No matter how careful you are, there will come a day when you, your crew, or one of your subcontractors will say or do something that upsets a client. When it happens, you’ll get an angry call, text or email that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.
You’ll know it’s serious when they’re breathing fire. A sub borrowed and broke their tools. An employee parked a truck on a prize rose bush. Someone damaged their existing hardwood floors, or gouged a wall, and no one will take responsibility. How should you respond?
Tell all clients before you sign the contract that complaints will be handled in person. I’d suggest including this language in your contract so there isn’t any question about your company policy on how you’ll deal with problems.
Receiving the Complaint
When your client lets you know there’s a problem, it’s important that you handle it immediately. It goes to the top of your to-do list. Everything else stops and the complaint gets addressed.
If they contact you by phone, you’ll hear a lot of emotion. Stay calm, let them vent, then respond, “John (Mary), I understand that you’re upset. When will you be home today (or at the jobsite) so we can get together to review this one-on-one and get it resolved?”
If they contact you by email or text, either send back a note with that same response, or call to arrange a meeting face-to-face. Don’t go any further than that in writing.
When they give you a time, be sure you’re at that appointment. On time. Don’t aggravate the situation by being late, or worse, not showing up at all.
When you arrive, get all parties to this discussion seated. A good way to do this is to ask, “John, Mary, is there somewhere we can sit while we discuss this?”
After you’re seated, ask them to tell you again exactly what’s wrong. Then listen. Don’t allow yourself to get drawn into a debate or discussion. Listen. No excuses, no complaints, no explaining, no arguing. Listen.
If you have to go back to the office and get more information about why the problem happened, then do so. Before you leave, be sure and set a time for a call back no more than 24 hours later. Go back to your office, find out all the information you need, then get back to your client. If the situation involves a promise or statement someone else made (ie, “Well, Joe said that . . . “), take Joe with you on the callback.
Look for a Solution
When they’re done venting and you know enough to move forward, apologize, even if you didn’t cause the problem. Shoulder the responsibility. Then ask how you can make the problem right. “John, Mary, what would you like me to do to fix this problem? How can I make it right?” Listen to their answer.
If their solution is reasonable, agree to it on the spot. Then, either fix it or arrange to have your employees or subs fix the problem, immediately. If it isn’t reasonable, negotiate. Often, when your client sees that you’re sincere about getting the problem resolved, they begin to see it as more of an aggravation than a genuine complaint, and it can be solved with just a little effort on your part.
If the completion date of the project is impacted, revise the time schedule and write a change work order, signed by the client, that extends the job completion date.
Go One Step Further
Buy the owner and their family a gift certificate for dinner out. Make it roughly one-half the hourly rate your attorney would have charged to hear your story about why you’re being sued or why your client is refusing to pay you.
From This Point On
Check the job two or three times each week to make sure the problem is fixed, and it doesn’t come up again. Don’t neglect the punch list on this job, it’s even more important now. Be sure the owner signs the final punch list and each item as it’s completed. This reduces the risk they’ll hold the final payment hostage in return for freebies at the end of the job.
When the job’s done and you have your final check, ask for two referrals, or give them a chance to buy more work from you. That’ll show that you’re not upset with them for getting upset at you.
Last, and not least, be sure to review the situation with everyone in your company as well as any subs or suppliers that were involved so the problem doesn’t happen again. If it does happen again, give the perpetrators a transfer to your competition.
Remind everyone in your company, as well as your subs and suppliers, that customers aren’t a nuisance and they aren’t a problem. They’re the reason you’re in business. They need to be treated accordingly.
Stuff happens. What you do when it happens says a lot about your business and your character. Don’t run from a customer complaint; tackle it head-on and get it fixed.
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