Is It Time to Dispel the Rogue Trader Myth?

Business news and opinion

29 January 2016

It's official – and we’ve known it for some time: Tradesmen get a raw deal in the media.

If it’s not high-profile television programmes like Cowboy Builders and Rogue Traders, it’s the occasional high-profile story in a newspaper slamming shoddy workmanship and questionable ethics of a minority of tradesmen. So unsurprisingly, public perception is that most trade professionals are shifty.

Almost two-thirds of tradesmen agreed that rogue traders are a problem within the industry. However, the reality is that most tradesmen are honest, reliable and do a stellar job. Don’t just take our word for it though. We spoke to 2000 consumers and 320 tradesmen about the rogue trader myth, where it comes from and whether it’s time for change.

The dodgy dealer

The tradesmen we surveyed agreed that the surest sign of a shifty trader is if they ask for money up-front, with over 74% saying they would view this as suspicious. Organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau agree that trustworthy tradesmen wouldn't do this, even to pay for materials, unless they had already done a substantial amount of work first.

One builder we surveyed shared his simple formula for success: "I always ask to get paid once work is completed and the customer is happy."

Almost 60% of tradesmen also warned that consumers should be wary of those who ask to be paid cash-in-hand, as it could indicate that the business is trying to work off the books to avoid paying VAT.

The tardy trader

Unprofessional behaviour such as arriving late, or not turning up at all, could both be indications that you're dealing with a rogue trader, according to almost three-quarters of our survey.

When asked the best way to maintain a reputation as a trustworthy trader, one tradesman shared these guiding principles: "I never let anybody down, I always finish a job and I always turn up on time."

The over (or under) charger

Two-thirds of tradesmen in our survey recommended that customers ensure they're quoted a fair price for work. However, this doesn't necessarily mean the lowest figure and, in fact, the Citizens Advice Bureau warns that a price that looks 'too good to be true' could itself be a sign of a cowboy, or a tradesman who lacks the experience to provide an accurate quote.

One professional painter we surveyed recommends giving "a quote by post so the customer can think about it independently" before moving forward.

Market research firm YouGov carried out a survey (PDF) asking 2054 adults what they consider to be the most trustworthy professions in the UK. The survey found that the top 10 most trusted professions (out of 25 possible choices) were:

  1. Family doctors (85% trust rating)
  2. School teachers (76% trust rating)
  3. People who run national charities (67% trust rating)
  4. Local police officers (66% trust rating)
  5. Judges (63% trust rating)
  6. BBC news journalists (60% trust rating)
  7. Senior police officers (54% trust rating)
  8. ITV news journalists (49% trust rating)
  9. Local plumbers and electricians (43% trust rating)
  10. Broadsheet journalists (41% trust rating)

With tradesmen firmly securing their place in the professional top 10 (ahead of local MPs, CEOs, leading politicians and estate agents) the results suggest that, rather than putting the squeeze on tradesmen, the media may want to divert their attention elsewhere.

Sensationalism and scaremongering

Although the media machine often plays a large part in sculpting the public opinion of trade professionals, that doesn’t mean media reports of unscrupulous tradesmen are unfounded. But as we all know, sensationalism sells.

Adam Callow, Chief Executive Officer of Expert Trades – a directory that helps homeowners find local tradesmen – believes programmes like Rogue Traders and Cowboy Builders amount to little more than scaremongering.

He said: “There are too many shows that have one clear message – to be careful when dealing with trades. We all know there are people who deserve to be held up as examples of cowboys. But for every one of these, there are more who are as shocked as the rest of us as to how these rogues operate.”

Tariq Dag Khan, Chief Marketing Officer of online tradesmen recommendation service RatedPeople, also believes that tradesmen get a bad rap in the media. He remarked: "Shows like Cowboy Builders and Rogue Traders taint the reputation of all tradesmen when, in fact, the vast majority of them deliver a job well done and at good value."

Changing the story

Significantly, 45% of tradesmen we spoke to believe that tradesmen themselves are responsible for the industry's poor image. If true, who better to change the public perception?

Mr. Khan of RatedPeople said: "One way for tradesmen to counter the unfair misperceptions is to improve communications with homeowners... What helps is to be clear up-front about each project, starting with what work is required, when it will be completed and at what cost."

His statement is supported by our survey. When we asked tradesmen how they could improve their reputation, the two leading responses were:

  • Do the job properly (90%)
  • Be transparent with job scope and costs (56%)

This also ties in nicely with recent research carried out by the Federation of Master Builders, which revealed that almost a quarter of consumers were worried that their original quote for repair work would be dwarfed by the final bill.

The message from our surveyed tradesmen is clear: it's up to traders to do their job and do it well.

Finally, 58% of tradesmen suggested that professionals who provide a guarantee for work are likely to be good eggs, while just under half agreed that having insurance is another strong sign of trustworthiness.