A common problem for contractors is the same "get it done" person who works hard to drive things through the business, may not be the right person to answer the phone and qualify customers.

Question: My bookkeeper answers the phone and helps set up estimating appointments. At times, she can be abrupt with customers and I am concerned she is not doing a good job of qualifying and helping people. What can I do to help fix this? She is really valuable and good at running the office.

Answer: A common problem for contractors is the same "get it done" person who works hard to drive things through the business, may not be the right person to answer the phone and qualify customers. This does not mean the person cannot do it without a little bit of training and establishing a procedure to follow. One thing that might help is to create a checklist of questions for her to follow and fill out. Since she is an organized person and a bookkeeper, she is accustomed to following a system. A simple question list might look like this.

Do you mind if I ask you a few questions so that we can better serve you?

How did you hear about us? At this point, it is a qualified lead if the person says: you did the neighbor's house, he is a repeat customer, he is in a targeted area in which you want to work, or some other strong reference point. If this is the case, you set the appointment. If the person's answer is: the yellow pages, "I am not sure," or a yard sign, then you ask a few more questions.

Tell what you are looking for in the job?

Where is it located?

What would you like done?

When would you like it done?

Have you developed a plan, have an architect or designer involved or received information from other contractors?

This information is helpful to see where you go next. After the person answers the phone using this system, they can tell the "tire kickers" from the buyers. The buyers can be turned over to sales and estimating or an appointment can be set. The people who are getting 10 estimates and are not serious can be told you have a six-week waiting list for appointments, you do not do this type of work, or there is minimum charge for an estimate, etc. At this point, they will simply go away.

Question: I have been having problems with one of my senior workers. He has been here a long time and believes he should be promoted to supervisor. I am concerned that he will fail. He has never been very strong with paperwork and is not very good at asking for help, but he is a nice guy and has a lot of pride. What should I do?

Answer: There are several options, all of which can be tricky. Since I do not know your exact situation, you have to think about what is really going on and pick an option based on what you think will best work for you. Here are some thoughts:

Have you actually sat down and talked with him to see what he is thinking? Older, more mature workers can be left behind and not communicated with. Be patient and do a little probing. Make sure something else is not driving this. Maybe your company has gotten bigger and you don't talk with him very often, or he is having personal financial problems, or it's just an old-fashioned mid-life crisis. If it is not about money or being the main man, there may be a way to create another position or opportunity while leaving him in the field. Maybe he could help with equipment on an overtime basis, help with training or interview someone. Make sure you know what the real deal is prior to putting him in a position where he will fail.

Do you have a job description that includes all the requirements? If paperwork or computer skills are part of the position, having that as an upfront given is important. Sometimes, what we think we want is really not what we want. Having the needs and duties clearly defined helps us figure that out.

Advertise the position and let him apply with everyone else. This allows you to show a group of applicants that it is not just about choosing him. It is a much less personal process. Once you have narrowed the group down to two or three people, you can personality test him and the other candidates and then go over it. This gives you a basis to show why you are making a decision and how you could be setting him up for failure. Use a good test, something a real personnel psychologist would use. I recommend Dan Kohler with PROGRO (804-272-1992). These tests are each in the $150 range and he will go over them with you. In the long run, this will save you a lot of money and aggravation. The tests are not perfect - they do not test intelligence, social issues, learning disorders and a lot of other stuff - but they are a great way to see how they will fit in your organization and particularly with you. You may also want to test yourself.

If you do end up promoting him, make a big deal about it being temporary and how you may need him back in the field. This gives you an "out" if the promotion does not work. You can always emphasize how much he was missed in the field, and he can save face and go back to the old position. Combine this with an approach of having him help with equipment, safety or hiring, and you may be able to keep a valuable employee.

In closing, if you make filling a position a hiring process and not a schoolyard approach of picking who will be on your team next, you will find it easier to deal with these types of situations. Remember, as owners we do things we do not particularly like, but because we are owners, we force ourselves to do it. Employees are employees, not owners. If they were as driven as owners, they would be our competitors and not our employees. So putting an employee in a position that is wrong for their personality or skill level is much more likely to fail than having an owner do those same things. I also want to point out that many employees do well in a particular job and we work around their shortcomings. So this is not an exact science, but you are more likely to win if you use some logic and structure as part of the hiring and promotion process.

Question: Workers compensation rates have risen through the roof and I am competing with more and more people who are using illegal subs and not paying workers' comp. It really has become a problem. What can I do?

Answer: Well, if you saw someone breaking into a store robbing a clerk or stealing from a bank, I am sure you would call the police. These businesses are stealing from your family, the insurance system, the state, etc. Turn them in. Our taxation system is based on compliance. We do not have enough people to go door-to-door and police the system. If noncompliance reaches the point where most people do not obey the rules, it can undermine the basic system we have put in place. In some parts of the country, in certain trades, noncompliance has reached a level at which being legal is almost impossible. Not policing this may one day force you out of business or into becoming a cheater yourself. Just like the one speeder the state trooper tickets, you may be that person who gets caught. Adapting the philosophy of "everyone does it," is a very dangerous approach. Many of our states are broke and eventually government will have to start policing this process. Since you are a legal business and established, you will be the easiest criminal to find.

So how do you turn cheaters in? You can go to the federal level but using state resources might bring better results. Call your state taxation departments. Remember, these contractors are not paying unemployment taxes and many of the subs they are employing are not paying state taxes. You also can call your workers compensation board. Tolerating the process is not in your long-term best interest. In grade school, you were a bad guy if you "ratted" on your buddies and turned them into the teacher. These illegal competitors are not your buddies. Tolerating illegal competitors is unfair to the people who play by the rules.