Death of a Salesman is a 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning play written about the tragic life of Willy Loman the salesman, an average guy who chased the American Dream as a way to overcome his weaknesses and insecurities. His denial and false sense of success lead to tragedy and ultimately suicide. There are many similarities between Willy’s demise and contractor companies that destroy themselves, or at best experience a lifelong series of business ups and downs.

Before going further, I want to make it clear that I consider myself a good salesman and am offended by the stereotype used to portray salespeople. Good salespeople are problem solvers, good listeners and a vital part of the business process. Unfortunately, it is the pigeonholing of the sales profession as pushy characters that leads to this misbelief, just as a few bad contractors ruin the industry’s reputation. However, Willy does possess several of the characteristics that destroy many a contractor business. Let’s discuss four of them.

1. “One more job and it will all be OK.” The ideal salesman was once described as someone who, if he were tarred and feathered and run out of town, would think he was leading a parade. Having a positive attitude and enthusiasm can be a good trait. However, there is a thin line separating optimism and denial. Optimism is the hopefulness and confidence something will work. Denial is the refusal to acknowledge facts and conditions keeping something from working.

Think of a contractor that failed. Normally, the company had a great deal of work and was busy. If your company is not making money now, it is doubtful that after one more job or next year it will be better. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over in hopes that it works. To succeed, businesses must fix the core business issues in their way and not just blindly try to improve by selling more.

2. “We can do this job.” Taking jobs outside of your core competency can be devastating. Contracting is not an endeavor where taking the job and figuring it out later works very well. Characteristics of a typical bad job include an unknown customer, and a lack of specific knowledge about the job location, the size of the job, and the skills required to do the job.

It’s hard to tell why contractors take work they should not do. I think the fear of running out of work, being in too much of a hurry and Willy Loman’s type of denial all play a role in the situation. A little checklist can help you avoid bad jobs. Next time you are considering a job, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you checked the customer’s credit and talked to other subs about this customer?
  • Did you get bad vibes from this customer when you met?
  • Did you Google the customer to see what he or she does for a living and search lawsuits?
  • Is this job substantially larger than your standard job?
  • Do you have the cash to carry the job’s payment schedule if it is delayed?
  • Does this job contain some type of work you really are not accustomed to doing?
  • Does the job have a demanding schedule?
  • Are there other factors such as other subs, weather or materials that could impact the job?

As a contractor, you are always taking risks, but make sure the “salesman disease” does not put you into denial regarding those risks. Don’t take an out-of-town difficult job for a litigation attorney that has to be done in the middle of the winter, with a picky architect, a lot of material to buy upfront and a demanding schedule, and wonder why you are in trouble.

3. “Don’t worry, we will get it done.” Outselling your financial and production capabilities can be disastrous. If you are having trouble finding employees at your current level, what makes you think you will be able to do so if you double your sales? There is a limited number of good craftsman, including subcontractors, and dramatically overselling that capacity can have a devastating impact. You also need enough cash to take you through your sales growth. If you do $100,000 a month and it takes 30 days for people to pay you, and you go to $200,000 a month, you need another $100,000 in cash to keep things going.

4. “The customer is always right. We will take care of it.” If you are dealing with unscrupulous customers or someone who is demanding unreasonable specs and performance, such folks can eat you alive. To keep doing things to merely keep them happy is insane. You must clearly negotiate what you will do and that they will be satisfied and pay you. It is doubtful you are going to make this person happy, and at this point it is all about damage control.

 In closing, there is nothing wrong with being a good salesperson. However, good salespeople are not in denial and will not make the sale at all costs. Building business requires more than sales.