Sometimes it seems like the easiest thing to have happen is for a job to run into a snag. Suddenly the customer, previously eager and amiable, is irritated or angry. Things can go anywhere from that point, including to court.

A dispute, in a way, is like an objection in the sales process. If you don’t know what to say or how to move the conversation forward, you’re thrown and left feeling helpless. On the other hand, if you have a procedure readily available, you can eventually defuse even a difficult situation.

Clearly Communicated

Here’s the first thing to know about disputes: It’s easy to avoid about 90 percent of them. You can do so by structuring your sales process, including your contract, in a certain way.

If you have policies that are clearly communicated verbally and in writing, you can head off most disputes. Even if one arises, clear and written policies will serve you well because you can reference something communicated previously but which, for whatever reason, the homeowner chose to ignore.

A system does several things. For one, it gives you a blueprint for how to proceed when lots of stress and aggravation enter the picture. You go from point A to point B, moving logically toward a conclusion that leaves the homeowner satisfied.

At Maggio Roofing, for instance, everyone learns the system because everyone—sales, production, administration—can encounter disputes. Handled badly, they might turn toxic.

Be Cool, Be Clear

Let’s say your production people are trained in the dispute-resolution process, meaning they’re equipped to solve whatever problem occurs. You, the owner, might hear about it at some point, but it’s their responsibility.

Let’s say, for instance, that a roofing tear-off starts, and it’s quickly discovered that there’s rotted wood. Not just the sheathing but some of the framing must be replaced. Let’s say this happened because there was no attic access and the roof, when you walked it, seemed solid enough because there were so many layers of roofing material on it.

Nevertheless, the job is now going to take a few extra days and cost several thousand dollars more. Now the client is yelling at the project manager, who has presented them with a change order. The job stops.

Back Off

The first thing the process teaches is to step back and not respond in kind to whatever irritation or rage might be coming from the homeowner. That’s not always easy because our brains are wired to instantly match the mood and tone.

If you pause and step back, then you can remain calm while the homeowner vents. His/her frustration is real and needs an outlet. Listen, show concern and take notes. The fact you’re not responding in kind has its own calming effect.

Once you’ve let the homeowner have their say, find out what’s wrong. In this case, they would tell you they signed a contract for $20,000, and now we’re asking an additional $5,000. Restate what they said.

Let’s say they agree. Ask if there’s anything else about the job bothering them. The reason you do this is because now their concern is out in the open and addressing that concern won’t immediately lead to others.

On Common Ground

Once they seem satisfied you know what the problem is, establish some positive common ground. The job started on time? True. The crew left the site spotless every day? True. In other words, everything’s not bad; it’s just that this problem exists, right?

Now, you’re able to explain why it exists and why it will cost extra money to correct, whether it’s corrected by your company now or another company later.

Expect the homeowner at this point to rebut what you’re saying. That’s fine—it’s in the give-and-take that understanding is established. What you’re telling them might not be what they want to hear, but it is the truth. Don’t argue.

Once the owner understands the facts, explain your goal is 100 percent satisfaction; however, they need to know it’s not your company’s fault that, given lack of attic access and layers of roofing on the house, the rotting wood situation was not detectable.

Ask if they believe this is contractor negligence. If the answer is yes, explain that any contractor working on the house would’ve found the problem at some point, and it was noted in the proposal that any rotted wood is extra.

Price Objection

The homeowner, now calm and in listening mode, probably is still not happy about the price. Remind them that there’s no way you could’ve known the problem was there and that taking care of the problem does cost a lot of money, but it’s not as if your company was negligent.

If that’s understood, now you’re dealing with a price objection. Explain the work must happen for the job to be completed and ask them to sign the change order.

Who’s Responsible

The important thing is to have a process that allows you to talk about issues that arise in an unemotional way and to move them toward a satisfactory conclusion. Things go wrong on jobs all the time. There’s always the possibility of unforeseen conditions or extra work. Sometimes, with exterior work, it’s a maintenance issue on the homeowner’s part.

And sometimes there are situations where someone on the crew makes a mistake, although that’s far less common. Whatever it is, figure out what the problem is and put the responsibility where it belongs. QR

Scott Siegal is the owner of Maggio Roofing in Washington, D.C., and also owns the Certified Contractors Network. You can learn more about CCN by going to the website

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