Delivery & Installation, Operations, V7I6

Of Swaying Trees, Floating Horse Barns, and Rich Customers Part 1

(Photo courtesy of Mona Eendra on Unsplash)

“I’m telling you, Mr. Kauffman, the entire barn is moving!” Sylvester Ross swayed dramatically for me. 

“When I stand inside, I can feel it move, and when I look out the door at the trees around the barn, I can see it move!” 

The early winter sun seemed to pause in its lofty path above the wooded cove we stood in, and even the cold December winds calmed at the proclamation. I slowly looked around me at the beautiful horse barn and the flawless concrete slab below my feet. 

I was at a loss to communicate my reply at the moment. The response bubbling up at my lips was not the polite and friendly tone I needed. My mind flew back over the past nine months, and I wondered where this whole job had gone off the rails. 

One thing I’ve learned from my years in the shed industry is that whatever you have to do to make a sale to a reluctant customer, you’ll have to continue doing it to keep them happy. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be forgotten in the deep recesses of your mind when sales have been smooth for a while and the current prospective customer is excitedly discussing the purchase of a large, three-piece horse barn. 

Especially when that sale is just what you need to round out the current month’s totals. I should have remembered this truth when Shifty, my salesman, called me with the exciting news that he was working on a big sale for a Mr. Ross, and that with just a little more work, he should be able to close the deal. 

I certainly should have remembered it a month later when there was still no signed contract and Mr. Ross needed just a few more onsite visits to clarify what he wanted for his dream project. However, the truth was beginning to register in my subconscious when the second month rolled by and Shifty was asking if I would consider talking to Sylvester myself. 

That’s how I found myself rolling into a picturesque driveway in my big rig one fine summer afternoon on my way home from a day of deliveries. I just happened to have some free time, and Mr. Ross’ house lay along my route, so we had agreed to meet at 2 that afternoon. Trees lined the gravel driveway, and gnarly branches grew densely overhead in a green canopy that formed a lovely outdoor cathedral. 

However, all I could see was the trim of a big shed being ripped to shreds by the clutching branches. I stopped more than once along the winding driveway to measure the clearances and determined that nothing wider than 10 feet would make it down that particular pathway. The proposed multi-piece horse barn would have three sections, each over 14 feet wide. By my conservative estimate, at least 100 trees would need to be removed.

Reaching the end of the driveway/tunnel, I came at last upon the homestead. Multiple horse paddocks and fences stood among and around the trees that blocked all views of the little clearing. The equipment barn was open, and several trucks were parked in disarray along with a cold, silent Gator. An assortment of dogs set up a chorus of caterwauling from the fenced-in yard, breaking the tranquility of the little farm. 

As my big Cummins rumbled to a stop and I set the brakes, I looked about for some sign of human life. None was forthcoming, so I shut the rumbling diesel off and climbed down from the cab. The frenzied barking from the canines patrolling the yard was deafening. My presence was no secret, but after five minutes of this racket, there was still no sign of Sylvester. 

I walked as close to the house as I dared and shouted, “Hello!” several times. Nothing except renewed barking from the dogs, who by then had slightly lowered their howls from the previous ear-splitting level. 

Wandering around the beautiful little farm, I finally figured out where the horse barn was supposed to go. The location was reasonably level and would require only minimal grading before pouring the concrete footers needed for a barn this size. After 15 minutes of wandering around and occasionally shouting at the house, I gave up and left. 

Cell service was too poor for a call, and I concluded Sylvester had simply forgotten our appointment. Little did I know how this missed meeting exemplified the problems I was to encounter with Mr. Ross. In the following two weeks, I tried to connect with him at his home at least three different times, all to no avail.

“Tell Sylvester we need a down payment and a signed contract before we can hold a spot for him,” I finally told Shifty. “Also, he has to cut down all the trees in the way and finish clearing the barn site before I can schedule the concrete foundation. I don’t have time to keep setting up appointments that he clearly cannot remember. 

“And finally,” I added, “remind him that we only have about a month or so before the ground might freeze.”

The next week things finally began to move, and Shifty managed to get a signed contract and an appointment that Mr. Ross swore he would keep. That’s how, a few days later, Shifty and I drove once more into the long-shaded driveway and I finally met Sylvester for the first time. To my surprise, he was a young kid, no more than 25 years old. Shifty had somehow forgotten to mention that to me. 

What’s more, Sylvester’s bleary eyes and disheveled clothes revealed that we had woken him from a chemically induced coma. His girlfriend, Stella, came out of the house a few minutes later in similar disarray. Many months later, I wondered how much heartache I might have saved had I canceled the job then and there. 

However, inbuilt politeness and a general habit of trying to accommodate customers despite their quirks kept Shifty and me working toward a completed job and happy customer. That’s when the first problem arose. 

“Hey, I’d like to put running water into the barn and also change the color scheme a bit. I’ll dig the water lines in with automatic water troughs and install them myself. Is that a problem?” Sylvester asked.

“Not if they are installed correctly,” I replied. “However, you’ll need to be very precise with the digging. When we bring the shed in, we cannot move things to accommodate poorly placed water pipes.”

“No problem,” Stella interjected confidently. “I have a degree in engineering, and I have a lot of experience drawing up plans. It can’t be that hard to dig the lines. We’ll rent a tractor and put them in ourselves.”

Now I don’t have a degree in engineering, but sitting in a classroom and drawing up prints is a long way removed from actually digging ditches and putting in water lines. Taking note of her plans to use a tractor to dig ditches, I inwardly shook my head and wondered how this would end. 

“Tell you what,” I suggested, “why don’t you let my excavator do the water lines when he does the prep for the foundation? That way we are all on the same page.” 

Stella was shaking her head before I even finished talking. “No way! That’s too expensive, and there’s no need since I have a degree in this sort of thing. Besides, we’re in a hurry.” 

“Okay,” I agreed reluctantly. “Just be sure to do it according to the prints. Also, you will need to clear a lot of trees from your driveway before we can bring anything in here.” 

Her head was firmly shaking again as I spoke. 

“That’s not going to happen,” Stella declared. “I’m no tree hugger, but I can’t bear to cut down trees if we don’t have to. We’ll have you bring your loads in through the pasture and take down the fences. That way we only have to fell one or two trees.”

I’m sure it was my imagination, but her voice seemed to get shriller at each new sentence.  

“Okay,” I assented, “but it will take more than one or two trees even coming that way. I will mark the trees that need to be taken out with red ribbon. Just be sure to get those cleared as soon as possible. I need to bring in the concrete trucks and gravel to get the foundation done, but I can’t schedule that stuff until the trees are cleared.” 

As we left the site 15 minutes later, I mused to Shifty, “I wonder if anything will be done on time or correctly on this job.” 

Apparently, my intuition was spot on because I could fill a book with the disasters that followed. 

“Hey, I got the rental tractor stuck in the mud. Can you come pull me out with your big truck?”

“Hey, one of the water lines we put in burst underground. Can you tell me how to fix that?”

“Hey, Sylvester is being a pain. Can you tell him he’s doing it wrong?” 

“Hey, can you tell Stella that I’m doing it right?”

“Mr. Kauffman, can you come and show me how to level this gravel?”

“Would it be possible to borrow your laser transit for a few days so I can finish this pad before we get frost?”

It seemed every week something else came up to delay the completion of this project. 

As if that weren’t enough, one day as I was finishing up a gravel pad for another customer, my concentration was broken by the vibrating of my phone. The caller ID showed a New York number, so I should have let it go to voicemail. Instead, I touched the green button and took the call. 

“Hello, this is Jason,” I said politely.

The shrill voice nearly blew me away. “This is Megan. Why isn’t my boy’s horse barn done yet? How come you haven’t poured the concrete yet? Do you even know what you are doing? What kind of company are you running, Mr. Kauffman?” The accusatory questions came fast and thick. 

“May I ask who this is and what job you’re calling about?” I calmly asked. 

“What!” the voice shrieked. “You don’t even know who I am?” 

“Well, ma’am, I have hundreds of customers, and I am not that good with names, so please forgive me if I don’t remember yours. Besides, it sounds like you’re calling in regard to someone else. What is your son’s name?” 

“You are clearly in over your head,” she retorted. “I’m Sylvester Ross’ mother, and I demand to know what’s going on with the project you’re supposed to be doing for him. After all, I’m the one who’s paying for all this.”

Some of the previous few months’ frustrations suddenly fell into place. A young guy with loads of money and a recreational drug habit made sense at last. Somehow, the idea of a rich mom paying for all this fit right in with all the drama and missed appointments. All the signs of a spoiled, clueless, trust fund kid had been staring me right in the face, and I missed them. 

And now I was getting yelled at by the mom who raised this guy. I decided I wasn’t getting paid enough for my job. Don’t remind me that I am my own boss. Right then and there, I promised myself a stiff raise if I could ever afford it. 

Taking a deep breath, I tamped my frustration down a bit and said, “Ma’am, I am working with Sylvester on this, and our company is working as fast as we can. However, I have been asking your son for the last two months to remove some trees and fences so we can get in and start this job. So far, nothing has been removed. What’s more, he insisted on installing the water pipes himself, and after four weeks, hasn’t yet finished them.” 

I continued, “We are doing what we can, but since Sylvester and Stella insisted on doing all prep work themselves, we are unable to continue until they finish the needed pipe and gravel installation.” 

I could almost hear the air escaping from her bubble. “You mean you are waiting on Sylvester?”

“That’s right, Mrs. Ross. We’ll start on the foundation just as soon as they are ready for us.” 

“Well, it’s that loser girlfriend of his, I’m sure,” she replied after a pause. “Stella’s got more issues than I can count. No idea what Sylvester sees in her. I raised him better than that.” 

I’m not one to contradict or give free advice to difficult customers. Much less so their domineering moms, so I held my peace, and after a few more minutes, the conversation ended with Megan promising to light a fire under Sylvester’s posterior. 

All the time I was getting royally chewed out by Megan, I kept wondering how she had gotten my personal phone number. I’m pretty tight with that info for a reason. However, as my ear was getting blistered, my phone kept dinging from missed calls and texts. When I finally got off the phone with Mrs. Ross, I saw that Shifty had been trying to call me and had texted a dozen times. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what he was up to. 

“Man, I’m sorry, but that lady is nuts!” Shifty’s voice was breathless when he finally reached me. “She forced me to give her your cell phone number! I tried to tell her you’d call her back, but she wouldn’t hear it. How mad are you by now?” 

I stifled a grin and a tinge of irritation. Part of me was really curious how Mrs. Ross had forced Shifty to do something by phone. However, I couldn’t blame him too much for caving under a full onslaught from this particular woman. She was a piece of work, I decided. 

“I’m fine, man,” I assured Shifty. “That woman is something else, right?”

“Oh man, she had me half scared. She was cussing up a storm and threatening me if I didn’t give her your number immediately. I hope I didn’t make you too mad,” he finished.

“Naw, I suppose it goes with the territory,” I replied. “One thing’s for sure, the garbage we’ve been dealing with the last few months makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it? That is a spoiled rich kid we’re dealing with.” 

“Yeah,” Shifty agreed. “Man, I hope this thing turns out okay. I almost regret making this sale.” 

“Well, you win some, you lose some,” I reminded him. “Besides, we’ll learn from this and do better next time.” 

Little did I know how much we’d both learn. 

Two weeks later, I got a frantic call from Sylvester. “Hey man, I saw the forecast and it’s supposed to snow next week! Can you get the foundation poured before then?” 

“It depends,” I replied. “Is the gravel ready, and are the water pipes in place?”

“Oh, I’ll finish them this weekend,” he promised. “I’ve only got another hour or two of work.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be there Monday morning at 8 with the forms, and we’ll start setting up.” 

To be continued … 

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