The Bling Thing, March 2012
Back in my rep days, the V.P. of our company was a flashy guy with a gold, lion’s-head ring that was the size of a golf ball, an even bigger fancy watch, and a Cadillac that had a three-body trunk. He replaced that car every two years, alternating between an all-white one and an all-black one. His mood didn’t swing with the colors. He was forever flashy.
He also had a vanity license place, the first I had ever seen. This one didn’t spell a cute word. It was just his three initials and the number 50. I asked him what the number represented and he told me, “That’s my salary goal - fifty thousand dollars a year!”
Imagine that. Today, that wouldn’t even buy the car.
He drove that gas guzzler to wholesalers and parked right out front. He swaggered in and headed right to the desk of the buyer. Years later, I heard stories about that swaggering from the buyers – how they always beat him up harder than any other salesman on the prices. And all because of that car out front. And the big watch. And the golf ball of a gold ring.
They figured he was making too much money off them.
He had to be, right?
I mean, how else could he afford all that bling?
I’ve thought about this off and on for most of my working life and wondered if bling works for or against a person. The other day, I read a study how these researchers watched drivers at stopped traffic lights. I read this because I have way too much time on my hands. The researchers set it up so someone in a beat-up car dwelled at the light as it turned green. The person stuck behind the crummy car would immediately tap the horn a couple of times.
But then the researchers repeated the experiment, this time putting an expensive car on the line and having it linger after the light turned green. Hardly anyone tooted a horn.
People are funny.
Which brings me to my son-in-law, Craig. Craig is a very bright guy. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from Northwestern, an MBA from Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Virginia. He teaches Doctoral students and he researches what he’s going to eat for dinner. He always makes me think, which is often quite disturbing.
He lives with my daughter and grandson in a hundred-year-old, brick Victorian that needs lots of love. I’ve been there as various tradespeople have come and gone.
“I won’t hire anyone who shows up with an iPhone, an iPad, or an electronic tape measure,” Craig explained to me one day.
“And the reason for this is?” I asked.
“Their prices will be too high,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for all their electronic toys.”
This is one of the reasons why I find him so delightful. When he said that, I remembered my old boss with the big car and the three-body trunk.
“Beside, if Harry the HVAC guy doesn’t know how to measure a room with a real tape,” Craig continued, “he probably won’t know how to do the job right.”
How about that?
To me, Craig represents a certain type of customer. He isn’t a Luddite. He uses computers all day long, and he’s very handy with his own tools. He does a lot of the stuff around his house, and he’ll spend where he has to spend, but only if someone shows him value and makes him feel that he’s not getting screwed.
That’s where the electronic bling comes in. When the iPad comes out, the price goes up. At least in Craig’s mind it does. He believes the bling is included in the price, which it is, but he won’t deal with that person. He waits for the pad-and-pencil person, who will also have an old-school tape measure.
When we last visited, a saleswoman showed up to sell Craig and Kelly a new back door. Then a salesman came to sell them an alarm system. Craig had each one in the kitchen over the course of an evening as I played with the grandboy in the living room and eavesdropped. He signed with both of them.
“Good value?” I asked when they had gone.
“It was fair,” he said, “and they both used pad and pencil. And a real tape measure.
“Did they have calculators?”
“Yes, but they were old calculators,” he said.
Isn’t that delicious?
I was at an association meeting, listening to a sales trainer lecture about the glories of the iPad. He explained how you can show potential customers photos of your work. He told about how you can load software to calculate heat loss and even have your price book in there. “And your customer will be very impressed!” he gushed. “Your customer will know that you’re up on the very latest technology. Who doesn’t love the iPad?”
Well, that’s not exactly true. He does love the iPad, but he doesn’t want to pay for your iPad.
I asked the homeowners who visit HeatingHelp.com what they thought about all of this. One wrote, “It isn't the wand; it's the magician that counts. I don't care what kind of cars they drive up in. Fancy cars may very well have been purchased with the savings from quitting smoking. As for the spendy electronic tools, as long as they know how to use them, they save a lot of time and money. Some of that savings might even come to me, the homeowner.”
Another wrote, “Based on my recent experience, I wouldn't much care if he had all the toys available. The reality is that we consumers/homeowners contribute to his equipment purchases whether he has a laser level or a nine-inch torpedo level. So I wouldn't automatically be concerned that his price would be inflated. But if he drives up to my house in an Escalade, I might wonder.”
How do you think that guy would respond to the golf ball-size, gold ring?
And then there was this delightful comment: “My son-in-law is a police detective. He works undercover and can spot a drug deal going down a mile away. But he hasn’t been able to detect that his front door bell stopped working about two years ago. If a contractor showed up at his house with high-tech equipment, my son-in-law would wonder if it was stolen.”
And how about that three-body trunk?
Many of the pros also weighed in. I really liked this comment from an old-school guy: “I am at the low end of the technology spectrum. I keep a laptop in the truck. My genius son (a physics prodigy) showed me how to use the little jump drives to load the hundreds of manuals I used to carry onto something that fits in my pocket. I have gone as far as a Blackberry, but that is it for me.
“I believe that most customers don't really care, as long as you talk to them and listen to them. What seems lost today is the ancient art of conversation. We are so distracted by electronics and email that we forgot how to talk to people.
“I had the pleasure of watching my dear old granddad interact with customers and he taught me as much about this part of plumbing and heating as he did about pipe, valves and fittings. In a way, he became part of their family. When he walked through the door, he asked about their kids and called them by name. He asked about the grandkids and the neighbors. They trusted him.
“That is what I strive for. No amount of electronics can replace trust.”
Another pro wrote, “That's interesting. Your Ph.D. son-in-law can't calculate the effect of hourly labor rates vs. material investments? Presumably, computer equipment can do things faster than pen and paper, right? I find that attitude pretty short-sighted. I've seen flooring guys with a laptop and a 360-degree laser scanner. They can measure in minutes a room to a degree of accuracy no meat monkey ever could.”
My Ph.D. son-in-law wouldn’t even answer the door for this guy.
And he’d never even know why.