Why Poor Communications are Your Fault

As a contractor for more than 25 years, I have certainly had my share of problems with customers. It would be easy to put the blame on the customer for these problems. But the fact is, many times (if not most of the time) the fault lies with me (or someone in my company). Simply blaming the customer does nothing to address the ultimate cause of the problem.

The vast majority of problems between customers and contractors result from poor communications. Frequently, the result is unrealized expectations on the part of one or both parties. For example, the contractor may expect the customer to remove all small items from a room, but when he arrives at the job, he discovers that the customer expects the contractor to remove everything. Neither expressed his expectations and both wind up frustrated.

I put the onus for good communications on the contractor. We know what the typical problems are, and we can take steps to avoid those problems through good communications. Over the past 3 years, I have increasingly seen these problems from the customer’s side of the equation.

Since late 2009, I have been investing in real estate. During that time, I have hired and dealt with about a dozen different contractors–both GCs and trade specific. This has allowed me to view the contractor/customer relationship from a new perspective. And, nearly every problem that I have experienced has been the result of poor communications.

The contractor that I am using on a current rehab serves as an example. He has called no less than a dozen times asking about colors, hardware finishes, the type of tile, etc. Virtually every time, his call has come while he is at the store or on his way to pick up materials. This puts me in the position of making a quick decision, something that I have refused to do several times. The result is frustration on the part of one or both of us, delays in the job, and similar problems.

This type of situation can be easily avoided by anticipating when choices need to be made and communicating that fact ahead of time. Indeed, with few exceptions, these issues can be addressed before the job even begins.

As a contractor, I won’t start a job until the customer has selected colors. I don’t want to put myself in the position of idle time while a customer makes such decisions. And I don’t want to put the customer in the position of making a rapid decision.

As a customer, I don’t want to delay my contractor. Nor do I want to be put in the position of making rapid decisions.

In both instances, I put the onus on the contractor. As a contractor, I know what information I need from the customer and when I need it. As a customer, I expect my contractor to similarly anticipate his needs.

Most communications problems can be avoided
through systems. Systems provide specific steps for obtaining and imparting information. Forms and checklists can be used to ensure that the steps are followed and the relevant information properly recorded. As an example, we require the customer to submit paint colors prior to starting the job, and we record the information on the work order for the job.

When we experience a problem or frustration, we should ask ourselves one simple question: what can I do to avoid this problem in the future? Systems provide the means to improve our communications, to the mutual benefit of both the contractor and the customer.


Customer complaints

Over the years I have had customers call up with all kinds of wild claims after we have completed a job. For example, one customer complained that all of the paint was falling off of her wall. Such calls are certainly distressing. Nobody likes to have their work criticized. And a professional contractor would be concerned that his work isn’t performing as intended.

I have heard many contractors dismiss such calls as a “picky customer” seeking to get free work. But unless I am very much mistaken, contractors are not mind readers. To claim to know what a customer is thinking is simply irresponsible.

Just as you can’t price a job without putting your eyes on it, you can’t determine the legitimacy of the customer’s claim until you look at the area of concern. In other words, you first must get the facts, and nothing but the facts.

When I visited the customer who claimed the paint was falling off of the wall I discovered something interesting. First, she had greatly exaggerated the problem–there was one small area where the paint had peeled. Second, not only had the paint peeled, but there was a gouge in the drywall. When I pointed this out, the customer admitted that she scraped the wall while installing a new toilet paper dispenser.

While there are certainly customers who try to get free work, there are also customers who have legitimate complaints. And we simply don’t know which is which until we get the facts.

When the customer is picky

If you have been in business for very long, you have likely run into a customer who can’t find anything right with your work. They mark the slightest imperfection with blue tape. They stand on chairs, use mirrors, and more to inspect your work.

Such customers are much worse than simply frustrating. They threaten our reputation and our profit. And if we don’t deal with them properly, they could hold us hostage for a very long time, demanding that we redo our work over and over.

The best and most effective way to deal with this type of situation is to avoid getting into it to begin with. That might seem like an easy thing to say, but more difficult to actually do. I do not concur with that evaluation.

The fundamental issue with the overly picky customer is unrealized expectations. In other words, they expected one thing and received something else. Why did this occur? Why did the customer expect one level of quality or appearance and actually received another?

I put the bulk of the blame on the contractor. One of the primary goals of the sales process is to set reasonable expectations. We do this by asking questions, listening to the answers, and then educating the customer. We must try to uncover the customer’s expectations long before we start the job– how else can we propose a job that will meet those expectations.

In the case of the overly picky customer, this can easily be identified during the first meeting. Ask the customer if she is happy with the last paint job. If not, why not? If so, what did she like about it? Ask her what level of prep she desires and the appearance she seeks for the final product. If her expectations are unreasonable, you now have an opportunity to address that fact. If her expectations remain unreasonable, you can refuse to submit a proposal.

The second part of avoiding overly picky customers is to have a well written contract that details exactly what is included and what is not included. This helps define expectations and does provide legal protection for both parties.

If you fail to do the above and find yourself dealing with an unreasonable customer, I cannot offer much advice. You cannot reason with unreasonable people. All you can do is remain calm, stand your ground, and get through it.

Interestingly, in the past few years I seem to be attracting more and more customers who tell me up front that they are very picky. Every one of them has been thrilled with the quality of our work and the service we provided. Many have called us for more work. The “secret” was understanding their expectations, and then delivering.

Empowering employees in customer service

Bill Hogg tells how Home Depot recently impressed him because an employee was empowered. An employee offered to discount an item to match a sale price. When asked why he did this, the employee responded, “I am empowered to make our customers happy”.

This may seem like a simple thing, and in many ways it is. But are your employees empowered to make customers happy? Certainly, we don’t want them arbitrarily giving away work or discounting prices, but there are many other ways to make a customer happy.

A simple example recently occurred with my company. When I originally met with the customer, they did not want their garage door painted. I went through my normal explanation as to why I thought it best to paint the door, but the customer persisted. However, on the first day of the job my supervisor raised the issue, pointing out that the door was going to look dull and worn after everything else was painted.

He did this without prompting from me. He recognized that the customer would be more satisfied with the door painted, and the customer quickly agreed. Because he was empowered, the supervisor created a situation that is beneficial to everyone.

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