's association, teaching seminars on Green Framing, Microsoft Excel, and How To Profit In A Down Economy. Tim lives and works in Mount Vernon, WA.