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When Customers Go Bad

8 July, 2022

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Every contractor has stories of difficult customers. Some are curmudgeons, some don’t want to pay, some find fault where you didn’t even realize fault could be found. Try as you might, a strategy that works with one customer might backfire with another. Perhaps Kenny Rogers’ advice from “The Gambler” for knowing when to hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away or run can come in handy. The trick here is the knowing when. 

One contractor we spoke with says he doesn’t have customer issues because his contracts address most of them before they start. It may be strict, but he likes a document that safeguards both contractor and client. “My contract covers all bases — for example, the length of time in which you must notify me of issues on the job (48 hours) and what we do during snow/ice travel-related issues,” he said. “Most importantly, it states that unless there is a valid reason to not pay on time — and we have been notified of this in writing — then a lien will be placed on the property and the customer will be taken to court and will be liable for all attorney and collection fees as well as late fees that accumulate the longer it takes them to pay.” At this point, he said, he’s never had to go that far, and stating that upfront probably weeds out customers who don’t plan to pay anytime soon. 

We asked some contractors to share their stories — some had happy endings and some didn’t, and truth be told, you don’t always know what kind of ending it'll be until you get there. 

Reverse psychology reverses course 
Rich Bloom is a solo painter based in Contoocook, New Hampshire, not far from the capital city of Concord. He’s painted some big old houses in the area, and as one guy working sometimes for weeks on one project, he’s had some intense relationships. This one in particular ended well, but it got rocky. 

It was an interior job that involved a large room. Lighting was an issue, and colors were going to be a big factor because the room would be used as an artist’s studio. I thought we’d be trying out a few colors, maybe four or five, but that wasn’t the case. 

On the first day, we tried out a few colors, but we weren’t getting anywhere. The next day, it was the same thing. It ended up being like that a whole week. Before I got there, I’d get a message — ‘Can you pick up these colors on the way?’ and I’d bring more samples. 

By week’s end, Bloom had painted 25 color samples on the wall, and still there was no decision. He convinced his client that they should at least paint samples on poster board, so when she picked one, they wouldn’t have so many colors to paint over. Things got intense at times, but finally they came to an agreement … or … did they?

There was a color change halfway through, and we ended up having to start over again. I just had to go with it, but I also had to stand firm and say, “It needs to be brought to your attention that it’s going to take more time now. The job started late because we did all the color samples, and that time was not really figured in.” The catch was that once that room was done, we then went into another room and then the same thing happened again. It ended up being a month to do two rooms. 

Things came to a head when Rich received a call from the editor of a paint trade magazine, coincidentally the author of this article, who interviewed him for what eventually became the next issue’s cover story. Cover or no, Bloom and the customer weren’t on the same page. 

That was very important for my painting career. I had taken a phone call in that customer’s house, but I wasn’t being paid by the hour. It was all a set price for whatever I was going to do. 

I had the customer very mad at me for taking that call, but I was very calm. Maybe you could say I did a little reverse psychology, and I said a few things like, “I’m very sorry that you feel this way because I took a phone call, and I would like to do something to make you feel like you’re not being shortchanged.” 
In the end, the customer surprised me, saying, “You did a great job, and I can’t let you do anything for free. I’m taking care of all your labor, and I’m very sorry that I got mad that you took a very important phone call for your business.” I established a good relationship with that customer, where I got more work in the future. When I went back, it was always nice and welcoming. 

The crew comes first 
Brad Ellison, co-owner of Somerset Painting in Troy, Michigan, had a gut feeling but ignored it to his own detriment. 

I should’ve known from the moment that this prospective customer said ‘I HATE [a certain type] of people’ that she would end up being unreasonable. She was highly disturbed because her chimney cleaning had left a very fine dusting of soot on her walls and ceiling in her family room. As a medical professional, she stressed the importance of all surfaces being cleaned and painted as soon as possible to avoid causing her any respiratory issues. I provided an estimate right then, and she accepted it later that day and stressed again the importance of the work being done ASAP. In spite of our eight-week lead time, we worked some magic and had her scheduled for the coming Saturday, just three days later. 

Tragedy struck when the crew leader lost his mother-in-law unexpectedly the day before the scheduled start, and he had to cancel. This didn’t sit well with the customer, especially on game day. 

This customer was FURIOUS that her weekend was now ruined, and she missed out on the opportunity to watch college football with her friends because she had planned on her room being painted. She ranted to me about how unprofessional it was and how upset she was that my team members didn’t answer their phones at 8:33 on a Saturday morning, and she said she would be leaving terrible reviews on any platform she could find. 

Rather than placate the customer, Ellison stood up for the crew. He told her that his concern was for his crew leader over his loss and that he wasn’t going to stand for her abusing the team members. And … they wouldn’t be rescheduling. 

I knew this lady would be a nightmare, but I didn’t trust my gut. As contractors, we often need to be quicker to say no rather than yes. These problem customers won’t make us much money, but they can absolutely destroy company morale. 

Not down for the clown 
It’s hard to leave money on the table, but if you beat your head against a wall, you’ll just have to repaint it. “What I like to say is ‘When the circus comes to town, you don’t have to be the clown,’” says Chad Turpen, owner of Turpen’s Painting in Evansville, Indiana. “When people are playing games, step away sooner rather than later and don’t involve yourself in it, and just cut your losses.” 

Turpen and team had front-row tickets to a circus not long ago; they just didn’t realize they were getting tossed into the ring. “There seems to be one of these every year,” he said. “Initially, the customer seemed happy with the job, but there were a few things they wanted touched up.” And here’s where a game of tag started — the husband said it was up to the wife as to whether or not the work was satisfactory. 

But … was it?
They batted the ball back and forth, and Turpen’s solution was that they would get one or the other of them to sign off. That seemed to work, and it finally got down to a door, a single solitary door — but a door that was accessed by a deck that had yet to be completed. They agreed that when the deck was completed, a painter could coat the door.

When the invoice arrived, though, Turpen got the call that things weren’t finished, and now the wife said she needed to discuss it with her husband, but since he worked second shift, she rarely actually saw him. So nobody acknowledged any authority, and the two people who needed to talk to make a decision weren’t talking.

In the end, the client paid the bill — well, three-quarters of it. Turpen called about the thousand-dollar discrepancy, and the wife told him it was because of the door, adding that if the job had been done right the first time, they wouldn’t be dealing with this now.

Then the husband piled on, saying he was angry with Chad because Chad didn’t get angry with the crew — they had expected him to berate his painters when the first issues were brought to his attention. Chad pointed out that he doesn’t scream at his crew, but even if he did it wouldn’t be in front of a customer. In fact, he prides himself on creating an easygoing work environment.

Turpen saw it as a choice between his own well-being and $1,000. The wellbeing won out, and he let that $1,000 go, just as if it had been shot out of a cannon. The customers weren’t finished. They left complaints with the BBB and left some bad reviews online.

Turpen’s moving on to better days. “You gotta be willing to take that little review with a grain of salt,” he said. “Most of our customers said, ‘We see those people. We don’t judge by one post. We see that there’s 25 good ones and two bad ones.’”

What about when you started it?
Sometimes you can make the mistake, but the customer can still fly farther off the handle than expected. How do you get out of it? It seems to depend on the painter as much as on the customer. That’s what happened to Devin Nolan of Buckeye Painting in El Dorado Hills, California, who won a job on his personality but then sent someone else to do the work. “I hired an individual from a recommendation,” he said. “I interviewed this guy who said he had years of experience and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.” Nolan was pretty busy — and a little green in owning a business — so after a perfunctory introduction and a perfunctory instruction, he put the new painter on the job and went to one of his other projects.

The call came an hour later. “She was not happy that I wasn’t there. She believed that I was going to be on the job site the entire time, and she said that I’m the one who sold her on the job,” he said. Turns out the years of experience were a lie, and everything that painter touched turned to drips. The new painter even went “above and beyond” by painting things he wasn’t supposed to, but again, very poorly.

“I told her at that point I was just going to ask him to leave and that I was on my way over,” he said. The customer said don’t bother, she’d hire a reputable painter. Nolan had to agree he’d let her down. He explained the situation and offered to come over and fix any damages, but at that point, the client was ready to part ways.

The customer was livid and told him so in no uncertain terms, and Devin was frustrated with his inability to get a chance to make things right. But still, he gave it one more college try. “I called her about 30 minutes later, and she apologized to me and told me she just had surgery and she was under a lot of stress and pain. I showed up and saw the guy’s work and told her that he wouldn’t be back there again.”

His initial charm shone back through. She signed him up for the exterior and gave him a significant tip. And it didn’t end there. “Her daughter called me and told me she appreciated how I handled the situation at her mother’s and wanted me to give her a quote to stain her fence,” he said.

Nolan learned a good lesson in both vetting new hires and in customer service. “I hadn’t experienced something like that before — this client was extremely angry. Nor have I ever dealt with an inexperienced painter being by himself in a client’s home running around for eight hours causing damage. Now she’s so pleasant to work with that I’m glad we were able to turn our relationship around.”  

Jerry Rabushka is a writer and editor for APC. 


Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a painting contractor for 30 years, and this spring 2022, I think I had the worst customer I have ever had,,, over my 30 years I can honestly say there might have been 3 to 4 bad customers I have dealt with. Not bad for being in business that long. Anyways the customer this spring, accused me of not putting a 2nd coat on her walls, when I Cleary did, she also accused me of painting over old caulking, that was impossible to fix, without her replacing the wainscoting I was painting, she would even point out pin size areas that I had missed, seriously, little dots areas that where missed. She was having other work done on her house, and I think she was just taking her stress out on me, she even said to me I dont think this is going work,, so I packed up my stuff and left, I honestly can say I was doing a good job there, just some people are impossible to deal with

Thu, 07/14/2022 - 16:21 Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Good for you jcat! You should have said, "Oh yeah? Watch my brush spinner", and given her a little spray faux finish on her wainscot. That'll fix her wagon!

Fri, 07/15/2022 - 14:20 Permalink
Ron Anselmo (not verified)

If I have to read one more company mission statement that says, "We exceed customer expectations", I'm going to stab myself in the eye with a pointed stick. What about unreasonable expectations?

You started the exterior this morning, you'll be done by tonight, right? Nope.

You can finish all 5 interior rooms with 3 coats in one day, right? Nope.

You can power wash Sunday morning while we're at church, right? Nope.

Exceed unreasonable customer expectations? Nope, nope & nope.

Here's another one. The customer is NOT always right. If they are irrational, delusional or have a two-digit IQ, tell them they are not right and have no idea what they're talking about. Let 'er rip. Here's a mission statement, "Honesty is the best policy".

Fri, 07/15/2022 - 09:48 Permalink

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