You're on a sales call. The owner and spouse are describing their new home or remodel. One makes a remark that doesn't sit well. The other responds with a barb or other put-down. One bit of sarcasm leads to another and you have a fight going on.
What do you do?
Every family has differences. Every family has their own way of dealing with those differences. You are in their home; this might be the way they handle their differences in private, but how far it escalates can be partly determined by how you handle the situation.
You don't want to get between them. Don't take sides. Don't tell the husband to "be quiet, your wife knows what she wants in her kitchen." You need to listen, observe, and determine the level of disagreement.
There are three basic levels of conflict that arise. It starts when she says she wants the refrigerator in the corner, between the sink and the dining room. He wants the refrigerator across the kitchen, close to the family room. They agree to talk about it later.
You, being wise and discerning, let it go and move on. You don't know the history of this issue, if there is one. You don't know what kind of day they've had. You don't know what they're thinking or why they have a different point of view, but it doesn't matter. You move on with the Q&A that is necessary to answer the four basic questions you need answered. (These questions are covered in-depth in Profitable Sales, A Contractor's Guide.)
Some salespeople want to deal with the issue right then. They believe if they don't, they won't make the sale. I'd counsel patience. Take a deep breath and give them some room. Things will come around; just be patient.
A good salesperson will, however, try to work the decision back into the conversation AFTER they have a better handle on where the owners are coming from. Once you understand how they view the project, what their budget is and the things they like or don't, you can better phrase your qualifying questions. This takes a little practice, but properly done you can resolve most issues before you ask for the order.
The second level of conflict is when it escalates from "We will talk about it later," to one spouse demanding that they "talk about it now!" They may have a script going that pushes them into conflict. Tempers might flare and you can feel the tension grow. An obvious clue that you've reached this level is when they start picking at each other.
Mary says, "Look John, I want to decide where the refrigerator is going to be." John replies, "It's been decided, we are putting it close to the family room. You're not going to make me walk all the way across this house to get a drink when I'm watching the ball game."
Do not attempt humor to lighten the situation. You are clueless about the dynamics and may make things worse. Stay professional and neutral, and try to redirect the conversation.
You can sometimes do this by quickly asking questions about another part of the job, but you need to be on your toes and ask questions that blend with the previous conversation. One phrase that you may find helpful is, "John, if I can change the subject here for a moment, a few minutes ago you said…" Or, "Mary, a thought occurred with what you just said, and it has to do with something we need to talk about anyway, may I ask… "
Get the subject changed, file the disagreement away, and work back to it when everyone is calm and back together. Be patient; that time will come around.
The third level of conflict is an all-out fight. The conversation goes from a mild disagreement, to personal comments, to name-calling and potential physical contact. Physical contact can be anything: slamming doors, throwing objects, or worse.
Mary: "I don't give a rip about your stupid games. I don't want the refrigerator over there. If you weren't so lazy and spent more time helping me instead of watching TV, you'd understand."
John: "Don't call me lazy, I'm working my butt off to pay for this kitchen. If you want changes you'll do it the way I want. And if you don't knock it off . . .."
It's too late for any remedial remarks or questions. It's time to leave. "John, Mary, it's getting late…" or "I have another appointment." Whatever it takes to get you out the door. If you can, ask them to give you a call when they are ready to move on with the project.
Use the incident as a lesson; was there a point where you could have rescued the conversation? Is there anything you said to escalate it? If possible, use it to improve your skills. But remember that some couples live to fight, and you may want to reconsider whether you want to be involved in a business relationship with them.
You won't always be able to prevent arguments or fights, but with a little practice (and unfortunately you will get it) you can divert the couple towards getting the project put together and a contract signed.