When should you walk away from work? In today’s economy, a lot of business owners’ kneejerk reaction might be a resounding “Never!”, but I want to debate that for a moment.
See, from time to time, I get a call from a business owner – one who generally finds himself embroiled in a nasty complaint -- who wishes he’d never heard of a particular customer, muchless did work for him. And, of those times, I wish I had a dime for every business owner who muttered the same phrase: I knew this guy was going to be trouble. After a few years of being in business and dealing with the public, company managers – especially those who are still writing contracts on the front line – develop something of a sixth sense when it comes to customers. I think sharp managers and salespeople pick up on the kind of customers in their line of work who are going to turn into headaches. For one thing, salespeople are traditionally good at reading people and could probably jot down a profile of a customer who is going to be a pain in the posterior down the road, but I’m betting we could agree on a few early warning signs.
For the home improvement industry….
1. The homeowner who wants to turn a horse into a camel. The usual customer who wants more cabinet space in the kitchen or build an addition into the back yard isn’t asking for anything all that unusual, right? What about the guy who wants to turn his upstairs den into a therapy pool? Or the family who wants to convert a garage into bedroom space and build a new garage onto the side of the house? There are some projects that, by their nature, don’t make sense – or could easily be accomplished with simpler modifications. In each of those examples – they’re real, by the way -- the contractor questioned the homeowner about the project and noted that, while anything can be accomplished with enough money, it’s not necessarily the smart thing to do. When the homeowner plowed ahead with the ill-conceived plan, ignoring common sense in the process, the contractors involved ended up with problems. Ask either of them: They wished they would have walked away.
2. Check the address. Folks in upscale neighborhoods with high-end houses are going to demand perfection. And they should. Every homeowner wants the corners to be flush, everything to work properly and that you’re going to clean up after yourself. Magnify those expectations compared to the value of the house. Be honest: If you have any chinks in your corporate armor, run the other way from this job. People with the high-end homes expect the very best and probably can afford it. They have the most critical eye. If you can’t deliver, they’ll make your life a living Hell.
3. “Y’know what would be even better?” Some contractors are accused of “upselling” projects, padding the contract with unnecessary items and extra labor charges, but how often does the customer make “improvements” to the plans? How much does it cost them by the time the project is finished? How much easier would it have been to deal with the project if they knew what they wanted before they first picked up the phone? They’re going to blame you for the “extra costs” no matter how much you warn them that modifications – especially ones made late in the ballgame – are going to cost a bundle.
4. Much as you should beware the “money is no object” candidate – because sooner or later, money is always an object -- there’s someone worse out there: The corner-cutter. Anybody who has been involved in the contracting game for a couple of years has bumped into the homeowner who wants to bring the project in as cheaply as possible and is willing to sacrifice quality to do it. There’s a huge difference between a project that’s been built to look good (or even “okay”) and one that’s done right, and you probably know what it takes to do both or either. Trouble is, the homeowner doesn’t seem to remember any of the conversations when he cut back on the number of outlets in the room or decided that pine would be okay when you wanted to use oak. It’s going to come back to bite you, even if the homeowner has initialed all the changes on your contracts.
5. A subset of the corner-cutter has to be the “Partial DIY Guy.” We hear about this one a lot. It’s the guy who wants gaps in your services so that he can do some parts of the job himself to save a few bucks on labor. “I’ll have the cabinets torn out by the time you start work.” “When you get the drywall and plaster done, stop. I’ll paint it myself.” While there’s nothing wrong with any of that, you’re leaving yourself open for potential trouble – trouble that a consumer might unreasonably blame you for causing. What happens if he doesn’t get the cabinets down? What happens when, in the process of pulling the cabinets, he blows out a water pipe or rips out some wiring? What happens when, after he’s slapped a couple of coats of paint on the wall, he says the plaster job was no good? If you’re guaranteeing the project as you should, you have to own the whole project. You’re not the King of Burgers. The customer can’t have it his way all the time.
How much can we blame the glut of home improvement shows on cable these days for the changing consumer market? Quite a bit. I think the DIY Network and HG-TV do a lot to promote smart decisions when homeowners are considering projects, but some shows don’t do us any favors by creating exceptions or half-explaining important steps. There are a couple of shows that bend over backwards to explain the contractors limitations, the need to pull permits, and the pitfalls of biting off more than you can chew, but I can promise that those aren’t the shows your customers are watching. In general, I think we can agree that the more exceptions the homeowner is asking for, the more misunderstandings and the more potential for trouble we’re looking at in the near future. No matter how many times you’ve explained things to him, no matter how carefully you list why what he wants is a bad idea, he knows what’s better – but he’s going to blame you when the project doesn’t work out to his expectations after the dust settles. He’s going to say things like, “You were supposed to be the expert. That’s why we hired you.” You might be thinking, “And that’s why we put everything in writing, including the dumb ideas the customer insists on sticking with despite our warnings.” That’s good. You’re protected. Is that going to take the bite out of the homeowner yelling at your receptionist or taking out a court order against your crew coming back on the property? Can you afford to waste the time dealing with petty complaints? Remember, we’re talking about recognizing and avoiding the troublesome customers, not testing the strength of your contract.
What other industries lend themselves to “red flag customers”? I’d put Vehicle Sales on the list after hearing years of horror stories from dealers. The current economic woes hitting that industry are causing a shotgun effect of damages. Besides the economic loss, potential customers waltz in knowing that it’s a buyer’s market, and some salespeople get out-and-out desperate to please them. That’s where your troubles begin.
1. Mr. Credit. I can’t begin to tell you how many complaints the BBB receives each year about car dealers – new and used – who have run into the customer with credit problems and are being blamed for the customer not being able to arrange financing at less than 23%. Of course it’s not your fault that the consumer had rotten credit and a bad trade-in – and was upside-down on his payments on the rust bucket. What you might want to reconsider is a stunningly common practice of allowing the bad credit customer to make the trade and drop his down payment, then drive off the lot before financing is arranged – whether through your assortment of providers or the customer’s. See, I think that’s the key to all of our problems, right there: If the customer wasn’t allowed to take possession of the new vehicle until financing was arranged, maybe they wouldn’t have so much to scream about. (Side note. Until that financing is arranged, maybe it’s a bad idea to scrap or resell the trade-in vehicle, too. Not leaving yourself too much room to run, are you?) Certainly, the customer is wrong to blame the dealer for the credit problems and we know it’s ultimately the consumer’s burden to pay for the vehicle, but maybe there are times to let a customer walk off the lot, and the one who’s going to be a nightmare to finance might be one of them. What’s the complaint going to look like? “We told them we had bad credit, they put us into a truck they knew we couldn’t afford, and then told us we were responsible for the money!” Why put yourself in the position of having to deal with that?
2. Mr. Haggler. Everybody likes to wheel and deal when they’re buying a new vehicle…or at least have the feeling that they got a great deal. A car dealer with any experience should be able to tell the difference between “most of us” and the exception to the rule: The guy who argues every line item, debates the need for every add-on, and goes out of his way to try to beat down the price. The guy who – after an hour of sweating the details and double-checking with your manager – drops the pen on the paperwork, folds his arms across his chest and says, “I don’t know….” At some level, you’re going to disappoint this guy. He might have haggled away the floor mats and pin striping, but he’s going to come back on you a different way – and it will be at the worst time, after the paperwork has been notarized and the deal is sewn up. He’s going to want to add something on or, worse, find a “mistake” (whether or not you’ve actually made one) on the contract. Like his home improvement buddy, cutting the corners is going to come back to haunt you. Desperate as you might be for a sale…are you really that desperate?
3. Mr. Custom. You may specialize in customizing cars. We’re not talking to you right now. We’re talking to dealerships – new and used – who have the guy walk onto the lot looking for a custom vehicle down to the ashtrays with no patience for timing, after-market responsibilities, or other issues that identify this guy as a migraine in the making. We’re talking about somebody who is well outside the realm of the options you offer on new cars or asking if you could trade out the rims on a truck. More new car dealers bemoan the guy who tacked on twenty different extras. Money maker? Sure, but again, the extra cash isn’t going to be worth your headaches dealing with this guy in two or three months. The biggest complaint that crossed our desks is one in which the customer practically rebuilt the entire car, to the point that the dealership’s add-ons voided parts of the warranty by changing the basic profile of the vehicle. Did the customer sign off on all those custom changes? You bet. Did he understand the ramifications of his new street rod? No way. Does he blame the dealership? Sure. Of course he does. I won’t tell you which corner the guy is on during weekends personally picketing the dealership that (he perceives) screwed him over.
Here are a couple more quick profiles to watch out for on the job….
1. The Worrywart. Ever had someone hanging over your shoulder while you work, asking fifty questions about what you’re doing and why? There’s “curious” and then…there’s this guy. At some point, either they have to trust you to do the work or not. And if you complete the job, they’ll find fault with some part of it.
2. The Cheapskate. I know we’ve hit around this a couple of times, different ways, but the guy who wants something for nothing is setting himself up for disappointment, and if you serve him, he’s going to blame you for whatever goes wrong. There’s a difference between somebody knowingly skimping on quality – and there may be good, logical reasons to do that – but it’s not the way you want to make most of your sales.
3. The Charity Case. There are people who are “less advantaged” than others, and there’s nothing wrong with going out of your way once in a while to provide some extra care for someone who you feel deserves it. It’s your business, you can do what you want. There’s also a special class of whiners who try to convince you that you owe them a discount, perks or other consideration because they have some perceived disadvantage. People with this kind of entitlement mentality are just plain dangerous to your business. Don’t give in to the pressure. Avoid them. They’re the people who might talk you into a special deal – whatever that means in your line of work – then call you at 2 AM because there’s some minor glitch to the system. Once they think they’ve got your wrapped around their little finger, they’ll keep twisting until you break. These are real “give an inch, they’ll take a yard” folks. (Got time for a quick horror story? A local tire store in the low rent section of town was about to close up shop for the night when an older woman hobbled up to his place and begged for help with her stranded car up the block. Bottom line is that the guy “donated” a couple of used tires and rims to the woman and charged her twenty dollars for roughly an hour of his time. Within a week, she filed a complaint because he never told her that the rims and tires were used, which, she claimed, resulted in substantial damage to her vehicle. She managed to pull the “taking advantage of a little old lady” card before the mess was done. Again, was it worth it to be nice in this instance? Sometimes, the Good Samaritan finishes last.)
Does this mean you absolutely can’t have a successful sales with any of these red flags? Of course not. We’re simply saying that the more red flags pop up, the more likely it is that you’re going to have big trouble with this customer. Despite the money to be made here – and we could argue that the costs of dealing with any aspect of these complaints will burn your profits in a hurry -- wouldn’t you rather one of your competitors have the headache? Wouldn’t you rather walk away from a project than deal with the twenty phone calls, complaints, yelling and general uproar?
Now, maybe you’re The Company. Maybe you’re the only company on the planet who has the skills – both in terms of your professional performance and communications – to pull this off. Good luck to you. Just make sure you’re not being a little bit too cocky.