Dealing with Client Expectations vs. Reality

"Homeowners want to believe that they can have what they want when they want it.”

authors  | February 4, 2021

What enormous challenges do we, as kitchen and bath designers, face on a regular basis? For me, it’s been clients’ assumptions about money, time and results.

For homeowners to adopt realistic expectations, we need to help them. Some of the things we can do to help our clients include: asking questions and researching alternatives to help them make decisions; helping them make tradeoffs to maintain their budget, and working with contractors and suppliers to keep the wheels of progress greased.

The Money Subject

We have to talk about clients’ budgets as soon as possible, but the money subject is often taboo. Homeowners prefer to talk about the results they need and share pictures of expensive products that appeal to them. When I’ve succeeded in bringing up finances, many homeowners got upset, asking why I needed to know. The obvious reasons we need to know their budget are to:

  • Help them define the scope of their project.
  • Help them select products that fit within their lifestyle and budget.
  • Reassure them that we’re asking to get information, not to pry.

Clients with a huge “wish list” were shocked when I told them about a similar project and what the homeowners invested to make it happen. Denial reasoning kicked in, and they argued that their investment had to be lower. I had to explain that their project was unique, and that we’d define it over time using the guidelines of the results they wanted to achieve and how much they wanted to invest.

In 2004, I learned about the Cost vs. Value Report. Since then, I refer homeowners and clients to this valuable asset and always carry a copy of it as a reference. The yearly report includes different types of remodeling projects, realistic investment ranges and anticipated ROI.

The truth is, unrealistic financial expectations can happen at any time. One kitchen-construction incident I’ll never forget happened four years ago. Clients were having dinner with friends during their kitchen remodeling. After the get-together, they told the contractor and me that they changed their minds about the range and wanted the same ‘professional’ range that their friends had. This created several problems:

  • The new gas range was $4,000 more than the dual-fuel range they chose.
  • It required a 3/4″ gas line instead of the 1/2″ line that was already installed.
  • There would be a minimum change order of $2,500 to install a larger gas line.
  • The lead time for the new range would delay the project at least four weeks.

Although the homeowners were disappointed, they made an informed decision to stay with their original choice. Money was one issue, but time was the reality check that influenced them most.

Time Expectations

Homeowners want to believe that they can have what they want when they want it. But it’s the decision-making process that often affects how long the project takes. Some people can make quick decisions, while others seem to have an aversion to making them.

It’s our responsibility to teach clients about the remodeling process. It’s especially critical if they watch TV home-improvement shows. While there are plenty of creative ideas in these programs, they mislead homeowners about the time required to complete projects.

Early in my career I was working with a remodeling company in the San Francisco Bay area. I met with the homeowners in mid-May, and they naively wanted their kitchen finished before Thanksgiving. It sounds doable. It’s done all the time on TV. Being new in the business, I deferred to my boss for the answer.

When we met in his office, he pulled out a yearly calendar. We counted 27 weeks between the middle of May and the week before Thanksgiving. He allowed 12 weeks for construction, which would start the last week in August. Plan check could use up one month. It left only 11 weeks between the end of July and mid-May for all homeowner decisions and preparing plans. It was doable, but there was no “wiggle room” for delays.

Now I carry a multiple-year calendar to appointments. I use this technique to help homeowners adopt realistic expectations about completion deadlines.

Have you had clients who delay making decisions or ordering products? Anger and frustration take over when a product isn’t available, there’s an expensive freight charge to get the product delivered or the project is delayed while we search for an alternative product.

A clause in my agreement helps to avoid this frustration.

“You (Homeowners) are responsible for a delay to your project or extra charges caused by not choosing and/or ordering products on time.”

Homeowners’ Initials________ Date_____

I have to remember that clause and remind my clients about their commitment if they delay important decisions.

The Need For Perfection

I admit I’ve been caught off-guard by clients who expect perfection. They get on the emotional rollercoaster ride with every setback or problem, no matter what size. Hidden buttons from the past get triggered. Perfectionism causes the biggest problems because they’re mostly unmet psychological needs.

There is a solution: compassion and empathy. It requires us to leave our comfort zone to understand so we can help our clients. Over the years I’ve learned to:

  • Make non-threatening eye contact.
  • Use a calm voice.
  • Ask a question about their experience.
  • Listen and breathe slowly. It will help you, and it will help them.
  • Confirm their feelings. “I hear you. That sounds [ ].”

In Conclusion

What can we do to prepare for unrealistic expectations? What I believe works best is to communicate honestly and be authentic.

I’m a people pleaser. But I’ve learned not to make promises that feed clients’ unrealistic expectations. A great project can become a nightmare unless we compassionately educate our clients about reality. Teaching them and understanding their feelings helps them achieve successful remodeling goals.

And, as I take over the Planning & Design column, I just want to stress that I’ve learned so much from Mary Jo Peterson’s insights in Kitchen & Bath Design News for the past three decades. Thank you, Mary Jo, for being a fabulous mentor. You’re the best! ▪

Diane Plesset, CMKBD, C.A.P.S., NCIDQ is the principal of D. P. Design in Oregon City, OR and has over 35 years of experience as a kitchen and bath designer. She is the author of the award-winning book, THE Survival Guide: Home Remodeling, and has been the recipient of numerous design awards. Named a 2019 KBDN Innovator, Plesset has taught Western design to students of the Machida Academy in Japan and has a podcast, “Today’s Home.”

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