BUSINESS GOTCHA

I had a new roof put on my house this week, and since work was scheduled to begin Thursday and end Friday, work began on Friday and the crew cleaned up after itself the Tuesday after Labor Day. In terms of Arkansas business transactions, the seller won. I told him when he came to measure my roof for an estimate that I would under no circumstances allow work to begin on a Friday. Circumstances buffaloed me into taking something I didn't want, so he won. It's a little game of "Business Gotcha" that we Arkies play. As a result even the simplest business transaction in Arkansas proceeds with all the speed and trust of a Central American drug deal. Business Gotcha is probably the reason Arkansas has such a reputation as an economic juggernaut. The game retards the pace of business so much that I think it must have been taught to us by Texans.

"Haw Haw! Wah, yeah, shore, all us big time cattle barrins an' awl barrins an' shippin' barrins play bizniss gotcha among arselfs. Yew arkies keep us posted an' amused on how yer foot-shootin' contest goes. Meanwhile we'll be in Dallas raisin' ar cattle an' drillin' ar awl an' countin' ar munnie an' doin' bizniss with people who know better."

I guess I shouldn't complain too much. I got a decent roof for a reasonable price and for four whole days I had the biggest truck on the street parked in my driveway, the chief advantage of that, other than the obvious boost in social status, is that all the oil dripped in one spot. You should have seen the looks I got from some of my neighbors after a few days, the jealous bastards. The ones who really got the short end of it was the roofing crew that lost their holiday weekend. Innocent bystanders. The civilian casualties of Business Gotcha.

I really hate this game, but my dad is its greatest proponent and practicioner. He's eighty years old, managed an auto parts store for forty years, and as far as I know has never sold anything of value or bought anything he wanted. I've seen him negotiate deals and absolutely beat the crap out of his opponent. It doesn't matter what he bought as long as the guy didn't want to sell it. It doesn't matter what he sold as long as the guy didn't want to buy it. Everybody went home poor and angry and laden with second-shelf merchandise that should never have been manufactured. If you walk into a man's home and it looks like it was furnished from an unclaimed freight depot, you're in the presence of a genius, my friend.

About ten years ago, Dad was negotiating with a manufacturer for a customized fishing boat. (A modest boat, but a custom layout nonetheless.) Partway through the negotiation, which lasted about three hours, dad got the guy to throw in a free trailer. At the conclusion of the deal, Dad said, "I've already got a trailer, so you can keep yours and knock a hundred and fifty bucks off that price." And the guy did it! The manufacturer had given Dad a trailer and Dad sold it back to him minutes later. Unbelievable! An utterly imaginary transaction that cost the manufacturer $150. I would have been ashamed to try that.

A month later the boat was delivered. The manufacturer had been so badly beaten in the negotiation that he couldn't make a profit on the boat without cutting corners, so that's what he did. Instead of having the front pedestal where it was supposed to be, he put it at the back of the forward platform, saving probably a couple of hours of delicate cutting and welding because he could use the back of the platform as bracing instead of adding more support under the seat.

The live well pump that drew water from the lake into the live well didn't function properly. I don't know why. It could be temporarily cleared by attatching a section of automotive vacuum hose to the nozzle and blowing through it until your eardrums popped. On top of that, the holes in the live well were situated such that if the boat hit a wave at high speed a geyser of water would shoot up into the air from the middle of the boat. If the lid was closed the water would squirt out the sides like a water sprinkler. Could that have been done out of spite? Maybe, maybe not. If I had been the boatmaker, I would have made sure that it happened accidentally.

Dad refused to acknowledge these problems, and that's what makes me think they were part of the game. One of the rules seems to be that if somebody scores on you, you have to pretend like he didn't. Today he has rubber stoppers for the live well which he fills by dipping the lid of a plastic battery case over the gunwales. Dad didn't get the boat he ordered and the builder lost money putting it together. Dissatisfaction all around. A perfect transaction by the rules of Business Gotcha.

I'll tell you how bad it is. If I'm in Texarkana when I need my oil changed, I'll go over to the Texas side to have it done. Bad business practices are not only tolerated here, they're informally institutionalized. It's so pervasive I wonder if we even realize we're doing it. I don't even think we know it's bad business to leave a trail of unsatisfied customers in our wake.

Across town, my parents were having a house built. My mom instructed the painter to take the doors off the hinges and remove all the hardware from the doors before painting them. The painter agreed. Later, after the painter was gone, Mom inspected the job to find the hinges slathered with paint. Thanks, Jethro.

People filing for bankruptcy down at City Hall are heard to say, "I cheated every customer I ever had. Where did I go wrong?"

Proponents of Business Gotcha say that it makes us wary, forces us to pay attention to detail and keeps us sharp. Well, maybe. I've heard visitors from out of state go on and on about how nice and friendly everybody here is. I've never heard anybody say a word about what a bunch of perfectionists we are or how eager they are to have an Arkansan as a business partner. I have to question the utility of Business Gotcha. It's not doing what we're told it does.

Here in Arkansas we have timber, coal, oil, gas, some of the best agricultural land in the country, an extensive network of navigable rivers, and by the way diamonds; and somehow we lag behind the rest of the country economically. (Lots of people are still blaming it on reconstruction. 130 years after the fact the excuse wears a little thin.) Meanwhile, there are Mormons out west living on bare rock and salt water who seem to be a good deal more prosperous than we are. Maybe we should see what game they're playing and give up on Business Gotcha.

Buying a new roof for my house was a miserable ordeal. It took me two months to decide on a roofer because in every phone call and every estimate I was trying to discern the opening tactics of a game of Gotcha. I solicited the experience of people who recently had new roofs put on their houses. The usual response I got was, "I'll give you the guy's name, but I'm not recommending him." The roofer I eventually chose got the job not because he was least expensive or most experienced or smartest or the most professional, but because he hadn't done any work for anybody I spoke to. In spite of my best efforts the game went on.

I even tried to throw the game, thinking that if I admitted defeat at the outset, we could get on with the business of slapping shingles down. I worked $150 into the budget for "incidental carpentry," telling him that if there was no rotten decking that had to be replaced that the money should be spent on lunch for the crew. He said, "I can do that." But it seems showing front-end generosity to a roofer is like showing mercy to an arab. He sees it as a weakness.

Dealing with roofers is apparently universally traumatic. I remember my dad spitting and cussing the roofer twenty years ago, the last time this house was reshingled. With customer satisfaction in such short supply, how do roofers stay in business? I guess if you live to be a hundred, you'll only buy two or three new roofs in your life. Your chances of buying two roofs from the same roofer are pretty small in any case. He'll be retired by the time he could benefit from the repeat business.

I really got spoiled when I had my siding put on. The salesman said, "We deliver the materials on Monday. The crew shows up on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. The job is completed at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at which time you and I and the crew chief will inspect the job. The crew will remain on hand until all imperfections are corrected. Then you write us a check for this much. (It was the highest estimate I took.) We're the best paid siding people in the state and here's why." And then he told me why. The guy was all business. It was almost like a military briefing. He didn't flatter me or try to finesse me or offer me a special discount if I took such and such a factory overrun color of siding. In short there was no sign of game in his program.

And everything happened exactly like he said it would. The schedule was perfect to the minute. The whole year after they finished I didn't find enough leftover waste from their job to fill up a matchbox. It was expensive, but we just had a month of 105 degree heat, and my siding looks fresh and straight while some cheaper jobs on this street are puckered, buckled and bent.

After I took bids from three roofers I called the siding people and begged them to go into the roofing business. They said they had to disappoint me. I took three more estimates from three more roofers and then called the siding people again and begged them to go into the roofing business. Finally, I just randomly picked one of the roofers that showed up sober and hoped for the best. We'll see. It rained last week and the roof didn't leak. I count my blessings.

RTJ--9/15/2000


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