At the end of certain jobs, do you feel like it would’ve been
better to have not taken on that particular piece of work? Do you
sometimes feel that it would’ve been better to simply write the
customer a large check instead of doing the work?
This is the sign of a bad customer, and it’s work you probably
shouldn’t have done.
Learning to pick out the bad customer is a skill you develop
with experience. But, often, you’re already working on a project
before you grasp how bad the situation really is. By then, it’s too
late, and you just have to grit it out to the end, before you can
get back to your regular business routine.
There are a few things difficult customers have in common. It’s
helpful if you can recognize the telltale characteristics
First and foremost, problem customers are often unpleasant to be
around. If you get this feeling right from the start, maybe this
job is not for your shop.
The main effect of working with the more odious customers is
this: although their work is not all your shop is doing, they will
undoubtedly take up most of your time. They may not even let you
and your shop concentrate on what really needs to be done getting
the work built and out to the job site. In fact, they can literally
suck the profit out of the job you’re doing for them, and often
will try to ensure that you don’t “leave money on the table.”
Moreover, the really tough ones will burn you and your staff out
and leave you wondering if this business is really for you.
If you’re ever wondering if you’re dealing with a difficult
client, trust your gut feelings. Those feelings are usually
correct, and no amount of logic can change things.
“Oh, things will be okay,” you assure yourself. “We’ll be fine;
there’s plenty of money in this job.” But, all too often, no amount
of profit can make up for the grief you and your shop may go
through in dealing with these customers.
There are many early indications that you could be dealing with a
problem customer. Some of these are normal and happen on many
projects but if you find more than three or four cropping up, you
may want to cut your losses and pull out of the job, if it’s not
The customer who always wants a “deal” can be trouble. The price
may be haggled about: No matter how good a price you give them on
that custom walnut entertainment center, for instance, it’s never
quite low enough. There’s always more you should be doing a couple
of roll-out shelves, $15 handles thrown in, etc. In this scenario,
your profit, small to start with, can quickly shrink to
Another type of nitpicking customer may want to carefully
review, discuss or change your contract. While this, in itself, is
not necessarily a bad thing, it certainly doesn’t start the job out
on the right foot. That same customer may often be reluctant to
accept change orders even though he or she continues to make
changes throughout the project, disrupting your schedule and your
The indecisive client can be a losing proposition, too. You may
be able to spot this customer at the start of a project, when
discussing options such as door styles.
The kind of people you want to work with are those who can
review a range of options, perhaps ask your advice, make a choice
and get on with things without second-guessing everything later on.
The indecisive customer may spend a week thinking about a small
detail, thereby delaying the process.
The rude or impolite customer also is a tough one for both you
and your staff. In this instance, you’ll probably get feedback from
your employees early on. You may want to encourage and heed advice
from your team before you commit to a big project with this type of
person. Remember you, as the boss or main manager, will probably
bear the brunt of this customer’s rudeness in the end!
Lastly, the slow- and no-payers are an obvious obstacle for you.
Seeing this early on can be difficult, but in your money
discussions prior to signing a contract, watch out for any initial
reluctance to come up with a deposit, a down payment or a modest
financial scheduling commitment.
What can you do?
Once you’ve taken on the work, it’s usually too late to turn your
back on a difficult customer. Keep in mind before you actually
commit to doing the work that you don’t have to work with this
person. It’s a business decision, and it is one often fueled by the
amount of work your shop is handling.
Remember, you can always refer the difficult client to the
competitor you don’t like! Send them on their way, and recommend
they talk to the guy down the street about giving them the discount
your shop is unwilling to allow.
Once you’re up and running with your difficult client, however,
you simply have to get to the end of the project somehow. Grit your
teeth, get through those long or repeated punch lists, finish up to
the best of your ability, and get on with your professional life
At our shop, the best method we’ve found for dealing with the
tough customer is by sharing the load. If an employee is having a
problem with a difficult client, you as the owner or manager may
have to step in to make sure that you’re there to support your
Sometimes this may take the form of simply listening to your
co-worker talk about all the difficulties caused by the client. You
may need to take this advice yourself. You may need to communicate
with others in your company about the tough client and, in the end,
it may benefit everyone.
There are other tips that may help, as well. For example, voice
mail at times can be a good shield for you to hide behind (it can
also be a good place for the out-of-control client to yell and
scream at you, late at night). Other times, nothing can beat a
face-to-face meeting with a difficult customer. You can get things
out on the table, agree on a plan of resolution, get it done and go
on your way again.
In dealing with the non-paying offender, lien laws can be a
help, since they can force the deadbeat to pay what’s owed.
Sometimes it’s best to turn the more difficult matters over to an
attorney. That way you’re not spending your time dealing with the
negativity and bad energy of a project gone awry.
Remember, life’s too short to spend it dealing with