Home Improvement: Lessons In Deck Paint, or, Customer Service 101

I mentioned earlier this summer that I wanted to get back to my roots in thinking about the “hand” and the “building,” so I wanted to mention a few things about the finishing of the renovation of this 1895 Victorian crib in Southwest Detroit that I’ve been working on. Sometimes this involves articles about furnaces. Other times, it looks at some ways that some companies have forgotten about that whole “customer experience” thing– through the lens of deck paint.

Rustoleum 20x Deck Resurfacer deck paint is thicc. Made of some sort of high-grade acrylic + water base, it oozes, rather than slathers, onto wood and cures to a durable hardness, more closely resembling vegetable shortening-based frosting than paint. If it weren’t for the Dirty Robin’s Egg Blue color, it almost looks like you could spoon that into your mouth. Annoyingly, though, the paint comes with premixed grit, which is supposed to be applied with a special, proprietary roller that they don’t tell you about before you drop $74 on two gallons.
THE PROJECT

The project was repainting a porch. The porch in question was installed circa 2014 with new softwood by a credible contractor. They did some dubious structural work, which is apparent when you crawl around underneath. It’s clear that they were excellent carpenters– but probably carpenters who Googled “basic emergency masonry” from their phones in the field. There are a few columns supporting the porch that are listing like medieval Italian monument. The concrete work is sloppy. Et cetera.

While the installation of the porch was sound, we have a pretty brutal freeze-thaw cycle in these middle states. This wrecks, well, everything, paint included. It also wrecks wood. Wood absorbs water naturally and it absorbs it exceptionally well through the “ends” of a board. That whole xylem thing that transports water from the roots up to the tippy top of the tree? Magic, right? Well, it’s a bit less magical when you realize that it can also quite efficiently transport water from one end of a board to the other end, ten feet away. Fortunately, though, wood is durable and it’s flexible.

The Zorachovian Home Improvement Spending Hierarchy.
THE PRODUCT

In the dark depths of COVID lockdowns in April, I placed a giant order from Home Depot. This was one of three parts of the order that got delivered. The other $700, which was mostly an assortment of heavy, large building materials that it would have been impossible to fit in Little Honda, never arrived. First, the company blamed COVID. Time dragged on– over a month. Then they blamed “the protests” in Detroit in June. (A media relations representative from Home Depot later told me that the protests had not in any way disrupted local deliveries).

I’ll be real: I hate Home Depot. There is for me a hierarchy of spending.

The suburban big box is the worst. The box store inside the city limits is “acceptable, in a pinch.” This is because at least the tax revenue goes to the city instead of to some godawful suburban municipality. Amazon is also included in this tier. Much as I am loath to admit it, the savings that come from spending $2.93 on a stud versus $4.50 on a stud add up quickly. This is also true when I can buy a $40 sledgehammer shipped to my door at a loss to Amazon, versus $38 that requires an hour round trip to a Home Depot when my local hardware store doesn’t have one in stock. So, too, was it true when I bought some odds and ends o things that were hard to find, like special landscaping spikes, or stake-down polypropylene edging strips. However, many prices are NOT any better at a Home Depot or an Amazon. The best tier includes buying used stuff, buying stuff from a locally-owned hardware store, or from an independent building supply.

The streaks here are the unevenness of the grit in the paint.
APPLICATION AND INSTALLATION

This was easy and took all of a single day for one person. It involved sanding the roughest spots with an orbital sander at 80 grit, then moving up to 120 and 220. Because the goal was just to scuff up the roughest areas, it was not about stripping the wood down, but rather just evening it out. The first coat was easy. The paint doesn’t go very far, though– estimated 80 square feet per gallon, so we used two gallons for the porch.

Unfortunately, it dried unevenly because of a grit mixture (like sand) included in the coating. The product does not mention this on the can. They do, however, say in very fine print that they recommend that you use their special, proprietary roller to apply it for best results. When reached by phone, Rust-Oleum said after twenty minutes on hold that yeah, go fuck yourself, buddy, you’re out of luck if you didn’t buy our proprietary roller. BuY oUr pRoPrIeTaRy rOlLeR! Yeah, no.

“Look,” I said, “I’ve worked on houses and commercial projects across the American Rust Belt, and I have never heard of a proprietary paint roller.”

“UNFORTUNATELY, SIR…”

Alright, alright. But here’s my thing.

You have this opportunity to try something for the customer to make it right. There is a very high economic cost of losing a customer because they’ll never buy your stuff again and they’ll tell all 23 of their blog readers that Rust-Oleum 20x Deck Paint sucks. It’s also fairly cheap for the company to try and make it right. Acting like the customer is the jerk is always a losing move. There’s also the fact that most customers don’t even ever bother to call customer service, let alone complain. Every business should work on minimizing these calls and, obviously, these complaints.

This is how business works. You work to make things foolproof enough that even a liberal arts grad like me can understand them. Of course, arguing with a customer service representative is generally fruitless, and it’s extremely rare that I try and argue with someone who is probably grossly underpaid and whose hands are probably tied anyway.

REFINISHING

After some grumbling to Home Depot, I was able to score a free gallon of Behr deck paint to go over the finished surface as a second coat. It took an hour and some to lightly re-sand the top coat of the Rust-Oleum product. Whatever mineral served as the grit in the Rust-Oleum was hard enough that it didn’t sand out. I guess this is good if you’re going for traction. It’s not as good if you’re going for, you know, a smooth, even surface.

It took far less time to recoat. The finished product looks alright, although the extra coat of paint– or perhaps the first- raised the grain a bit. I suspect this will even out over time. And if it doesn’t, well, I guess we can find another paint in the next couple of years when we have to repaint it again. In the mean time: Rust-Oleum, you’re disinvited from my birthday party and future sleepovers. You’re hereby banned forevermore from my clubhouse. Delete my number from your phone. Until, you know, I need some cheap spray paint, I guess. There’s that.

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Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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