Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is immortalized by his famous statement that while he couldn’t define pornography, “I know it when I see it.” He pretty much spoke for all of us in that regard.



Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is immortalized by his famous statement that while he couldn’t define pornography, “I know it when I see it.” He pretty much spoke for all of us in that regard.

Common sense is another quality that’s hard to define, but most of us know it when we see it in action. That’s why it’s called “common.”

Or do we?

It’s probably fair to say that most people recognize common sense most of the time, but the exceptions make us slap our foreheads. I’ve seen enough exceptions in the business world to raise some nasty red welts above the bridge of my nose.

The dividing line between common sense and nonsense isn’t as clear-cut as people might imagine. I offer the following examples from the business world.

Common sense: Businesses must establish policies and procedures. Employees must be told when to start work and when it is permissible to leave, and what is expected of them performance-wise. They must be instructed to do certain tasks a certain way or chaos would result. Jobs would be botched, payments uncollected, bills unpaid, on and on. Customers, too, must be governed by rules defining what they are entitled to receive in the way of goods and services in return for X amount of dollars spent. Yes indeed, it is simply a matter of common sense that businesses must have rules.

Nonsense: “Sorry, it’s against company policy.”

If you’re human, and there aren’t too many non-humans reading this article, you’ve no doubt heard that phrase from time to time throughout your life as either an employee or a customer or both. Doesn’t it send a chill of indignation up your spine?

One example among many: Ever have a retail business decline an expired coupon? What’s the point of that? The purpose of discount coupons is to attract customers who wouldn’t otherwise patronize the business and who hopefully will become regular customers paying full price most of the time. That purpose is still served even beyond the expiration date. Expiration dates are printed to create a sense of urgency, and to help the business track how many customers a certain print run of coupons drew. In fact, smart retailers will even accept competitors’ coupons, which also serve the main purpose.

Some rules don’t apply to all situations. Some rules are just plain stupid. If a rule is so rigid that it threatens to cost you a good customer or employee, scrap the rule or change it. Avoid shooting yourself in the foot.

Common sense: In these tough times you can’t afford to be turning down any work that’s available. Chase everything you can and bite the bullet when it comes to working for little or no profit. At least it will keep your crews busy and cash flowing.

Nonsense: There’s some truth in the notion that you have to lower your sights in a down market. But it’s also a recipe for disaster. In May 2004 I wrote an article for this publication titled “12 Reasons to Just Say ‘No.’” You can find it in the archives section of www.roofingcontractor.com. Take a look at it if you want to find out some of the pitfalls of jobs you are better off without.

Common sense: Experience counts. Apprentices aside, you can’t afford to hire novices or people who have only marginal trade or office skills.

Nonsense: Common sense holds to an extent, but turns to nonsense when carried to an extreme. It’s OK to run want ads saying “experience required,” but I cringe when I see ads specifying “three years experience,” or “minimum five years experience.” Think about it. Is everyone who’s worked at a job for five years automatically better at it than someone who’s been doing it for a year or two? Some individuals are faster learners than others. Also keep in mind that a learning curve is steep during the first year or so but declines each one thereafter. After a couple of years at a given job most individuals absorb upwards of 90 percent of what they need to know to perform that job effectively. Common sense tells us so.

Sometimes experience is as much a hindrance as an asset. Veteran workers may adhere to outmoded ideas and are reluctant to accept much-needed change. They are apt to do things a certain way simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Look for quality hand-in-hand with longevity.

Common sense: Word of mouth is the best form of advertising - as well as the cheapest. Why spend money we don’t have when referrals cost nothing?

Nonsense: For the most part I agree. Companies with a good reputation don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money promoting themselves. The nonsensical part comes into play with the notion held by many company owners that the way to generate referrals is to do good work, then sit back and wait for referrals to come their way.

Customers who like the way you perform may cut loose with attaboys and a pat on the back at job completion, but as time passes they have other priorities. A few months down the road you’re out of sight and out of mind. They may not even remember your name.

This is something I learned from personal experience. Years ago my wife and I had vinyl siding installed on the home we lived in at the time, and it was the best renovation project we’d ever experienced. The contractor was terrific from our first meeting until the job was finished - actually, even beyond. I remember being impressed with the fact that he stopped by a month or two after completion (after our final payment!) just to make sure everything was OK.

Well, a year or so later an acquaintance asked me to refer him to someone who did that kind of work, and I was embarrassed to find out that I couldn’t remember the company’s name or that of its owner. I had to dig out some old paperwork to find out, but a lot of people wouldn’t go through that trouble. Service firms that rely on repeat business don’t have as much of a problem as companies, like many of yours, that may do only a single project in a lifetime for a given customer.

Referrals need to be cultivated. Develop a customer satisfaction review form to pass out after completion of every job. A key question to put on this form: “Can we put your name on our referral list of satisfied customers?” Instant testimonials!

Common sense: First impressions are lasting impressions.

Nonsense: Absolutely true, and most business owners would agree. Where the nonsense comes in is that few realize that the first impression given by their company often comes from one of its lowest-paid employees.

That’s the person who answers your phone. In big companies it’s usually a full-time receptionist who is trained to be pleasant with callers. That’s her job. (Sorry if that sounds sexist, but it’s almost always a she.) In small companies, the chore may fall to whoever in the office is most readily available, and that person usually is busy with other duties at the time. Nobody likes interruptions, so the caller frequently will find a chilly reception on the other end. Not necessarily impolite, just a tone of voice that informs the caller he or she is intruding and unwelcome.

My career spans more than three decades and tens of thousands of phone calls to small trade contracting firms. I estimate that more than half of those calls ended up being answered by someone with a tone of voice that gave me a bad impression.

Anyone who answers your phones needs to be instructed in rudimentary telephone manners, especially that of projecting a cheerful demeanor.

Common sense: Abide by the Golden Rule in all dealings with customers, employees and any other business associates. Treat everyone like you’d want to be treated, and more often than not things will work out favorably in the end.

Nonsense: The only thing nonsensical about this bit of common sense is that not enough businesspeople abide by it.