Tricks of the trade

18th March, 2006

Dear Economist,I was wondering if there is any economic law to explain why tradesmen always come to do a job either after or at the tail end of the time slot they initially give to the customer. Whenever they advise “between 9 and 12” they never come at 9am and usually don’t arrive till 1pm. Is there an economic explanation?
Andy Moffat, London

Dear Andy,

I might request more data in support of your theory before I swallow it. Having just moved house, I’ve had four separate appointments with tradesmen or deliveries in the past two days. All came less than an hour after the start of their time slot and one was slightly early. We tend to forget these happy occasions and recall our most severe disappointments instead.

But I don’t want to dismiss your theory entirely. Even allowing for our natural tendency to recall the most egregious tardiness, I agree that tradesmen often miss their promised slot. The reason is simple: they have little incentive to keep their promises.

Most of your interactions with tradesmen are one-shot affairs. You’ve never seen them before, you’ll never see them again, and quite likely you picked them at random out of a business directory because your living room ceiling just collapsed. If their business largely depends on strangers like you, why would they inconvenience themselves to build up a reputation? The few tradesmen with whom you deal frequently are more likely to be punctual.

If you want to solve the problem, the necessary incentive structure is quite simple. Call your man at 9am and tell him he’ll get an extra twenty quid if he stops the job he’s currently on and comes over immediately. If enough other people are doing this that may explain why you always have to wait until after lunch.

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