You're going to read a lot about expectations in this month's articles, particularly in the exclusive survey of remodelers that ProSales conducted for the cover story. The combined messages from this month's stories are as simple as Sunday School: Be honest. Treat the customer as you expect to be treated. Clean up your yard and your equipment. Deliver what you promise. Don't promise what you can't deliver.

Craig Webb Photo: James Kegley Simple notions, yes–until you try to fulfill them consistently.

From basketball to ballet, no doubt we all have found how fiendishly difficult it is to execute something that, on the surface, looks like a no-brainer. Your customer is no different. How hard can it be, he imagines, for you to pull a bunch of sticks and deliver them by the time you promised? Of course, you know better.

We've sprinkled liberally throughout this issue tips and ideas for meeting customer expectations. Most deal with analyzing how you do things now and then figuring out how to execute them more consistently and, ultimately, better than you've ever done before. But as you take notes, keep in mind that there's a problem with expectations: they keep rising.

Dr. Jim Harris, president of his own leadership and management consulting group and a ProSales columnist, often notes that your customers don't compare your service solely against that of other construction supply dealers; they rate you against the best service providers anywhere. And as others get better, you begin to pale in comparison.

I recall a survey of hospital care that noted patients were complaining more often about the pain they felt when getting blood drawn. The pollsters concluded that hospitals weren't necessarily doing worse at this, but that other inflictors of pain–dentists, mainly–had improved their practices so much that people weren't experiencing pain as much as they once did. Thus, when somebody stuck a needle in them, the pain, comparatively speaking, felt worse.

This is true for lumber dealers as well, in two ways. First, there are lots of construction suppliers across the country that would have popped champagne corks if they had recorded in 2004 and early 2005 the sales they're getting now. It's just that when they compare today's figures with their numbers from the peak of the housing boom, people feel that they're failures.

This leads to my second point about LBM expectations. Dealers routinely ask me how soon we'll return to the glory days of 2005-06. Typically, I've pointed to the experts' latest forecasts, which now suggest a weak new-home construction market persisting through much–perhaps all–of 2008. But lately, I also have stressed something else: those glory days were a mirage.

Why? Here's one reason: Nearly 40% of all mortgage loans granted last year were either subprime or so-called "Alt-A" mortgages (typically low-doc deals). This means that teaser rates, interest-only loans and deals in which the documentation received only a cursory check made it possible to give mortgages to hundreds of thousands of people who never before would have been considered creditworthy. That lending, in turn, provided much of the propellant that fueled the housing boom.

We know now from the ballooning of the foreclosure rate and the collapse of the credit markets that those loans never should have been made. And yet, when you ask pro dealers about their hopes, they talk about getting back to those days. It's a sign they haven't asked whether what they want is something they never should have had.

Expectations are like eyeglasses: used properly, they can sharpen our focus and help us do our jobs better. But when it comes to how things were a few years back, watch out. You might be viewing the past through rose-colored glasses.

Craig Webb, Editor