How to hire a house cleaner (or accountant, or lawyer…)

One of the things I see coming up is a class of young adults who 1) have money that they would like to exchange for goods and services, but 2) aren’t really familiar with the process of exchanging that money for services. For example:

“People keep telling me I should hire an accountant because I’m an artist and all of my income is from freelancing so my taxes are super complicated, but I don’t know how to hire an accountant.”

Or, most recently, an example I encountered today of someone who wanted to hire someone to clean their home, and was willing to spend money to make it happen, but didn’t take the steps to make that happen because they were unsure of things like whether they would have to provide cleaning supplies, and whether they would have to be home during the house cleaning.

The following advice assumes you’ve already gotten past the step of doing a Google search for “Chicago housecleaning services” (adjust this search query as needed depending on your location and the service you are looking for), and have the names and phone numbers of several local businesses that purport to offer the service you are interested in. Perhaps you have also read some Yelp reviews to see which of the businesses you’re considering are most liked.

In nearly every case, if you’re not sure how to hire a business, you can phone the business in question and they will happily spend any amount of time answering your questions. This applies to hiring house cleaners, accountants, lawyers, personal trainers, birthday clowns, and nearly every type of service-based business.

Most of these businesses realize that part of their clientele will be “first-time customers who have not participated in this kind of transaction before,” and they will not be surprised if they receive a phone call from you saying, “I am interested in the service that you offer, but I don’t fully understand how it works, could you please explain it to me?”  Many of these businesses spend tons of money on advertising to acquire people like you as customers. When you did a Google search for “Chicago housecleaning services,” you were probably shown advertisements from companies in Chicago who offer housecleaning services. Those businesses spend a sizable amount of money each year to show ads like that to people like you. If they’re willing to spend money to advertise to you, you can be reasonably assured that they will gladly spend 15 minutes talking to you on the phone to acquire you as a customer. (Acquiring you as a customer represents a value far beyond the immediate sale. If they successfully sell their housecleaning service to you and the first cleaning goes well enough that you decide to hire them on a monthly basis, and if that relationship continues for the next 10 years until you move to a new city, your lifetime value as a customer is measured in tens of thousands of dollars. Smart businesses, which are generally the ones you want to do business with, understand that your willingness to spend many thousands of dollars on them over the next 10 years is largely contingent on whether the person that you speak to on the phone is helpful and willing to guide you through the process of becoming their customer.)

Businesses want to make it easy for you to give them money. If there is some barrier like “I would give you money but I don’t know how the process of hiring a house cleaner works,” they will gladly spend several minutes knocking that barrier down in order to make it easier for you give them money.

This is why so many businesses offer a “free consultation,” which sometimes entails things like sending a person out to your home to give you a quote for housecleaning services, or setting up an appointment for you to talk to a CPA at the accounting firm because the assistant who answers the phone doesn’t know the answers to all of your accounting questions. Look at it from the business’s perspective: you have just called them on the phone and said, in effect, “I am thinking of hiring you, can you spend some time explaining to me why I should hire you, and how I should go about hiring you?” Of course they will be willing to take you up on that opportunity. (The reasons for why businesses are willing to spend the time to “sell themselves” to you this are similar to the reasons why you, when offered a desirable job, are willing to put on a suit and travel to an office to spend an hour talking to an interviewer about why you are qualified for the job they’re considering you for. Most people do this without worrying too much about “wasting time” that they aren’t getting paid for; it is simply a part of doing business.)

Another question I sometimes see people struggling with is not knowing how to ask questions of a business or professional because they don’t know all of the jargon. You can explain your situation to them using normal words and they will figure out what exactly is needed to assist you. This is part of their job. You probably have done some version of this if you have ever worked a customer service job. At Walmart, there is an area of the store that employees will sometimes refer to as “FDD” (Frozen-Dairy Department). Walmart customers don’t walk up to someone with a Walmart vest and ask, “How do I get to FDD,” they say things like, “Where’s the ice cream section,” or “I’m looking for cream cheese.” (Walmart employees, for the most part, will not seize on this as an opportunity to condescendingly say, “excuse me, what you’re referring to as ‘the ice cream section’ is in fact, the Frozen-Dairy Department, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, ‘FDD.'”) It’s okay if you, as a customer, don’t know all of the lingo associated with the thing you are asking about. Part of the reason that they have a job is that they have information that the customers don’t, and it not every customer who walks in the door is going to know all of the jargon.

If an accountant mentions a 1099 and you don’t know what that is, you can ask. If you’re hesitant to ask a question because you’re not sure if it’s relevant, say to them, “I’m not sure if this question is relevant, but…” and then ask your question. The same applies for providing them with information: If your grandparents just gifted you a large amount of cash as a college graduation present and you’re not sure if your accountant needs to know about that in order to do your taxes, you can just say, “By the way, my grandparents gave me a $2500 check as a gift, does that affect my tax situation? Do I need to tell you about stuff like that?” (The answer, if you’re wondering, is “You can receive up to $15,000 gifts per year without having to pay any taxes on those gifts,” but no accountant will think you are dumb for not knowing this; most people don’t know it, so why would they assume that you would know it?)

Note that all of the above is intended to describe local service-based businesses, and if all of this is new and strange to you, it’s probably because most of the businesses you’ve interacted with so far operated by selling goods with relatively low margins: that is the business model that Walmart, Best Buy, McDonalds, etc. operate on. As stated before, if you have a good relationship with a house cleaning service and decide to keep hiring them over the next 10 years that you live in your current apartment, they stand to make many thousands of dollars, and will be happy to spend 15 minutes on the phone talking to you in order to make that happen. This is probably not true of e.g. Walmart: if you call Walmart to ask about the features of a $60 gadget they are selling, Walmart stands to make maybe $10 from that sale, and thus is considerably less interested in paying (and training) their associates to spend 15 minutes talking with you on the phone explaining all the features of the gadget you are calling about; the employee you talk to at Walmart is probably interested in ending the call as quickly as possible. Your local big box retailer has a business model that is based around performing transactions with thousands of customers per day and maybe half a million customer interactions per year, which can sometimes lead to a feeling that you, as a customer, are insignificant and easily discarded. It would be a mistake to assume that all businesses operate like this: your local CPA is almost the complete inverse of Walmart, as they have a business that operates on working with several hundred clients over the course of an entire year (maybe several thousand clients a year if they are a firm with multiple tax preparers).

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