Every time Mr. Smith walked through his living room the wood floor would squeak. It drove him crazy. “I would pay anything to get this old floor fixed,” he told himself. He had tried calling the local flooring specialists, but after a close inspection the specialists told him that there was nothing they could do other than replace the entire floor. They explained that some squeaking is inevitable with houses as old as his and that he should try to get used to the noise or rearrange his living room so that he wouldn’t have to walk over the squeaky part. Mr. Smith wasn’t happy with this diagnosis, but didn’t see any other options.
One day Mr. Smith had a guest over to his house for dinner. As they walked through the house the guest commented on the squeaky floor. Mr. Smith explained the problem and how hopeless it was to get the floor fixed. The guest listened to the story and then calmly said, “I can fix it.”
Mr. Smith was surprised by his guest’s response and explained that the floor was unfixable. Mr. Smith was convinced that fixing the floor was impossible. Again, the guest replied, “I can fix it. But I will have to charge you.”
Mr. Smith was very suspicious of his guest’s claim, but he decided to let him to attempt to fix the floor. “I doubt that you can do it, but if you want to give it a try go ahead. And if you fix it, I will pay you for the work.”
The next day a knock came at Mr. Smith’s door. It was his guest with a hammer in his hand. “Please come in. I see you brought a hammer. If you need any other tools help yourself to my workshop. I own almost any tool you might need.”
His guest thanked him, but responded, “All I need is my hammer and a little time.” Mr. Smith watched his guest go to work on the floor. The guest got down on his hands and knees and slowly worked his way across the floor. He gently applied pressure in certain areas and carefully examined the wood. He paced from corner to corner listening for something that Mr. Smith couldn’t identify. After ten minutes he took a nail out of his pocket and carefully pounded the nail into a seemingly random spot in the floor. “That’s it.” he said.
“You’re done?” Mr. Smith almost laughed, but as he walked across the squeaky part of the floor he realized that it was fixed. “I can’t believe it! You did it! Thank you so much.” His guest told him that he would send him a bill for his work. Mr. Smith was still in shock from what he had just witnessed.
The next week Mr. Smith got a bill in the mail from his friend. He opened it and couldn’t believe what he saw. The bill was for $1000.00. Mr. Smith was furious. How could this simple repair cost so much? He got his guest on the phone and gave him a piece of his mind. “You charged me one thousand dollars for a simple repair? It only took you ten minutes! It only cost you a single nail! How can you expect me to pay that much?”
After listening to Mr. Smith’s rant the guest replied, “Yes, the work only took me ten minutes. Yes, I only used a single nail. But you are forgetting that you told me that this job was impossible. You consulted with experts who lacked the skill to make the repair. It took me a lifetime to learn the skill needed to fix your floor. I have worked my entire life to know exactly where to put that nail. You could have hammered hundreds of nails into that floor and you still would have had a squeak. I apologize that my bill was unexpected, but that is the price I am asking.”
Mr. Smith responds by telling his guest that he will never pay the bill. He hangs up the phone and the relationship between these friends will never be repaired.
I think this story has several lessons for professionals. There are many people represented in this tale. Which one are you?
1. The so-called experts
Many of us call ourselves experts in our field, but the truth is we are only experts in a narrowly defined area of our trade. When things are outside of our comfort zone we shrug off the problem as impossible. The posture of an expert does not necessarily qualify you as a true expert. Rather than solving real problems we try to upsell our customers on something that they don’t need. We replace the floor rather than fixing the squeak.
2. The nail salesman
Implied in this story is the people who can sell you a nail for ten cents. Does that sound similar to your job? Most people are selling 10 cent nails. Anybody can do that and there isn’t much profit in it. Maybe instead of nails you are selling your time dissected into 15 minute increments. You have to sell lots of nails to make a living. The real value you bring to your job isn’t the ability to sell nails. Your value comes from your ability to solve complex problems. What is it that you can do better than anyone else?
3. The expensive tool owners
Another implied character in this story are the people with expensive equipment and fancy machinery. Mr. Smith had a garage full of tools much more impressive than a hammer. Many professionals rely on their tools to do their work for them. They pay extra for the privilege of transferring the burden of expertise off of themselves and onto their gadget. If you are really an expert, you can do more with a pencil than most people can do with a top of the line computer.
4. Mr. Smith
Mr. Smith represents our clients. He has a problem. He knows he has a problem but doesn’t know what it takes to correct it. He is misled by experts and eventually gives up. The only time in our story that Mr. Smith is angry is after his problem has been solved! Sound familiar?
5. The guest
The hero of the story is the guest. He is the only one with the skill to fix a problem that everyone else believes is impossible. He solves the problem quickly, gracefully, and with the touch of a master. And yet he goes unpaid. Could he have done a better job of managing his client’s expectations? Perhaps. Could he have charged less for his service? Not without devaluing his skill. Could he have done anything differently to convince Mr. Smith that his service was worth the expense? What would you have done differently if you were the guest?
This story is paraphrased from something my former boss told me years ago. I am not sure where the story originated but I am pretty sure I butchered it from its original form. If you have heard a version of this story or know its origin please let me know. And please leave a comment if you have some thoughts about how this relates to your experience.