Dealing With Difficult Clients

Follow these guidelines to make building and remodeling projects less stressful.

Homeowner horror stories about unscrupulous contractors are common in this country; you see them on the local news and in the papers and they almost always elicit sympathy for the homeowner's plight. What most people outside the industry never see or hear are contractor horror stories about "the client from hell."

Unreasonable demands, never-ending change orders and attempts to get something for nothing are probably just as common as those other horror stories. The big difference is that contractors rarely air their grievances in a public forum such as the local media.

Dealing with these types of customers can be tricky if not downright painful for contractors. But Paul Cardis, CEO of NRS Corp., a Madison Wis.-based customer-satisfaction research firm specializing in the real estate and construction sectors, says contractors have some useful tools at their disposal.

"Going through a building or remodeling project is often very stressful for customers," he says. "By properly managing the process from the very beginning, most problem customers can be turned into repeat business."

Cardis offers these guidelines for minimizing everyone's stress:

Selling It Clearly

The customer-satisfaction process starts with the sales process and the promises you make. It's important to be sure that what you're selling matches up with what you'll provide. This isn't to say that the contractor may be making false promises but that the client may not fully understand what's being promised.

If you're selling from a model home, make sure the client knows exactly what the standard features and the upgrades are. If you're not using a model, thoroughly and clearly explain every component, option and upgrade with as many pictures and descriptions as possible.

Contractors aren't selling just products but an overall experience. And since projects that don't run into any problems are rare, it's wise to prepare your clients with an honest look at what might go wrong, such as schedule delays and, especially in the remodeling realm, unforeseen or hidden problems that can add time and money to a job.

"Many contractors are afraid to have those conversations with their clients, and then the clients are surprised when something does go wrong," Cardis says. "The contractor might think a preemptive warning like this will make things worse from the start, but they should think of it as an 'inoculation.' They're giving the client a little bit of the virus to boost their resistance to any problems that may come up later."

Good Communication and Measurement

Clear communication before and during the job is paramount to good client relations. While it may sound contrary, do nothing based on trust alone—write everything down. Have clear contracts that include detailed descriptions of what work will be performed and what will not. Any change orders, meeting notes or other job documentation should be clearly explained to the clients, and they should sign off on them so that no questions arise later.

Paul also recommends that contractors have some sort of survey system and customer-relationship program in place to constantly monitor customer satisfaction. They can help prevent you from repeating mistakes and recognize potential problems ahead of time, and they can be an effective marketing tool.

"I recommend contractors use a third-party service for satisfaction surveys," Cardis says. "They provide more honest results with statistical validity and reliability." To find such a service in your area, contact the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.

Response Strategy

Even if you've done everything right, the awful truth of the matter is that there will be times when a conflict arises between you and your client. Having a determined response strategy in place before trouble comes up can keep emotions from boiling over at the first sign of trouble. Knowing how to proceed beforehand helps you respond more clearly and calmly.

Cardis stresses that contractors need to first express sincere concern for their clients' issues and a willingness to work them out. "Call a meeting with your clients and any concerned trades and go over all the issues your customer has head-on and do your best to come to an agreement," he says. "It's not always about you saying 'yes' to their demands, but if you put yourself in their shoes and ask, 'Would this be fair if it were my house?' then most of the time an agreement can be reached to satisfy all parties."

Sometimes, though, there simply isn't anything a contractor can do to keep a client happy. If that happens to you, Cardis recommends avoiding court if at all possible–even if it means taking a hit to your bottom line. The financial costs of going to court are high and the chances of recovery are low, so it may benefit you to walk away with money on the table.

"You don't want a customer going hostile on you by posting website knocking your business, posting derogatory signs on their property for the community to see, holding demonstrations or going to the local media," Cardis says. "The cost to your reputation will be far worse than whatever money you may lose.

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