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Articles by Jim Heaphy
for Kitchen & Bath Design News

Dealing With Difficult Customers - November 2000


I've been involved with countertop fabrication and installation for nearly 17 years now, and I've dealt with thousands of homeowners in that time. The vast majority of these customers have been reasonable people, and a pleasure to deal with. The corollary is that a small minority of customers proves to be "difficult," and these transactions all too often prove to be exasperating and unprofitable.

To minimize the damage to your business, you must cultivate your skill in recognizing the potentially difficult customer early in the process, and quickly take reasonable steps to protect your interests.

Although hard-and-fast rules are lacking, and generalities are always inadequate, I'm convinced that most difficult customers display certain personality traits that can be detected fairly early in a business relationship.

I've found that, from the beginning, conversation with such customers often offers telltale signs. They seem not to understand things you've explained clearly. They have problems deciding on various details of the countertops and often change their minds repeatedly in the midst of the transaction. They may display a haughty or bossy demeanor.

On the other hand, they may act like your best friend far too quickly. They may mention health or family problems in an overly familiar fashion. They may state openly that they're perfectionists. They may complain to you about previous bad experiences with other contractors.

They may even express open doubt about your competence without any evidence to back up their criticism. They also may haggle endlessly over price.

Some may even predict that your business relationship will prove to be an unhappy one.You should take such predictions seriously!

Use caution
Reasonable customers may occasionally display one of the traits I've noted, but I'd recommend great caution when negotiating an agreement with any customer who displays several of them. It may be advisable to tell such customers that you're too busy to accept their business, and politely suggest that they take their business elsewhere.

If you decide to proceed, however, be sure to conduct yourself with consummate professionalism.

Take great care when preparing a quotation for a customer you suspect may later prove to be difficult. Spell out the scope of your work in complete detail, and be especially careful to describe any exclusions from your work. Don't assume that the customer knows, for example, if it's not your practice to remove old countertops, or disconnect and reconnect plumbing, or relocate electrical outlets.

Carefully define any trade terms that could possibly be confusing to a consumer. If you don't plan to offer a coved splash, for example, make that clear. Instead of using jargon like "butt splash," spell it out in detail, such as "a separate loose splash installed onto the countertop and caulked with silicone sealant." Some people find terms such as "bullnose edge" confusing.

Describe the edge detail clearly, or include a scale drawing in your proposal.

Similarly, make sure that your proposal mentions how the countertop is to be finished matte, semi-gloss or gloss and have samples available for the customer to review. Indicate in writing the color or pattern to be used, and make it clear that changing this color or pattern could result in additional changes.

If you're furnishing sinks, attach an accurate drawing or photo of the sink model included, and make it clear that changing the sink model may result in price increases.

In addition, be sure to describe the customer's obligation to furnish you with accurate information about sinks, cooktops and other appliances on a timely basis. Mention the customer's obligation to empty out the contents of the cabinets and clear off the countertops, and to provide you and your workers with power, water and restroom facilities. Lay out a realistic work schedule, but make it clear that you can't be held responsible for delays due to factors beyond your control, such as material backorders.

It's especially important to be specific in describing your payment terms, including any deposits or initial payments you expect, as well as a final payment date. Bill the customer at each designated stage of the project. Be certain that all the terms in your proposal and contract form comply with contractor's license law for the state in which you operate.

As I mentioned, the difficult customer is more likely than others to voice price objections, and ask for a reduction in price. I suggest you consider offering a small discount in exchange for payment in full in advance. Otherwise, stick to your price.

Communicate
Once the contract has been signed, maintain good communication with your customer. Do your very best to be on time for appointments, and be honest about any delays or problems that crop up. Accurately describe the dust, noise and disruption that your work will create, and promise to clean up thoroughly when you are finished, and then do so.

This may be less important when you're involved with new construction or a complete kitchen remodel, but it's essential in a "remove and replace" project, where installing new countertops constitutes the main work being done. It may be well worth your time to go way overboard with drop cloths and floor protection in order to demonstrate how responsible you are and reduce the chance of complaints. Also, be sure that all workers are on their best behavior when in the customer's home.

If your customer starts showing signs of being unreasonable, do your best not to show signs of anger or irritation. Breathe deeply and pause for a moment. Listen carefully for the core of the customer's complaints, and try to ignore the emotionalism. Speak quietly. Explain your point of view calmly and rationally, referring to your specific obligations under the contract you both signed. Restate the customer's legitimate points, if any, to demonstrate that you understand them.

Do your best to address any genuine problems that the customer may have, but make it clear that you intend to fulfill only the agreement you've made not to go beyond that agreement unless you're paid extra to do so.

I recommend that you follow up any such conversations with a written memo that summarizes what you've agreed to do to resolve the dispute. Then, proceed promptly to take whatever corrective actions are appropriate to the specific situation.

Be very careful about discussing any of these problems with your employees or co-workers while in the customer's home. Your remarks may be overheard and misunderstood. It's far better to retreat outside to your truck for such discussions.

When all else fails
What steps should you take if you conclude that things just aren't getting better between you and the difficult customer?

Early in the course of the job, it may be worthwhile to consider offering the customer the option of a refund of payments to date, and a mutual agreement to terminate the contract. Just extending this offer will sometimes bring customers to their senses.

Another possibility is to offer to bring the matter before an independent mediator. If you're reasonable, and your customer is clearly being unreasonable, mediation may offer a promising solution and, once again, simply making the offer can sometimes help defuse anger.

When a customer refuses to pay you without good reason, it's entirely appropriate to file a lien notice in accordance with the construction laws of your state. In general, such a notice must be worded just right, and should be sent via registered mail, with return receipt requested. Receiving this notice may well motivate the customer to pay what's owed.

Be slow to threaten a lawsuit. It's rarely worthwhile to go to court over a residential countertop installation, and it's a mistake to threaten what you're not prepared to go ahead with. If, however, you are sued, immediately engage a capable lawyer and follow the legal advice you receive.

Keep in mind that it's possible, in most situations, to arrive at some sort of settlement that both parties can accept. Keep trying.

When you're embroiled in a dispute with a customer, it's hard to remember an important fact: An unhappy customer who has had a problem resolved fairly and professionally is far more likely to recommend a company, or to offer repeat business, than a customer who experienced no problems at all with their transaction.

Every cloud really does have a silver lining.

Jim Heaphy, who was among the first to urge solid surface fabricators to organize into a trade association, started Heaphy Associates in 1993, which provides warranty service on a major brand of solid surface material in Northern California. Heaphy Associates is a member of the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association. He has been active in the countertop industry for 17 years and has written this column about countertop fabrication in Kitchen & Bath Design News for the past 11 years. He has also conducted training seminars on countertop fabrication to thousands of students across the U.S.
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