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Time for Contractors to Build a Rapport With Clients : A homeowner hammered by the Northridge earthquake discovers that many so-called professionals won't even return a phone call.

October 16, 1994|ANDREA HECHT | Andrea Hecht of North Hills is a free - lance writer and owns a public relations firm

I think the major miracle in my life, in addition to finding a man who'll put up with my idiosyncrasies, was that my West Valley condo survived the January quake. A bigger miracle would have been finding professional repair people to fix the damages or estimate a job or just return calls.

Like my friends and neighbors, I had badly damaged walls, ceilings and floors. So I figured I'd start with a painter.

The first painter I called never answered any of three messages I left. I moved on. The next three painters each made appointments to visit and price the job. Only one showed up. She said she'd mail me the full estimate. Maybe she thought I lived in the Big Valley, because her estimate never made its way to my North Hills mailbox. Thoroughly frustrated, I started chasing turpentine-scented trucks down Balboa Boulevard, seeking the phone number of any painter in a moving vehicle.

I started to get that familiar sinking feeling of needing a salesperson in Target while three self-involved employees stand blindly by, discussing potential Saturday-night dates.

Eventually, after lots of false starts, I found a painter. But it hadn't been easy. So the prospect of hunting down someone to hang wallpaper started to make me nauseated. I put that mission on hold.

After my own less-than-entertaining episode with the painter, I began asking around. I discovered from friends and neighbors that, earthquake or not, recession or not, this seems to be the way the majority of repair and construction people operate. It's a search to find professionals who may or may not want your job, who may or may not ever show up on your property more than once, if that.

These professionals, who until recently were suffering through California's lengthy recession, do not appear grateful for the earthquake's impact on their collective bottom line. Does charging $50 for an estimate sound appreciative? It felt like an insult to me.

And estimate problems are just the tip of the hammer. Some experts show up with their attitude in hand, too. My friend Jackie needed to replace three cinder-block walls. A block-wall expert arrived at her Northridge home and seemingly would have preferred an anesthetic-free root canal to answering her questions. When she inquired about cinder-block versus wood walls, this expert said, "I must be wasting my time here if you don't even know what you want." Guess Mr. Cinder Block missed the course on interpersonal communication.

In truth there are such communication courses at six universities in California, offering a bachelor's degree in construction management. The chair of that department at Cal State Chico, Rovane Younger, says its graduates must take classes in marketing a construction business (i.e., building a referral business) and interpersonal communication skills in business.

"The stereotype of the tough-man construction guy cracking heads to get it all done is archaic," Younger says. "First of all, more and more women in the business are improving their people skills in the profession. Secondly, graduates today understand how the bottom line is affected, up and down, by developing and using these learned abilities."

Younger says the peculiar aspects of the construction and repair environment in the Valley right now might account for some of the problems.

"Everybody's on the same timetable because the damage happened to everyone at exactly the same time," he says. "This means all the professionals in the area may not be able to meet this enormous demand."

Younger says he also thinks there simply are not enough companies in the immediate area to meet the huge needs of local residents, who have received more than $7 billion in insurance payments and nearly $670 million in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for repair work. They are eager to begin.

Jeff Thacher of Thacher Construction says, "I think certain contractors who manage their work efficiently are spread thin because they are in the greatest demand."

Unfortunately, I can never find the experts who are efficient and in demand. I locate the confused people, who bring along their attitude instead of their tape measure. Most days I simply don't know what to do. I understand the law of supply and demand; I would like to remind the repair community of the Law of Nothing Lasts Forever, but I'm not sure how.

Younger has some advice for people like me. "Be demanding and precise in what you want," he says. "Get names and references from friends or relatives who are happy with their work. And I say if someone doesn't call back, drop him or her and find someone else."

Another suggestion is finding strength in numbers. "Form groups with families in your area and contact experts slightly out of your area where business is not so booming," he says. "There are many good companies a short distance away, like in Orange County, who would probably be glad for the opportunity."

For me, the solution to my earthquake repairs is very easy. I'll just wait for the new graduates from Cal State Chico to arrive. I bet they'll return my phone call.

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