Richard and Flora Roswell sat at their kitchen table. Richard was drinking coffee from his favorite old cup—the one he had been using for nearly fifty years.

“I wish you’d let me get rid of that old thing,” said his wife. “It’s stained and it’s got a crack in the handle.”

“So what?” replied Richard. “I like it. I see no reason to waste money on a new cup. This one works just fine. Now then—we’re supposed to be discussing getting the house painted.”

This was a subject that Flora was not looking forward to. It was not that they couldn’t afford it; the problem was that her dear husband of sixty years was a tightwad, and had delayed getting the house painted for so long that the paint was peeling and she was afraid the wood was beginning to rot. It was going to be an expensive job, but they couldn’t put it off any longer.

“I have some names of house painters,” said Flora. “First on the list is Jones and Sons. They come highly recommended.”

“Too expensive,” replied Richard.

“How about Presto Painting?”

“They cost an arm and a leg.”

“Richard, we have to hire somebody,” replied Flora. “We’re not going to do it ourselves—not at our age. The last name on the list is Peter Foster.”

“I’ve heard of him,” said Richard. “He did the Smith house at the end of the block. Did a nice job. Okay, we’ll hire Peter Foster.”

 

A few days later, Richard and Flora met Peter in front of the house.

“Mr. Roswell, thanks very much for asking me to paint your house,” said Peter. “I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results.”

“I’ll be pleased,” replied Richard, “if you do a good job, don’t get paint in the flower beds, and don’t go over budget. Okay? I know all about you guys. You try to do as little work as possible and get paid as much as possible. Well, I’ll be watching you.”

“Now dear,” said Flora to her husband, “don’t get too excited. Remember your heart. The doctor told you to try to take it easy.”

“I’ll take it easy when I’m dead,” retorted Richard. “Until then, I’m going to keep a sharp eye on things around here.”

“Don’t worry,” said Peter. “I promise you the very best service. Four days from now, your house will be looking great.”

“One more thing,” said Richard. Grabbing Peter by the arm, he led him to a spot on the porch next to the front door. He pointed at the wall. “See that old name plate?”

Peter looked, and sure enough there was an old bronze nameplate attached to the wood sideboards. Under the grime and tarnish it read “R. and F. Roswell.”

“That’s a very old nameplate,” said Peter.

“You bet it is,” replied Richard. “It’s been there for as long as we’ve owned the house. Flora’s parents gave it to us.” He pointed to one of the edges. “You can see where the last housepainter was sloppy, and got some paint on it. Inexcusable! I certainly hope you’re not as careless as he was.”

“Absolutely not,” replied Peter. “I’m very precise.”

Flora took her husband’s hand. “Come along, dear,” she said. “I’m sure Peter wants to get to work. Let’s go inside so you can watch your show.”

Together, Richard and Flora disappeared through the front door.

Peter spread out his drop cloths and began to scrape the old paint off the house. Despite Richard’s cranky behavior, Peter liked the old couple. They reminded him of his own parents, who had gone through difficult economic times and knew how to hang onto their money. Peter suspected that deep down inside, Richard was a nice guy—he just didn’t have many opportunities to show it.

As Peter set to work on the house, he did what every housepainter does when he doesn’t want get paint on a certain surface: he used masking tape, which he put over the nameplate. When he was finished with the job, he could simply peel off the tape and the nameplate wouldn’t have any paint on it.

 

On the afternoon of the fourth day, Peter was nearing the end of the job. Richard and Flora came out of the house to speak with him.

“Be sure to clean up any spilled paint drops!” said Richard. “And don’t get any paint on the windows!”

“Absolutely, sir,” said Peter with a smile.

“Flora and I are going to visit our daughter, who lives a few hours away,” said Richard. “We’ll be back tomorrow morning. The house will be locked up. When we get back, we expect everything to be perfect.”

“Yes—of course,” replied Peter.

He watched as they got in the car and drove away. He had to admit that having Richard around while he was working was tiring—he felt like he was performing in front of a very critical audience. It was a relief to be able to work without interruption.

As afternoon faded into evening, Peter finished the last of the painting. He picked up the drop cloths and cleaned the few drops of paint that had fallen on the walkway. After loading up his truck, he realized he had one more small task remaining. Going up on the front porch, he went to the nameplate and peeled away the protective tape. With the sticky tape balled up in his hand, he stepped back to look at his work.

Something wasn’t right.

While the bronze nameplate was free of stray paint, its tarnished and grimy appearance didn’t harmonize with the freshly painted house. The nameplate looked old and worn.

Peter sighed. He had done exactly what Richard had asked him to do: keep the paint off the nametag. He wasn’t expected to do any more.

But as he looked at the nameplate, he realized that he couldn’t leave it looking that way. It did not represent the quality that Peter demanded of himself and his work. It looked shabby.

Peter glanced at his watch. The hour was late. He really didn’t have time to give himself extra work for no reason. Besides, who would care? Certainly not old man Roswell. He was an old curmudgeon.

But Peter couldn’t walk away. Not with the job incomplete.

Taking a screwdriver, he carefully detached the nameplate from the wall. As he pried it away, it was clear to him that the nameplate hadn’t been removed since it was put there.

It felt heavy in his hand. It was a nice piece of metal casting—good quality work.

Peter took the nameplate home with him.

It took him an hour to scrape off the old paint that had caked around the edges and then apply the bronze polish. With some vigorous rubbing, the nameplate glowed with its original luster. It looked new.

Peter drove back to the Roswell house and re-attached the nameplate to the wall. He stepped back. The nameplate gleamed under the porch light. Now the job was done!

After slipping his invoice through the letter slot in the door, Peter drove home.

He didn’t expect to hear from Richard Roswell; in fact, Peter allowed himself only the hope that Richard would quickly pay him the balance he was owed and save him the trouble of hounding the old man for his money.

Three days later, it was with great relief that Peter saw an envelope in his mail with the return address of Richard Roswell. Peter opened the envelope and found Richard’s check for the balance due. But there was something else in the envelope—a small note.

The note was handwritten. The script wasn’t perfectly legible, but Peter managed to decipher the message. It was:

 

“Dear Peter,

Thank you so much for ‘going the extra mile’ when you painted our house. We expected a good job for a fair price, and you delivered more. In particular, Flora and I want to thank you for something unexpected that you did. The nameplate next to the front door was given to us by Flora’s parents on the occasion of our marriage. At the time, we lived in a small apartment. Flora’s parents said, ‘When you buy your first house, you can put it on the wall.’ After several years of scrimping and saving, we bought the house that you have just painted. We attached the nameplate to the wall. We never touched it. The years went by, and Flora’s parents both passed away. The nameplate grew tarnished. But you took it and polished it so that it looks like new. Flora and I are gratified and humbled by your extra effort, and we thank you.”

 

Peter, who during his career as a house painter had received his share of kind wishes from his customers, was touched. He was happy that his commitment to customer service had been recognized.

He put the note in his drawer and turned his attention to his next job.

A few weeks later he got a phone call. A woman was on the line. She told Peter that she owned five houses that she rented out, and she was interested in having all of them painted. This was going to be a very big job, and would represent a big expansion in Peter’s business.

Peter readily agreed to meet with the woman, look at her houses, and give her his best estimate. Before he hung up the phone, he asked her, “Do you mind telling me how you heard about me? I’m always interested in how my name gets around, since I don’t do much advertising.”

“Gladly,” replied the woman. “I play golf with a man named Richard Roswell. The other day we were out on the links and I happened to mention to him that I was looking for a good house painter. I said I needed someone who did top quality work. Without hesitation he replied that you had just painted his house and you did an outstanding job. He couldn’t recommend you more highly. He said you were the best.”

Peter hung up the phone. He felt that the values that he pursued in his business—to always go the extra mile for his customers, even when he expected no additional reward—had been proven to be correct. His service to Richard and Flora had been a form of “paying it forward,” and his positive attitude had come back to him as an unexpected referral to a new client.

Polishing the nameplate hadn’t taken much extra effort, but it had made a big and lasting impression on his customer.