In 1988, as a young (25-year-old) stonesetter, I was working on a 16-story office building in Bridgeport, CT. My work was inside of the main lobby, and some tenants had already occupied the upper floors. Indoor smoking prohibition laws were in effect, and the office workers had to go outside to smoke. As construction workers, we did not have to heed those restrictions. Returning from my lunch break, as I entered the building, I walked past some office workers on their way outside for a smoke break. I then took a big drag from my cigarette and proceeded to flick the burning butt on the granite floor and then stepped on it to extinguish it. Looking back, I had a serious sense of entitled arrogance, and I wasn’t representing my employer in a good light.
Being invited into a customer’s home is a privilege, and stone installers should respect and care for the space at all times. A poor appearance and improper jobsite behavior can cost a shop heavily over the long term.
I know; that was a story about a commercial job 25 years ago, and this is an article about our behavior in our customers’ homes. I mention it because as our industry boomed through the late ‘90s and into this new millennium, I carried that entitled arrogance with me. I felt I should be allowed to back the truck over the lawn (and sometimes the garden) to get as close to the door as possible. After all, the granite is really heavy. Many times, I carried counters into homes with a cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth. (Just so you know, I haven’t smoked a cigarette or used any nicotine since 2001.)
Our language also makes an impression. Yes, we are construction workers and therefore we have that tough guy rite of passage. Many of our jobs in the late ‘90s were in new construction homes, and therefore, we were surrounded by other tough guy construction workers. Macho talk was commonplace there. But it shouldn’t be in a customers’ residence. Let’s stay away from the four letter words and “innocent” sexual comments.
We should not only be aware of our language, but also the tone in which we address homeowners. On one of my jobs in 2008, my installer, a young man with all the skills and know-how that we shop owners desire, said to the homeowner, an elderly woman, “You gotta get the hell out the kitchen!” as she was sweeping the area where the range was. I had contracted the job through a retail tile store, which contracted the job through a builder, who contracted the job through the homeowner. The manager of the retail store called me and said the builder told her, “Under no circumstances are you to hire that fabricator on one of my jobs again. I don’t care how good they are.” That one outburst from my employee hurt my reputation in several areas, and I cannot say how many referrals may have been lost. Even though we were directly working for the retail store, ultimately, we were working for the homeowner. She pays the builder, who then pays the tile store, who then pays us.
While working for my previous employer on a kitchen counter installation, I called for my helper. He didn’t respond right away, and I called his name again with no response. I turned around from the counter, and he was staring at a young woman in a bikini, who had just come in from the pool. I inconspicuously walked over to him and asked him to come outside, where I quietly told him that I saw him staring and what may have happened to him if he were seen by the young woman’s father.
Another time, my helper (a different guy) walked out of the bathroom and announced for all to hear, “Oh, I must have eaten some bad chicken!” I didn’t say anything right away, but mentioned to him later that the customers certainly didn’t want to know about his bad chicken experience.
There is a trust the homeowner puts in us when we’re working in their home. Mostly, we work in their kitchens and bathrooms. The kitchen is where the family prepares and shares their meals. The kids may be doing their homework while mom or dad is making dinner. The bathrooms are where they take care of all that personal stuff. Even though we aren’t there when all this happens, we are working in their more intimate spaces. We have to respect these areas. For example, we should not put our lunch in their refrigerator. If we must open a drawer to do our job, we tell them before we do. If there is a portable toilet on the site, we use that instead of the powder room or master bathroom.
This trust goes beyond just respecting their space. Sometimes we are allowed into the home when they are not there. If that is the case, we work only in the kitchen or bathroom, solely using the designated entrance to bring the counters and tools into and out of the home. Use a drop cloth for tools. That rug in the dining room is not a drop cloth. We should not wander. We should not turn on the television. We should not check out the pantry for snacks. Some of us may have policies in place for when a homeowner is not in attendance. That policy may be as strict as not installing the job unless someone is home.
Appropriate dress is also important. I’m not saying we should adhere to prep school dress codes, but we should at look respectable. We can stay away from the too-tight muscle shirt with the too-loose and sagging pants. Besides, it is difficult to carry a heavy slab with two hands when you have to hold up your pants. I’d stay away from the torn t-shirt with the obnoxious slogan. A simple t-shirt with a company logo will suffice.
We should also include the homeowner with some of our technical decisions, such as seam placement and overhang size. They will be the ones who look at the counters every day; not us. It will allow them to feel like they are a part of what’s happening in their home. We can provide them with the pros and cons of seaming at the sink, at the corner or anywhere else a seam may be necessary. If we allow the homeowner to make an informed decision, rather than just seaming it wherever we please, they will feel better about our finished product. Our industry has standards for overhang size at seating areas. Sometimes a customer may ask for a larger overhang than is within the “industry standard” without a bracket or post. We don’t have to argue with them. We can simply inform them, “According to the MIA Dimensional Stone Manual, overhangs shall not exceed 10 inches without additional supportive bracing.’’ They will typically side with our recommendation where safety is concerned.
During my years in this business, I have witnessed many inappropriate behaviors perpetrated by individuals who were trusted to enter a customer’s home to complete a job. These behaviors range from smoking where they shouldn’t to larceny to arguing about seam placement. As business owners, field supervisors and lead installers, we need to always be aware of who is working for us and their personalities. Many large shops do background checks on all their field employees. Smaller shops may not have the budget to do so. Internet background check agencies charge less than $20 per search. A yearly subscription for unlimited searches may be around $100. One bad incident could cost much more in legal fees — and more importantly, reputation. A homeowner who had a great experience may tell two people. A homeowner who had a bad experience may tell 10 people.
The preceding were a few negative occurrences in the customers’ homes. I know of some absolutely horrible events that have happened while working in residential construction. I won’t mention them to protect the innocent (and the guilty). What has gone unsaid to this point is that 99%-plus of our jobs have very positive outcomes. We provide a naturally artistic twist to a very common household tool — the kitchen countertop. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “The counters are gorgeous!” I can’t speak for the other trades but I’m guessing, “Wow! The light goes right on when I hit the switch,” or “Look at the way the water flows from our faucet,” aren’t often said at the end of a successful electrical or plumbing job.
My success not only depends on mine and my employees’ skills and behavior. It also depends on my competitors’ and colleagues’. The phrase, “One bad apple will spoil the whole bunch,” comes to mind. So let’s look respectable, be respectful and simply do a fantastic job. Remember we are invited into their homes. That is a privilege.