"Trust marketing" is the way to go with people like me.

A recent survey by Opinion Research Corp. on behalf of the SCOTT® Rags in a Box business uncovered these top three complaints about contractors from respondents who had used an outside contractor in their homes within the last few years:

Not showing up when they say they will.

Jobs that take longer than expected to complete.

Waiting a long time for work to be scheduled.

As for pet peeves, the biggest ones reported by this group were:

Not cleaning up after the work is finished.

The mess and the dust.

The invasion of "personal space."

Respondents who had hired contractors were also asked to describe how they felt when contractors were in their homes. While one-third said it didn't bother them to have workers around, 17 percent reported feeling like they had to stay home all the time to protect their possessions from theft. Thirteen percent said they felt "creepy" with strangers roaming all over the house, and nine percent said they wished they could leave for vacation and come back when it was over. Six percent reported feeling like they were living in a demolition zone.

Overcoming Objections

How can home improvement contractors improve their image? One way, according to eight in 10 respondents, would be for them to wear gloves, shoe mitts, disposable coveralls and provide their own clean-up products, such as drop cloths, pre-moistened hand wipes or disposable towels that remove dirt, dust and paint.

Despite these concerns, most people will still need outside contractors because they don't have either the time or skills to do many home improvement jobs themselves. Nearly half of those who had hired contractors said they did so because of their own lack of skills, while one quarter cited lack of time. There were gender differences here, with women more likely to select lack of skills and men lack of time.

Overall impressions of the final outcome of a job by an outside contractor were largely positive, with close to half saying it generally met but did not exceed expectations. Nearly a quarter said it usually exceeded expectations. Only a small number said jobs rarely met expectations or boasted that they could have done the work better themselves. Ten percent reported feeling relieved not to have to do the work and seven percent said they were happy the job was over, but wondered how they would pay the bill.

The jobs most likely to be turned over to a contractor were: additions or renovations, followed by outside work-such as roofing, gutters or siding, electrical work, window replacement, carpeting or flooring, plumbing, and kitchen or bathroom remodeling. The two home improvement jobs people were most likely to do themselves were painting and wallpapering. Saving money was the main reason people said they would undertake a home improvement job themselves. Next was pride and satisfaction in doing the job themselves.

Word of Mouth Rules

Despite a proliferation of circulars, flyers and Yellow Pages ads, the vast majority of respondents (81 percent) said they would be most likely to hire contractors based on recommendations from neighbors, friends or relatives. No other referral source came close. More than half the respondents reported checking references all or most of the time.

I can relate to these findings. Although I've spent 27 years writing about the construction industry, my most indelible impressions about it have been formed by eight expensive renovation projects done to the homes my wife and I have owned over the years. Contractor performance on seven of those jobs ranged from satisfactory to superb. The other one was a nightmare.

That was the first job, a combined kitchen remake and bathroom addition in our first home back in the early 1980s. Not enough room here for all the gory details, but suffice to say that a job begun in September that was supposed to have been finished in time for us to host our family's Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, did not get completed until the following spring. My family spent half a year washing dishes in the bathtub and spitting out plaster dust-although we did get long respites from the latter when the work crew failed to show up for weeks at a time.

Subsequent major projects included replacing a behemoth boiler dating from the early 20th century, a kitchen remodel in our next home, a family room renovation, landscaping, a whole-house re-pipe, a vinyl siding/window replacement project, and most recently, we hired a firm to build bookshelves and a work station in a new condo we moved into last year.

All renovation is disruptive to occupants, but these other big projects were a lot easier to take than our original encounter with home remodeling. It's not that glitches never arose, but when they did the contractors took care of the problems to our satisfaction. All of them finished the work in about they time they said they would and performed admirably not only in workmanship, but in the equally important area of customer care.

Low-bidding Buzzards

It's no coincidence that the only intolerable experience of the bunch turned out to be the first and only job for which we sought competitive bids. We certainly got our money's worth from those low-bidding buzzards!

Every contractor we've hired since then for routine home repairs or major renovations has been someone we knew or recommended to us by close friends. We endured some sticker shock along the way, and at times had to scale back plans to accommodate our budget. Yet, I've turned a deaf ear to all those who told me this or that job should have cost thousands of dollars less. I would not accept a rebate of those thousands in return for the kind of hassles we experienced doing business with a low bidder.

Interesting thing is, to some extent we considered ourselves lucky even on that problem job. When it eventually did get finished, the workmanship turned out to be pretty good, especially the custom kitchen cabinetry. That's because the contractor was a great carpenter. He simply was in over his head running a remodeling firm. Like so many contractors, he failed to understand that craftsmanship has little to do with business success.

Skilled craftsmen frequently make terrible businessmen. They tend to be perfectionists who take pride in their work, but hate the nuts and bolts of running a business. It strikes them as crass having to deal with schedules, accounting, marketing, supervision and, worst of all, sales and talking to customers. Craftsmen just want to be left alone to do the job right.

These are admirable traits in someone who works with the tools. But a businessman has to attend to all the grubby details that a craftsman thinks beneath him. The bankruptcy courts are filled with great craftsmen who thought their skills alone were enough to guarantee business success. What counts for more is operating in a business-like manner. Such as, first of all, showing up on the job more often than not! And returning phone calls. And not telling lies to the customers because you think that's what they want to hear.

On that nightmare job, one particular encounter sticks in my mind after all these years. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my wife and I begged the contractor to level with us about whether we needed to make alternative plans for the holiday. The creep looked us in the eye and swore they'd get the job done by then. With one eye on the supermarket ads for turkeys and the other on the pathetic disarray of our living quarters, I had the chilling realization that I was face to face with a pathological liar. Despite the great carpentry, I warned all my friends away from doing business with that firm.

Never Again

And never again would I trust my property to strangers. As the survey just cited pointed out, more than four out of five people are like me in seeking referrals when in need of a contractor. This is an audience worth cultivating.

What might be called "trust marketing" doesn't take any special training, and costs much less than most advertising. A lot of it is simply staying attuned to basic business courtesies. You don't have to go to school or attend seminars to learn them. It's simply a matter of treating people the way you'd like to be treated-aka, "the golden rule." It's a mystery why so many contractors don't get it.