It’s Just Painting; What Could Go Wrong?

Ok, time to talk about the other elephant in the room (the first one being how much does a good paint job cost?), this one is: what can go wrong with paint jobs?

Well, in my cartoon bubble, a paint job is the entire experience: workers, finished project, communication with the workers, and the office, project management, estimate accuracy vs actual/final cost, billing, etc.

This is more than just the finished job, it’s the whole experience that determines if you’re going to invite a company back or not.

And the short answer to the question is: quite a lot can go wrong.

A better question might be: how bad was it?

That question is a bit of a hat-tip toward the menacing reminder of what could be, for most consumers over 30, a memory an experience contracting a tradesman or service provider wherein nothing went as expected, and after which the entire white-knuckle ride was best forgotten.
Everyone in that demo has a tale to tell – a war story of sorts – and we often do tell, to amuse and admonish, and to remind our now-self of what our then-self said: as the events were still unfolding: “I’ll never do this again!”

Painting is a very intrusive process, it’s disruptive to living, privacy, spaces, and schedules.

Painters are in and around the house, inside bedrooms & bathrooms, closets, kitchens, everywhere! Paint work is also intrinsically messy: wet stuff from cans spread out and allowed to dry: oh the possibilities!

Painters should be tidy, conscientious, open, honest, diligent, trustworthy, communicative, responsive, sober, neat, hygienic, organized, efficient, responsible and mature.
Not that any other trade can or should possess fewer of the above characteristics, but many can coast with the right 2 or 3 of them. Painters cannot…

A good painter should be like a butler or concierge; skilled, friendly but not familiar, a consummate professional.

The trouble is, as noted in previous writings, everyone has painted, everyone knows a painter, everyone has a collection of paint tools and almost everyone is related to one.
Painters are like home cooks – millions perform the act but like home cooks, the quality and variety of experience delivered by painters is just as wide.

The other basic truth that undergirds painting as a trade is the fact that the practice isn’t regulated; there is largely no body of codes that regulate process and finished work, unlike nearly all other trades – in painting, it’s up to the painter, and anyone can call themselves one – try that with electricians or plumbers.

This is not to say there are no standards, there are: PDCA Industry Standards are becoming more universally recognized and utilized to set the bar, but they’ve yet to trickle down, and the ubiquitous nature of the trade itself places it comfortably within the realm of an activity (like cooking). And aside from lead abatement and safety aspects, painting will never be regulated like other trade professions.

Now that the table is set, I have a confession: I have personally experienced all of the following 5 scenarios, not only from a customer’s perspective, but from the contractor’s – the perpetrator – as well; I’d love to be able to say here that nothing has ever gone wrong on one of our projects in 20 years – but that would be unbelievable, and untrue.
Some of these top 5 are repeat offenders, others we’ve corrected from the first exposure. This piece is meant more in the spirit of a serial admonition, a cautionary tale – than an exercise in finger pointing.

The top 5 things that go wrong on paint & stain/finish jobs:

1. Communication – it’s not rocket science, just a painting project. The painters show up, install the paint, what could go wrong? This could be #1 if we throw in all the things contained in #1 that would be covered by effective, thorough communication. So much ground is covered with in this topic that examples are superfluous; suffice it to say that if you haven’t covered it in a conversation, or better yet, in written communication (proposal, contract, text, letters, emails) it is safe to say it hasn’t been covered, only assumed by you, the finisher, both. 2 or more sets of assumptions are often in play: those of the homeowner, the painting company owner, the project manager and/or the workers.

2. Oversight: “It turned out fine, but it was like pulling teeth and I felt like I was the job supervisor.” In the sales/estimating process for a painting job there are 2 parties: the seller and the buyer; the seller has things in his/her cartoon bubble, the buyer things in his/hers. They’re both talking about the same project, but they’re seeing different things, and from a different perspective. The buyer sees the job completed from the perspective that is not unlike a tidy retail transaction: predictable, smooth and trouble-free. The seller sees something different: an easy-going customer whose expectations are low, and a project where everything goes exactly as planned. Then the job begins…

3. Schedule and timeline: Contractors are notorious for over-populating their schedules and juggling multiple jobs at the same time, spreading themselves thin so that every customer gets a little progress and nobody is completely neglected. Imagine a mechanic changing tires on 3 cars at once, but one tire on each car then moving to the 2nd tire, on each car – crazy, but it happens so often in the trades it has become prosaic. The fear of losing a job, fear of disappointing, desire to please everyone, feast/famine cycle, any or a little of each may be in play in the mind of the contractor. The effect of this on the consumer has, over time, conditioned people to lower expectations to the point where they’re just happy when someone finally shows up to work! It’s a little bit like the soft prejudice of low expectations; and projections for shortages of skilled tradesmen will only exacerbate this problem. Youtube has replaced traditional trade schools, and anybody can get on Youtube!

4. “I thought that was included” Ouch! This may not be as common, but it is more disappointing; I hate to beat up mechanics again but who hasn’t had that experience? Your new brakes are $1500 not $400 like you were quoted. Back to #1, it should be communicated in the scope of work- or work order, contract, emails, even a cocktail napkin is better than a remembered conversation, and the subsequent he said she said that inevitably results from murky agreements full of flexible language, or handshakes deals.

5. Quality of Finished Work: not what was expected. Or, as they say in the trade: good from far, far from good. Unless you’ve seen their work somewhere else or hired them before, it is really hard to know what you’re going to get. “Looks great to me” is never something you want to hear from your contractor. Getting it right once it’s not right may not even be on the menu; what if it’s the best they can do? In the cooking analogy, everyone knows someone who make fabulous _____ (insert your favorite), and someone who couldn’t make it good if life itself depended on it. In that case it’s time to move on and find someone else whose capabilities exceed the first one.

I promise This Top 5 List will never change; it’s been the same in the 20 years I’ve been around. It can’t change until some technological leap makes wet stuff in cans archaic – I’m not holding my breath.

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