A Lesson in Customer Complaints

Nobody enjoys a dispute with a customer. However, no matter how diligent and conscientious you are, disputes will occasionally occur. While these situations can be stressful, they can also represent an opportunity to improve your business.

Several years ago, I had a three-month dispute with a customer. I will spare you all of the gory details, but a brief summary of the dispute is necessary.

In early July we began an exterior repaint. A few interior rooms were also included in the job. During the job, the customer added a number of small items–another small room, some baseboards, and similar items. The supervisor provided a price for each item verbally, and the customer agreed to the prices. Because this was occurring several times a day, the supervisor did not write a change order for each additional item. Instead, he planned to write one change order later in the job. When he did write the change order the customer refused to sign it, saying that he wanted to review it.

We were also going to install a new door, which the customer would supply. However, once we were on the job, the customer informed us that the door would not be available immediately.We agreed that we would complete the other work and return to install the door once it arrived. The crew completed the work and asked the customer to inspect the work so that they could take care of any touch up items. He refused. That evening he called our office and left a message that he had a few questions.

Over the next several days I left him multiple messages, but he did not return my calls. I finally emailed him and he informed me that he was on vacation and would return the following week.

Upon his return, he provided a short punch list. We returned to install the door and take care of the punch list items. When the crew finished, he again refused to inspect the work or make final payment. Two weeks later, he submitted a new punch list, twice the length of the first one.

Up to this point I had tolerated his delays and lack of communication. But the new punch list was unreasonable. His refusal to inspect the work while the crew was there– despite the terms of our contract–was creating scheduling problems. His refusal to pay–despite the terms of our contract–was an indication that he might be trying to stiff us.

Over the next several weeks we exchanged emails and phone calls in an attempt to resolve the matter. He demanded that we complete the items on his punch list before he would pay any more. At one point he suggested that we deduct $1,300 from his balance of $3,000 to call the deal even. This was absurd, and I told him so. Our last phone call ended with no resolution. I promptly contacted the Better Business Bureau and requested arbitration to resolve the matter. The BBB contacted the customer and three days later I received a check in the mail for the balance due.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this experience.

The first, and most significant, lesson is the importance of following procedures. Procedures are useless if they are not followed. In this instance, having the customer sign for additional work before completing that work would have avoided some problems. While the failure to do so was understandable under the circumstances and certainly not the primary cause of the dispute, the dynamics of the situation would have been considerably different.

The second lesson is the importance of a good contract. For example, our contract calls for the customer to inspect the work at the time of substantial completion, and provides the customer with an additional 5 days to inform us of any uncompleted items. The customer abused this policy, refusing to inspect the work at the time of substantial completion (even though he worked at home) and then taking 2 weeks to inform us of uncompleted items. Further, our contract calls for binding arbitration in the event of a dispute. Not only does this prevent expensive litigation, when the customer implied that he would sue if I did not cave to his demands, I knew that his threats were meaningless.

Finally, this experience shows that BBB membership does not benefits. For the price of a few emails with the BBB I was able to resolve this dispute quickly. Apparently, the realization that an independent, third-party would rule on this dispute provided motivation for the customer to quit playing games.

For us, this experience provided a reminder that we have specific procedures for a purpose. It also reminded us that when those procedures are not followed, the results can be much different from what we want or intend.

Training our Customers

Most contractors recognize the need to train their employees. If we want work performed to a certain standard, we cannot assume that our employees know how to achieve that result. We must show them the proper way to perform the tasks required in their job.

Unfortunately, we often fail to recognize the need to train our customers. Yet, the results can be much worse than failing to train our employees.

Consider: You have given the customer an estimate and they ask if you can do better on your price. If you immediately cave and reduce the price, you have taught the customer a lesson—his wish is your command. And he will likely continue to act on that premise.

However, if you tell the customer that you can reduce the price by changing the scope of work or by using different materials, you have taught a much different lesson—your price is determined by the labor and materials required, not the customer’s desires.

Virtually every interaction with our customer implicitly trains him as to what we expect and will tolerate. We can train the customer to use and abuse us, or we can train him to treat us with respect and professional courtesy.

As professional contractors, we know what it takes for a job to go smoothly. This requires everyone involved—our employees and the customer—to do their part. We spend time training our employees to do their job efficiently and to our standards. We should do the same with our customers.

I Want My House Painted

One of the worst things a contractor can do during the sales process is make assumptions. Unfortunately, it is easy to do. We often assume that we know what the customer means. And often that assumption is wrong.

For example, I once had a customer tell me that she wanted the entire interior of her house painted. That seems pretty straight forward, but appearances can be deceiving. As we walked around her house and discussed the project, I asked her about the ceilings, closets, and several other items. After she told me to leave three or four things off of the estimate, she jokingly said, “I guess I don’t want the entire house painted, do I?”

If I had assumed that I knew what she meant, I would have bid a job that was much different from what she wanted. By asking a few questions, both of us became clear as to her needs and desires. And then I could bid the job accordingly.

I don’t mean to imply that we should endlessly interrogate a customer. That would serve no useful purpose and would likely annoy the customer. But we must be careful to identify when we are making assumptions.

If we seek to satisfy the customer’s needs and desires, we must first know what they are. And that means asking the right questions. Anything less is a disservice to the customer and to ourselves.

The Customer is Not Always Right

Conventional wisdom holds that the customer is always right. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. Unfortunately, far too many contractors buy into this faulty view, and in the process, they do themselves and their customers a great disservice. Equally unfortunate, many customers also embrace this adage, with the same destructive results.

Consider what “the customer is always right” really means: regardless of the facts, the customer’s position should be accepted by both parties. The focus is not on the truth, but blind acceptance of the customer’s claims. But what if the customer is actually wrong?

As an example, let us say that the customer tells you that he will supply the paint for his exterior painting project. When you arrive to start the project, you discover that the customer has purchased interior paint. The customer insists that you use the paint, despite any arguments you present. “Paint is paint,” the customer declares. (I’ve actually had this occur.)

If you accept the adage that the customer is always right, you will go ahead and use the paint. Rather than continue a pointless debate, you conclude that you will avoid the problem by giving in. But what happens when the paint job fails prematurely? Who will get the blame? Did you really avoid a problem, or just delay it?

In this example, the customer gets a poor job. Your reputation is going to take a hit because you agreed that the customer is always right, even when he isn’t. You may find yourself with a major headache down the road, all because you believed that the customer is always right.

Nobody is infallible, and this doesn’t change simply because someone has hired your company to paint their house. When a customer is wrong, we must say so. Of course, we should be tactful in dong so.

Standing up to a customer who is wrong is not always easy. But it is much easier than dealing with a problem that could have been avoided if we had simply had the courage to defend the truth.
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