Dealing With Difficult Customers

by WOHe

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 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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