Last October I entered into the masochistic process of building a home. I learned some valuable lessons and have a newfound respect and sympathy for general contractors (at least the good ones) who must deal with the myriad of broken promises by subcontractors, distributors, and other vendors.

I believe my experience with a custom kitchen cabinet contractor parallels what many homeowners experience with their HVAC contractors.

This tale begins in early February of this year when my wife and I attended the local annual Home and Garden Expo. Kitchen cabinets were a major priority, as we wanted our dream kitchen to be something special. We happened on a display that really wowed my wife — it was truly unique, from cabinet design to the finish that was used. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of attention to detail the salesman paid to our needs, and how he created confidence that he was the kind of guy we wanted to work with. As it turned out, he was also the owner of the company, which boosted our confidence even more — sound familiar?

As the months went by, we contracted with him for our dream kitchen and many details were discussed — most well documented, some just verbal commitments. As the time neared for installation, we drove out to see our new kitchen in his shop — it was very impressive, he had really captured what we were looking for.

The next week the installers showed up. They were sent with little clue of what went where, what items still needed to be fabricated, and what they needed to complete the job. The first crew was given just the basic layout prints and were expected to get the job done. From that point on, this custom kitchen was treated by the contractor like nuisance filler work.

I was disappointed that the contractor/owner wouldn't come to the job and help solve the myriad problems. The mistakes and poor workmanship during the installation are too numerous to list here, but the parallel to HVAC contracting is clear.

The first mistake was ignoring the customer. The most important thing a contractor should do is to show up the minute customers have issues. Regardless of how personable the installers are, customers put their faith and confidence in the person who sold them the job. Skirting the homeowner and making excuses tells customers they aren't important — despite having spent thousands of dollars.

The second mistake is poor hand-off of the job. In this case, the installers were told to show up at the job the night before, with no review of what needed to be done. I heard rumblings from each of the crews about their company's lack of organization. Do you know if homeowners get similar rumblings from your employees?

Finally, nothing was offered to make up for all the problems.

If you look closely enough, you may recognize some of these traits and behaviors in your own business. My contractor had dozens of opportunities to make things right, impress the customer, and win dozens of referrals, but missed every one of them.

There have been numerous books written, even movies produced about the theory that there are only six degrees of separation between any two people in the world. In other words, if you look at the circle of people you know, and the people they know, and the people that the third group knows and so forth, we are connected to virtually anyone in the world by just going six levels deep into each of these circles.

A good reputation takes a lot of time and effort to build, and a satisfied customer may tell three people. However, a bad reputation travels much faster and deeper. An unhappy customer will tell 10 or more people about the bad experience and warn them to stay away from that vendor.

If you take the time to ensure your customers are not just satisfied, but wowed by your service, you can use the six degrees of separation theory to build a strong, healthy and profitable customer base. By the way, in case you're wondering, after the sixth request, the cabinet company owner said he'll be out next Tuesday — I'm not holding my breath!

Dominick Guarino is chairman/CEO of National Comfort Institute, a national training, certification and membership organization focused on topics such as Performance-Based Contracting, mold liability prevention, and more. Contact him at domg@ncihvac.com or call NCI at 800/633-7058.