The making and keeping of commitments is a basic requirement for a civil society. Civilization falls apart when people stop keeping promises.

On a personal level, keeping commitments is necessary for self-esteem. In addition to keeping the promises we make to others, we need to keep the promises we make to ourselves, like sticking to that diet, or getting up an hour earlier to work out.

We’re not suggesting that commitment has completely disappeared. Every day of the week millions of people show up for work on time. But in a nation led by a proprietary investiture of celebrity and corporatism with the power to choose our future, the making and keeping of commitments does not seem as important, or stylish as it once was.

Greed, and the monetization of human life might offer a partial explanation. The prevalence of inferior products sold to consumers, from pharmaceutical drugs to cheap appliances, speaks volumes on the ascendancy of profit over integrity.

The replacement of religion and spirituality by secular relativism also contributes to an “anything goes” attitude. What is a commitment when there is no right or wrong? When truth is dependent on context? “I never promised that! You must have misunderstood me!”

Let’s bring the issue home with a story to which I understand many of you can relate.

Recently we began searching for a contractor to help us with a home improvement project after we reached the limits of our amateur ability.

We have some of the best artisans you could hope to find in our area – and some that are not the best. The building economy here has improved somewhat in the last couple of years. It’s nothing like the glory days before the crash in ’08, but it’s better than it was.

Therefore we were hopeful we could find someone to help us out, and prepared to wait until our job could be scheduled. We began by calling potential contractors with numbers collected from bulletin boards, internet ads and personal referrals. We had a long list of numbers in the beginning, about twenty five all together.

Of the twenty five contacts we started with, about five did not answer their phones (and a business that will not answer the phone will not be a business for long). We eventually spoke with about twenty different people over a period of four weeks.

Of that twenty,  four told us up front that they were currently too busy, but they would like to be considered for future projects. Three said that they didn’t do the kind of work we needed. Fair enough.

Of the remaining thirteen, seven did not call back after our initial conversation. That left six contractors who actually followed up. Two of those “went dark” and stopped returning calls or emails.

Of the original twenty five contacts, we were left with only four who agreed to submit a bid for our job. Two of those failed to show up for an appointment, and they both “went dark” as well. The remaining two actually came out to do an estimate. One of those missed his deadline for turning in a bid, asked for a few more days, and then missed that deadline too.

The last man standing answered every call, replied to every email, showed up on time and turned in his bid on time.  He kept every commitment he made. Guess who got the job.

The contractor we hired told us “You would be surprised at the number of jobs we get simply because a lot of contractors won’t return phone calls. I mean, how long does it take to pick up the phone and say ‘yes or no’ or ‘not now but I can do it later?'”

Speaking now as a former contractor, a word to the wise for the next generation of artisans, and to a few veterans who seem to have forgotten the basics. When you are self employed, working in our area can be feast or famine. It’s frustrating when you have committed to a small job and a bigger opportunity comes along, but the bills need to be paid, so you do what you have to do and you take the second job. It’s easy to become over-committed trying to juggle all your obligations, and if you spread yourself too thin, the quality of your work suffers. At some point, you have more commitments than you have time.

This is the point where accountability comes into play. You need to let your customers know what’s going on, and somebody is going to be disappointed. Unfortunately, it seems that some of you believe that it’s better to say nothing to a customer than to say “no,” as if by ignoring that customer the opportunity to do the job will somehow be preserved for the future.

This is magical thinking. The worst thing you can do in customer relations is to ignore the customer. The second worst thing you can do is to make a commitment and then fail to keep it. Communication, however, will often bring forgiveness. Most people are reasonable when you explain why you’re not available or why the job is taking longer than anticipated. But if you ignore your customers or leave them hanging, they will not forget it, because they all know that in the age of information there is no excuse for failing to communicate.

When you have all the work you want, it’s easy to assume that you will always be busy, or that you can afford to disregard your customers from time to time because you can always get more work. This is a fantasy. Reputation and trust is vital to building a successful business, and our area is small enough that everything you do that affects your reputation will be magnified.

In a perfect world, you would keep your commitments because it’s the right thing to do, but if you have rationalized your way around that, nothing we can say will change your mind. Consider this, however:  People will always reason that the inability to keep the small commitments, like returning phone calls and emails and getting bids in on time, is a sign that you will be unable to keep the big ones. If you won’t keep your commitments for the sake of honor, consider keeping them for the sake of your own self-interest.




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