When the Red Flags Flutter

About a month ago, I received a phone call requesting an estimate. The caller wanted to schedule a time that would be convenient for her husband, because he was sure to have a lot of questions. I generally like customers to ask a lot of questions, and accommodated her request.
There was nothing remarkable about the initial meeting. After I submitted my estimate, they told me that they’d consider it carefully and get back to me. About two weeks later, the wife showed up at our office with a signed contract. And that is when the red flags started fluttering.
I wasn’t in the office at the time. The husband had handwritten some additional terms on the contract, and the wife wanted my office manger to sign off on the additions. My office manager refused to do so.
After I reviewed the changes the next day, I emailed the husband and withdrew my proposal. I explained that, in my experience, customers who make unilateral changes to my proposal are likely to be difficult to deal with. Had he discussed the changes with me, I would have likely accepted them, with an appropriate change in the price. But that isn’t what occurred.
The customer responded that he really wanted to hire my company, but if I thought that we weren’t competent enough to meet his requests, then so be it. I didn’t respond further, as I had nothing to gain by subjecting myself to
his taunts.
I don’t mind picky customers, so long as they are fair. And fair includes discussing their desires and expectations, not unilaterally writing them into the contract. A customer who is willing to make unilateral changes prior to the start of the job is likely to make unilateral changes during the job. That
is an invitation for disaster, and I don’t like disasters.
The primary source of conflict between customers and contractors is poor communications. Good communications help the customer understand what to expect from the contractor. Good communications help the contractor
understand the customer’s desires and expectations. Good communications help the contractor write a proposal that meets those desires and expectations, as well as price the job accordingly.
In this case, the customer had ample time to make his expectations known. He apparently thought that, if he dangled some money under my nose, I’d eagerly accept whatever terms and conditions he demanded. He was wrong.
It isn’t always easy to turn down a job. But it is a lot easier than dealing with a problem 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.

Customer expectations can be unreasonable

One of my favorite experiences as a painting contractor is dealing with “paint emergencies.” These can take numerous forms, but they essentially amount to the customer needing the work done immediately. These are situations in which the customer suddenly decides she wants some painting completed and then expresses outrageously unreasonable expectations. For example:

  • A commercial customer needs a room painted with a decorative finish. She called at 2 PM and needed the work done that day. She did not have a price, nor did she understand that decorative finishes usually take several days.
  • A residential customer called in the afternoon wanting an estimate that day so that we could start the next day. When he was told that was impossible, he announced that we would not be getting his business. And by the way, he had previously insisted that we give him the cheapest price possible.
  • We also get a surprising number of calls to send a painter over. Apparently some people think we have painters sitting around the office all day drinking beer (that’s what painters do, after all) just waiting for their phone call. Most of these calls involve a DIYer who got in over his head and needs a professional to bail him out. These “experts” usually tell us that there is only a few hours of work.

I am not sure whether these types of emergencies reflect a character flaw on the part of the customer, or the public’s perception of the painting industry. While it may be a bit of both, I suspect it is more the former.

While it may be possible, I have yet to see a true paint emergency. Unlike plumbing or electrical problems, a paint problem is not going to threaten one’s comfort or safety. Unlike a roofing leak, a paint problem is not going to place the house and its contents in immediate jeopardy. So why do people think that they have a paint emergency?

At least in my experience, those who think that they have a paint emergency are typically very demanding. To call in the afternoon and expect an estimate that day is usually not going to happen (perhaps if I am already in their area I’ll do it, but otherwise not). It is a very unreasonable expectation. They are usually open about the fact that they aren’t about to spend a lot of money. Which they probably won’t have to do if they can find someone to start their job that day. And they often act like they are doing us a huge favor by calling us. They act as if they are our first customer of the year.

It is obvious that such people are clueless as to how successful contracting companies operate. While we occasionally have a small hole in our schedule because a customer isn’t ready, or we have weather issues, we usually stay booked for three to five weeks. And we certainly aren’t the cheapest painting company in town.

There was a time when I would do almost anything to try to accommodate such people. But it became clear to me that they these people are not the type of customer I want. When I realized this, my attitude changed.

While I try to accommodate customers, their requests must also be reasonable. I need customers, but I don’t need any one specific customer. And I certainly don’t need unreasonable customers.

And speaking of unreasonable customers, I once had a call from a customer who was questioning my price. It’s only a few ceilings, he said. Why so much money? I explained that he had a lot of furniture to protect, that we needed to cut in around the walls, and we had to make sure we didn’t get any paint on the walls.

Don’t worry about protecting the furniture, he told me. I don’t care if you get paint on everything. I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or start looking for Rod Serling. I explained that a professional company wouldn’t do such a thing. He argued for a few minutes, interlacing a few insults along the way, and then hung up after announcing that he would never hire my company.

Sometimes the best jobs are the ones we don’t do.

How to eliminate problems in your painting business

If you have owned a painting business very long, you have run into problems on a job. The customer can’t make up her mind on the color, or the customer insists you complete a 10 day job in 7 days, or the customer breaks out the magnifying glass and crawls around on his knees to inspect the baseboards. In the 24 years I’ve been in business, I’ve experienced all of these things and much more.

The interesting thing is, I’ve experienced most of these problems only one time. Almost every time I have a problem, my contract gets changed to address that problem. And seemingly like magic, I don’t have that problem again.

While it is probably impossible to cover everything, and a customer who refuses to abide by the contract will find some way to create problems, getting these issues addressed in writing can make life a whole lot easier.

Some discretion is advised. If we literally addressed every issue in our contract, it could get to be very long and complex. It is more important to address the essential issues, for doing so will often eliminate other issues. For example, if your contract states that no job will be scheduled until paint colors are selected, you won’t get on the job and have to kill time while the customer picks colors.

No contract will be perfect, nor will it eliminate all problems. But a solid contract that addresses the majority of the issues that cause problems will go a long way to make life easier.

Page 4 of 7« First...23456...Last »