Good lawyers are said to be reassuringly expensive, so why don’t clients pay top dollar for quality work by M&E firms? Could it be the sector doesn’t value itself highly enough?

“Pay peanuts – get monkeys!” There are few phrases as clear in meaning as this. If you want the best results, you should always be prepared to pay top dollar. Now consider the construction industry. When you want a building built, you choose with infinite care your architect. He designs you a wonderful building and then you choose a builder who is the cheapest you can find. The builder then chooses the cheapest M&E contractor he can find. Whatever happened to the more you pay, the better the job you get?

We can take the procedure used to procure the services of legal representatives to demonstrate the quality vs price debate. When you want a barrister you have to hire a solicitor first. Then he chooses the barrister for you. You nod sagely as he tells you that to pay less than a thousand a day for a barrister is pure folly. Your case needs the best you can get and that means that you must pay big bucks. In fact the more you pay, the more likely you are to get justice. The best will cost at least £500 an hour, but if you want the very finest justice you would be advised to pay £700 an hour.

Contrast this with the M&E sector where there is a trend of clients getting contractors to tender in an online reverse auction situation – it speaks volumes about how we value the trade. In the view of the buyer, we are all equivalent and the only thing that differentiates us is price. This is clearly a nonsense and you do get what you pay for. If quality and health and safety are important to you, buying solely on price will not achieve these objectives. Every penny pinched has to come from somewhere. Everyone should be motivated towards absolute quality. We should operate a zero defects, zero snags policy on all sites. This commitment to quality and safety comes at a price – if we start to compromise this to meet the demands of an industry intent on forcing down prices, where will the cutting of corners end?

When a lawyer doesn’t get the result you expected, you pay his bill, take the loss and move on. When an M&E contractor gets it wrong, people can get badly hurt. We have to maintain a proactive approach to safety, adopting awareness schemes, such as BAA’s One in a Million campaign to reduce incidents to less than one per million man hours worked. But how do we come together to work towards a better industry standard when we are constantly looking at ways to undercut the competition on price, undercutting on service and quality along the way?

Contrast lawyers’ fees with the M&E sector where there is a trend of clients getting contractors to tender in an online reverse auction

The underlying reason why lawyers get away with what they do is that they have knowledge that they value highly and since you need that knowledge, you have to pay through the nose for it. In the case of the M&E contractor the knowledge base is not so extensive. It is difficult to equate the way that a cable can run with the law on vicarious liability, for instance. So lawyers get to work in nice offices, we get to work on site.

All of which begs the question, why would anyone want to get into M&E? Because when you get it right, there is no trade like it. We improve the way people live and work. We work on some of the most prestigious buildings around. We give clients excellent value for money and when we get it right we can be substantially profitable – just not on quite the same scale as some lawyers.

David Hill is chief executive of Hills Electrical & Mechanical, based in Walsall, West Midlands