Don’t Sell Yourself Short

By erickgatcomb,

  Filed under: Features

Or: Yard sale good at full scale prices

by Erick T. Gatcomb,
Owner, Gatcomb Painting and Design, Hancock, ME

Never negotiate on skilled labor. If you’re willing to come down on your price, it tells me you either marked it up or you’re desperate.

I’d like to invite you all to the annual Gatcomb Painting & Design yard sale. It’s a huge affair. You can stop in and pick my brain, sort through my tools, kick a few tires. My expertise is up for sale—$45/hr OBO. The “or best offer” is important; it lets you know I’m flexible. I’m like one of those furniture salesmen that are always liquidating inventory in a perpetual Going Out of Business Extravaganza. Priced to sell! My knowledge and years of experience must go! There’s never been a better time to buy! No money down and no reasonable offer refused!

Okay, the GP&D Yard Sale isn’t a real thing, but I felt like I was having one last month.
At the time of writing this, we’re pretty much booked up thru the next presidential election, as I gently explained to the woman who called me up with an interior job that she needed done many yesterdays ago. Her home was on the market and she wanted to give the place a blank canvas look.

“Well, do you ever work evenings?” she laughed in an I’m-joking-but-not-really way.

“I sure do, but it’ll cost you,” I replied with the same I’m-joking-but-not-really laugh.

I looked at the job and found I could make it work. It wouldn’t be fun, but it was doable. I could work my usual 6:00-4:00 at one of our many exterior jobs, swing home to say hello to the missus, return a couple phone calls and emails, head down to this job and work until the witching hour, then go home, return more emails and work on an article for TPC while throwing down some cold refreshing beverages. After that, grab some dinner, and then snag a couple hours of sleep before starting all over again. It would have made for long(er) days, but it would only have taken a week and then I could stop for a quick breather. Or as painters in Maine say: summer.

She was happy with my proposal and asked me to schedule the work. On to The Great Whiteboard it went.

A few days before I was scheduled to start the night shift, the homeowner emailed me with a sudden change of heart and a counter-proposal of her own: she had another handy gentleman in mind, but if I would knock 20% off the price and perform lots of extra work, the job was still mine.

So, welcome to my yard sale. Skilled labor for sale—prices negotiable.


In a Word, No

Don’t get me wrong, I love negotiating. Whether it’s haggling over a used firearm or fighting for 5:1 odds on a ballgame, negotiating is a great pastime. A little horse trading, some offers and counteroffers, and finally a hearty handshake to seal a deal in which both parties feel they got the better end of the bargain. An important thing I’ve learned in business is to always ask for more than you really want so you have something to give away.

But I don’t do that with my estimates. I don’t mark up so I can come down on my price. My proposal is fair…and firm.

I know painters well. I know that if I innocently ask our readers, “Say, do you ever negotiate on pricing?” you’re likely to blow up my social media with a resounding “$¢%#* NO!”  And I’m with you. You shouldn’t. If you’re an established business owner, you don’t need to barter, especially in the summer. Summer is the paint contractor’s favorite time of year. The world is our oyster. We can be as choosy as we want, picking the jobs that promise minimal labor and maximum profit instead of projects that you just know will cause you headaches and heartaches. If you’re settling for crumbs during harvest time, you’re not living up to your full potential and you’re doing yourself a great disservice.

A few years ago, I was painting a summer home for one of this century’s greatest, most recognizable businessmen. A master negotiator, he taught me a lot about the world of industry. One of the most interesting pieces of advice he gave me was not as a ruthless businessman, but as a shrewd homeowner.

“Do you ever negotiate on your estimates?” he asked me one day.

“No, sir.”

“Good!” he replied. “I’ll let you in on a secret. Never negotiate on skilled labor. If you’re willing to come down on your price, it tells me you either marked it up or you’re desperate. No one works for free. If you can come down on your price, it tells me it was high enough that you can discount it and still make a profit, and then I’ll feel like you’re taking advantage of me. And if you didn’t mark it up, it tells me you’re desperate and I can take advantage of you.”


Why Do I Cost So Much?

Back to the gal who wanted me to undercut myself to beat out a local handyman. As I explained to her, my quote was not only fair, but it also came with additional benefits. It guaranteed the finest work money could buy. It complied with the PDCA Code of Ethics and it came with my warranty. There were only two ways I could have come down on my price: I could use inferior products or I could do a shoddy job. Neither option is worthy of my brand.

This particular home was on the market for biiiig bucks, and I don’t need to tell you that most sellers want a quick repaint to facilitate a sale. They generally don’t want quality. They don’t want meticulous. It’s sort of like selling a used car. You clean out your personal effects and remove McDonald’s bags from the back seat, but you don’t go through the trouble of wedging your hand down beside the console to feel around for long-forgotten moldering French fries. Heck, you probably don’t vacuum the car and detail. A quick cleaning, money exchanged, she’s yours as-is, you can keep the cruddy pennies on the floorboard, no returns, oh, and I’m not to blame if you blow the head gasket on the way home.

The way I see it, the person who buys this home will get more than the deed—they’re also getting my name and reputation through my craftsmanship. Before I backed out of this no-win project, the seller told me she would recommend me for a badly-needed full exterior repaint to the new buyers. But if I skip prepping the greasy pine kitchen ceiling and just spray a heavy topcoat to keep costs down, how confident will the new owners be in my capabilities when the ceiling is sloughing paint chips like oversized flakes of pearl-finished dandruff?

My name—my brand—is well-known around my neck of the woods, and I’m not willing to compromise it for a quick buck or as a midnight favor. I’ve worked hard for my reputation. Sure, I cost more than the local handyman, but I should. And so should you. We need to dispel that “anyone can paint” myth. We invest our entire lives in this trade, learning the ins and outs of it. Yes, anyone can roll paint on a ceiling, but ours will be the professional work that lasts for generations.

As a proud craftsman, you need to recognize your own worth. You must be confident enough to stand by your work…and your price. You know what they say: good work ain’t cheap, cheap work ain’t good. A painter in the hand is worth two in your neighbor’s house. Don’t look a gift horse/good painter in the mouth. (Enough proverbs and adages?) I know how tempting it is to offer discounted work when you’re first starting out (or during the winter months, which get slow for some painters) and I won’t tell you it’s right or wrong. But I will tell you that I don’t. Remember, you’re selling skilled labor in a professional marketplace, not old Buick hubcaps at a flea market.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely an experienced professional who is long past the days of giving price breaks just to land a job and get some exposure. I know a musician who is leery of doing anything “for the exposure.” I’ll paraphrase what he told me: “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t need exposure, I need to pay my bills, and the fact that I do it through music shouldn’t mean I’m not paid for my time and hard work.”

If you believe you are worth top dollar, make sure you’re getting top dollar. Don’t shortchange yourself, and don’t allow anyone else to shortchange you. These people don’t go to the gas station and tell the cashier, “I’ll fill my tank with your fuel…but only if you give me a 20% price break.” They know they’re buying a premium product with a set price, not haggling over a stained La-Z-Boy at a yard sale. Maybe they’re onto something.