Andrew Vine: Honesty pays off for independent firms

THE thunderous rumble, thump and clatter of three ridge tiles sliding off the roof and shattering on the drive was enough to make me jump out of the chair.

The revival of independent traders in places like Bishopthorpe Road, York, stems - in part - from good customer service.

It’s that heart-sinking feeling we all get when something goes wrong, followed by the lightning-fast reflection that here comes a bill that I could do without, and which will also involve the hassle of finding an honest workman.

Like everybody, I’ve been taken for my fair share of rides by rip-off tradesmen – the sort that purse their lips, shake their heads, talk a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo about how difficult a job it is and use that to inflate the price. I’m in no position to argue. I can no more repair a roof than fly.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

It made it especially refreshing when a small family firm of builders recommended by friends not only turned up in double-quick time, but turned out to be probably the best, most honest tradespeople I’ve ever used. Father and son had the roof fixed in no time, and at half the cost of a couple of estimates I’d had over the telephone from other firms.

No mumbo-jumbo, no exaggerating the difficulty of the job. On the contrary, the reassurance that it was a perfectly straightforward bit of work and nothing to fret about at all. The work came with a guarantee, and unbidden, father turned up again a couple of days afterwards to check that I was satisfied.

That’s outstanding customer service for you, and his business card has been carefully filed away for future reference and recommendations to others. I thanked him for his honesty, and he pointed out that in the long run it’s in his own interest to be straight with customers. The positive word-of-mouth keeps work coming in. Besides, he wouldn’t want to be ripped off, so why would he do so to others?

A basic decency of character is a key element of such an attitude, but it also makes solid business sense. He has only recently gone independent after working for a big building company for many years, and he’s already seeing repeat customers. The next time I need anything doing, whether routine or a domestic emergency, he can add me to that list.

So can a tree surgeon I used over the winter, who was out of exactly the same mould. Again, he’d recently gone out on his own, and customer recommendations were building him a good business.

It is one of the happier aspects of dealing with independent firms that a new breed seems to be springing up, people who have decided to go it alone after working for others and are doing well because of their honesty as well as their enterprise.

They are the people whose names are above the doors of newly-opened shops or on the sides of vans, the men and women who come to know and value their customers. There are goodly numbers amongst them who have set up after being made redundant during the economic slump, people who feared that they might have been on the scrapheap but then came to realise that their skills could earn profits for themselves rather than somebody else.

And that determination to make a success of life outside a familiar working environment is producing a can-do attitude that customers like. The contrast with big firms can be striking. Dealing recently with a large national company was like wading through treacle as I plodded through layer after layer of dense, uninterested people, listening to interminable piped music, before finally getting through to the person I wanted.

Such sluggishness is of no use to the feisty, efficient independents. There have always been good independents, of course, often family businesses going back generations who pride themselves on honesty, fairness and first-rate workmanship. But there is something else driving the new independents – the increasing trend towards localism.

Just as increasing numbers of people decide to shop locally, and buy food produced within a few miles, so they are turning to tradespeople who live nearby.

Both builder and tree surgeon have found that most of their work is coming from close to where they live. That’s another driver of honesty, good workmanship and fair pricing. If business depends on people bumped into at the local shops or outside the school gates, the work has to be done well.

And that’s how it is being done, which gives householders cause to be grateful. The new breed of independents deserve to prosper, and if by doing so it’s goodbye to pursed lips and mumbo-jumbo, so much the better.